by Anna Wadsworth
You’re hiking along a path beside a winding river, enjoying the warmth of the sun on your face, when you see something bobbing along in the current. Shading your eyes with your hand, you’re astounded to see that it’s a baby. You kick off your shoes and wade into the shallows until you come within inches of the shivering infant. You scoop him in your arms and teeter back through the rushing water toward shore.
Two women hiking along the trail see you emerging from the river carrying the limp, dripping baby, his lips blue. One of the women runs back down the path, calling over her shoulder, “I’ve got a blanket in the car.”
The woman who has remained behind suddenly cries out, “There’s another one!”
You turn to see another baby in the fast-flowing waters. You hand off the rescued baby and plunge back in. The infant safely in your arms, you splash back toward shore. A small crowd that has gathered on the riverbank spots a third baby being swept along by the current. A young man breaks away and sloshes past you, scrambling to reach her.
On the riverbank, the woman who ran to get a blanket reaches out to enfold the baby you’re carrying. A couple volunteers to drive the babies to the hospital, and others say they will follow. A man adds, “I’ll call Social Services. Once the babies are released, they’ll need homes.” Others have pulled out their phones to ring up the police and the local news.
More babies keep coming, and several are crying, but as the need for volunteers is growing your crew is tiring. Someone steps forward and gathers the rest of the group. Short-handed as you are, together you reach a sobering decision: some of you must hurry upstream to stop whoever is throwing babies into the river.
Community organizers often tell this tale of babies in the river to illustrate how churches, like the hikers in the story, can respond in various ways to critical needs in the broader community. Most commonly, like the woman who offers a blanket, congregations make charitable gifts. At Saint John’s, we follow this tradition in several ways. Our Grants Committee supports community-partner organizations serving the poor. The annual Loaves and Fishes Drive enables us to collect food for the hungry, and the Giving Tree makes it possible for us to purchase Christmas presents for people in need.
A church can also meet needs through direct service. Like the hikers who jump into the river to rescue babies, parishioners can take a hands-on approach. For instance, in order to provide homeless women with overnight shelter in Dagwell Hall, more than 60 parishioners regularly cook meals, set up cots, and launder bed linens. Our present “One in a Thousand” campaign urges us to volunteer for such direct service with and for the poor.
Another form of direct service is community development, which requires working alongside partner-organizations, community members, and government officials. Our provision of land for the Saint Francis Apartments (permanent housing for the homeless) exemplifies this approach, as does the Learning Garden. Through this program, Metro Caring clients, or guest gardeners, will work alongside parishioners to acquire skills in gardening, nutrition, and food-service job training.
Our church’s various forms of outreach are worthy, loving responses to our Baptismal Covenant call to “seek and serve Christ is all persons.” As a thriving church, we can go further, and our mandate as a Jubilee Parish Ministry requires us to do so. Commissioned by The Episcopal Church in 2015, St. John’s Cathedral is one of a network of 600 such ministries throughout the United State. Our call is to “joint discipleship in Christ with poor and oppressed people, wherever they are found, to meet basic human needs, and to build a just society.”
“He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) In the prophetic tradition from which Jesus’ teaching flows, doing justice means standing up for and with the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the poor. In other words, advocacy. As a Jubilee Ministry, we’re specifically required to provide not only “human service” but also “at least one human rights advocacy program.”
The advocates in our story are the hikers who make phone calls, speaking up for the rescued babies. Like those advocates, we can add our voices on behalf of others’ human dignity and their needs. In addition to advocating as individuals at the federal, state, and local levels, Saint John’s can speak with a united voice for public policy that serves the common good. (Churches cannot legally engage in campaigning for or against specific candidates; however, as a congregation we may lobby for or against legislation, as long as lobbying does not exceed a substantial part of the church’s overall activities.)
Advocacy of this nature, unlike charity and direct service, can stir controversy. To guide our stance on particular issues, we can look to scripture, prayer, and Episcopal theology. We can look to The Episcopal Church’s official positions on specific matters of social, economic, and environmental justice. These are found in resolutions passed by General Convention (the governing body of the Church), and by Executive Council (www.episcopalarchives.org under “The Acts of Convention” and “Resolves of Council”).
In acting as an advocate for the dispossessed in our community, we are following the cathedral’s historical path. Notably, Paul Roberts, dean from 1932 to 1957, was a founder and president of the Denver Unity Council and chairman of the Mayor’s Commission on Human Rights, formed to combat religious and racial bias.
Finally, we can fulfill our Jubilee Ministry mandate to do justice through transformative change. Several hikers in our story form a small team to find and to stop the people responsible for tossing infants into the river. Similarly, congregations can respond to such injustices as lack of affordable health care, income inequality, racism, etc. by addressing root causes and working for systemic change.
Transformative change is a localized, lengthy process. It begins with training parishioners to conduct one-to-one conversations with the church’s neighbors, in order to build relationships and to identify recurring, common concerns. Organizing in this way puts us on an equal footing with the people we hope to serve. This process can lead to simple reforms (a new stop sign on a dangerous corner) or more complex ones (legislation to provide affordable housing).
Once a concern is identified, parishioners and neighbors research “best practice” solutions. Together, they identify officials or others who can effect the necessary change and meet with them to describe the concern and propose a solution. If the process is used to address a citywide or statewide concern, such systemic change requires joining with other faith-based groups to engage in political action.
Through transformative change, we come to know our neighbors, and the resulting relationships can become longterm and redemptive as we encounter Jesus in one another. Compassion (suffering with) replaces paternalism, or what longtime pastor and organizer Bob Linthicum has described as “stand still while I do good to you.” The process requires that we question institutions and power structures and demands our best—wholehearted commitment and courage. At a January 22, 2017 meeting led by Canon Evelyn Hornaday, parishioners expressed support for such a process in the neighborhood surrounding Saint John’s.
A faithful church, and certainly one designated as a Jubilee Ministry, values the entire spectrum of ministries to meet basic human needs, including charity, direct service, and community development. Such a church also calls for justice by engaging in advocacy and transformative change, taking small steps to enact the Kingdom of God “on earth as it is in heaven.”