EGR fosters conversations about economic inequality

Going beyond 'ideological' or 'political' differences

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted May 3, 2012

[Episcopal News Service] While the Occupy movement was forming and growing, Episcopalians for Global Reconciliation was discerning its own path toward addressing economic inequality.

Previously focused on the U.N. Millennium Development Goals to alleviate extreme global poverty, EGR has begun initiating dialogues at individual congregations on the related economic issues that affect everyone, rich and poor, in the United States as well as overseas.

“We felt that the church provided a place where rich and poor could actually maybe try to work on this issue without all the strident polemics around it, the basic belief being that all people, rich and poor, are children of God,” said John Hammock, EGR board co-chair and acting executive director. He also is associate professor of public policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Massachusetts and co-founded the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative at Oxford University.

“You focus on anger and fear and scarcity, you’re never going to get anywhere,” he said. “And Christianity is a religion of hope.”

Instead, we should focus on the “both/and,” he said. “The United States is still the richest country in the world … Then you can start talking about an economics of reconciliation.”

Episcopalian Marisa Egerstrom, a PhD candidate in American civilization at Harvard University, has joined EGR in its new outreach to congregations to facilitate these discussions. Last fall, Egerstrom founded Protest Chaplains to support the Occupy movement, and her work with EGR dovetails with her evolving Occupy efforts.

“Where I’ve been spending most of my time [with Occupy] is actually trying to get a more long-term specific campaign off the ground, which I sometimes call the Occupied Church but is really a grassroots effort to organize churches around economic inequality,” she said. EGR has “sort of taken me and this campaign on as a pilot project to see what kind of conversations we can open up in congregations that might not have been possible before the Occupy movement began.”

The vision is to create “a larger network of Christians who are deeply grieved by the effects of this rampant economic inequality” and to connect them to local efforts to address economic issues such as hunger, foreclosures or predatory lending, she said. She wants to “shift the paradigm from one of scarcity to justice” and then help people understand that “these aren’t local issues.”

“Injustice always happens locally and to individual people, but the ways in which that happens is always national and global and systemic,” she said.

“The other goal of this is to teach and encourage folks in congregations to create media around this, to take photos and do videos and to learn how to speak about one’s faith in public again,” she said. “I’ve been saying for a very long time that the only people who will ever be able to counter the ‘religious right’ are other Christians who reclaim our tradition, our speech, our vision of God, and who are willing to express that exploitation and hatred and exclusion are actually not the heart of our tradition, but [rather] this vision of redemption and unlimited grace and a new life.”

EGR hired Egerstrom, Hammock said, because she “embodies a new vision of how to engage in this kind of dialogue” on economic inequality.

“We have started and will continue to have dialogues in different Episcopal churches on this issue,” he said.

The discussions aim to get participants to focus on what the economy means to them and what they as individuals and the church can do – moving beyond prayer and study to action, he said. They held one program at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Boston, then another at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Valrico, Florida, where EGR’s board co-chair and treasurer, Archdeacon Emeritus Gary Cartwright, serves. At Holy Innocents, Egerstrom and Hammock led a morning forum and a more focused smaller-group discussion in the afternoon.

“It was a very helpful conversation, I think, at several levels,” said the Rev. Doug Scharf, rector. “What was somewhat surprising to me was the personal dimension of our time together, where people were able to express their fears and concerns and hopes based from their own experience.”

Holy Innocents supports a range of social programs.

“You do all these things for other people outside the church,” Marisa Egerstrom told the congregation. But what if you lost your house or job and couldn’t make ends meet? “Would you feel comfortable coming to your church for help?”

In response, she said, “There was this very uncomfortable kind of smile. That was kind of a moment of opening.”

She followed with a story from a Boston area rector of parish in a wealthy community. “She said that now she’s got parishioners on food stamps, and they drive 30 miles to go to the grocery store because they don’t want anybody from their church to see them buying groceries with food stamps.”

The story addressed the shame people have about not having enough. “It became a way of sort of opening up a conversation that maybe had not been possible before,” Egerstrom said.

In inviting EGR to Valrico, Scharf said, “I think the other goal was to kind of see what kind of response we would get to the work of EGR, kind of outside the Boston-New England paradigm. And Southwest Florida, in particular, where I’m doing ministry in eastern Hillsborough County outside of Tampa, [is a] much different context.”

“Even the words ‘economic inequality’ were words that for some people had particular political and ideological baggage attached to them,” he said. “And so there was a lot of translation, I think, that had to happen just for people to understand what we were trying to do.”

Before they arrived, Egerstrom said, “he was getting some calls from parishioners saying, ‘Who are these communists from Boston you’re bringing down here?'”

In their forum presentation, Egerstrom and Hammock showed slides of graphs demonstrating what they meant by economic inequality and how much had changed in the last 30 years. Then they led a meditation to let people identify and “own” their emotional reactions to the material before beginning the conversation, Egerstrom said.

The conversation pushed beyond the initial suspicions, she said. “Whether you’re an ‘occupier’ or you want nothing to do with Occupy … we really all just want the same things, and it’s not all that much. We just want to know that we’re going to be able to make a living, to feed our family, to have a decent life where we’re not absolutely struggling all the time.”

One of the wardens told them afterward he initially came only to support the deacon but concluded, “This was all right,” Egerstrom said. During the program, “he pushed back. I pushed back. And it was fine.

“We all learned that we can have those conversations. It doesn’t need to be an argument when it’s about our shared humanity, our shared vulnerability and ultimately our shared identity in being children of God. If we can get back to that, then any conversation is possible.”

As a next step, Holy Innocents is considering using a small-group curriculum from the Boston Faith and Justice Network called Lazarus at the Gate, available as a 12- or eight-week course. That program has “been really powerful for a lot of folks,” Egerstrom said. “They really drastically changed their lives, their spending habits. They looked at the way their church is using money. And it’s very honest.”

“I’m hopeful,” Scharf said, “that was we continue to move forward with this small group that maybe we can branch out and do some more forum-type opportunities with the congregation and within our deanery or diocese to continue the dialogue, help people understand that these aren’t liberal-conservative issues or Republican-Democrat issues. We’re trying to find a way to have the conversation as the body of Christ and how we can respond from a place of faith and service and not get caught in those ideological or political differences.”

That fits with EGR’s philosophy. “EGR from the very beginning has felt that … the only way you can actually have social transformation is though the spiritual transformation of people,” Hammock said.

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


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Comments (2)

  1. Jeff Parker says:

    This article and its related discussions is very hard to respond to. I can sympathize with the gentlemen who referred to the visitors as communists. Communism theoretically was about what is now referred to as economic justice. It’s the old discussion of equal results versus equal opportunity. I’m an equal opportunity person, consistent with the US Constitution. It is a political issue– that does not mean that it is at odds with faithful Christian service. Does justice really mean economic equality? I don’t believe so; the real question is what are the conditions at the bottom. I believe the focus should be on the poor, defined as those who lack basics such as shelter, food, clothing, etc., and how can we help to ensure that people don’t fall into this category.

    “What you do unto the least of them, you do unto me.” That is caring for all of us as God’s children, but is not the same as saying that we all have to have economic equality. I think the phrase economic justice (or environmental justice) is most unfortunate and detracts from the goal of helping our neighbors in need.

  2. Marc Kivel says:

    A thought on this Sunday morning, Friend. I believe we need to ask if poverty of material well-being is much different than poverty of compassion or poverty of education or any of the other poverties we are all heir to?

    I believe rather than a broad-brush general approach, we need to encounter each person as an individual and realize that both parties have something the other needs and what we may project as the Others need is often a mirror of what we are missing as well?

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