Expanding the local-global connection to address social justice issues in the public square

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NEW YORK (UMNS) — In 2006, when there were 207 political or “extrajudicial” killings in the Philippines, it was clear that international pressure was needed to hold the Philippines government accountable.

United Methodists and other church members in the Philippines shared information with their connections abroad and invited delegations from outside the country to hear the stories from the grassroots. The next year, a nine-member Filipino ecumenical delegation that included United Methodist Bishop Solito Toquero spoke before a Congressional hearing.

For Norma Dollaga, top executive of the Ecumenical Center for Development, and the Rev. Connie Semy Mella, dean of student affairs at Union Theological Seminary in Cavite, those actions were an example of a “glocal” approach to social justice issues — moving from the local to the national to the global.

The two women were part of a Feb. 12-15 gathering on that approach at the United Methodist-owned Church Center for the United Nations.

The Rev. Levi Bautista, who leads the United Nations and International Affairs Ministry of the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, organized the event as part of a collaborative effort to build a stronger network among church members working on issues of social justice and human rights.

A long-time presence at the United Nations, Bautista began to ponder “the dilemma of how to popularize a work that is usually reserved to diplomats and experts.”

As The United Methodist Church becomes increasingly international, he pointed out, there is a need to make sure every part of that global connection matters.

“Reappropriating John Wesley’s charge to see the world as our parish, glocal organizing and advocacy would propose to say ‘the world is my parish, and my parish is glocal,’” Bautista explained. “Being glocal means that the place where each one does ministry is at once local and global.

“At the same time that I am advocating for human rights at the U.N., other United Methodists in other locations are acting upon the same. Glocal organizing challenges me to connect these United Methodists working on the same issues but in different places.”

Over the past five months, the Board of Church and Society invited 120 participants to five training events designed to “identify, train and equip Christian disciples with the ability to animate faith, nurture disciples, and mobilize public witness and advocacy that are forthright, relevant and adequate in making visible God’s justice and peace.”

Raising human rights issues

The local-to-global efforts at advocacy related to the Philippines killings began with listening to the stories told by those at the grassroots level, said Semy Mella, a United Methodist pastor.

Through connections with the denomination’s California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference, the Philippine church leaders were able to set up meetings with Congress. Their testimony at the hearing called by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., alarmed the Philippine government, added Dollaga, a United Methodist deaconess.

“Governments are sensitive to international pressure,” she explained. “When we engaged the United Nations, we saw a little change in the pattern. The rate of killings slowed down.”

The World Council of Churches also joined with other organizations in expressing concerns over the killings to the Geneva-based U.N. Human Rights Council, but the killings and harassment have continued.

Dollaga’s organization, also known as Kapatirang Simbahan Para sa Bayan and hosted by the National Council of Churches in the Philippines, is among the groups continuing to push for accountability. The church council prepared an 86-page report detailing the cases of political killings.

The Church and Society gathering of 23 persons, along with Church and Society staff members, coincided with the 50th Annual Session of the U.N. Commission on Social Development. Gathering participants were part of a Feb. 12 panel discussion about how to empower people toward achieving a sustainable world.

Jefferson Knight, a Church and Society board member from Monrovia, Liberia, and program director of the Human Rights Monitor in the denomination’s Liberia Annual (regional) Conference, noted the recent discussion over the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals during a Jan. 30-Feb. 1 High Level Planning meeting in Monrovia. He was among the 200-plus representatives of civil society organizations invited to attend.

The civil representatives urged panel members and the Liberian government “to promote inclusive and sustainable growth and human development, underpinned by a rights-based approach that strengthens citizenship, participation and empowerment, and guarantees decent employment and universal social protection.”

Specific recommendations for economic transformation included “initiatives that promote quality education for girls and boys,” and Knight used himself as an example of how that can work.

By seeking higher education, he said, he moved beyond the small village in central Liberia where he grew up. Most of his contemporaries there did not have the opportunities he had, and he considers them still to be in bondage.

“Development, to me, means freedom,” Knight said.

The Rev. Mande Muyombo, an executive with the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries and native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, agreed that education is crucial to helping a country’s citizens use the resources available to them.

The church’s mission agency has seen the benefits of providing $30,000 in scholarships, particularly for women, at Kamina Methodist University in Congo. “Already, we are seeing a transformation in those individuals who are making a difference in their own context,” he said.

Reclaiming ‘global commons’

The Rev. Kristina Peterson, another gathering participant, sees the need to reclaim the “global commons,” because people, land and the environment should not be separated.

Peterson is pastor of a local church in New Orleans but also works as a senior researcher at the University of New Orleans’ Center for Hazards Assessment, Response and Technology. Through her research, she has become familiar with indigenous communities in the largest and fastest-disappearing delta in the United States.

One recent study involved the Jean Lafitte fishing community, focusing on how this vulnerable population survived six natural disasters, including hurricanes and an oil spill, in six consecutive years.

The key, Peterson noted, was creative, mutual assistance. One restaurant that was flooded eight times reopened within a week because the staff had learned to put everything on wheels.

Resilience came from knowing they were going to have to take care of things themselves, as a body. “It wasn’t an obligation to help somebody … . It was a part of your family,” she said. “Your community is your family.”

Now, some Gulf Coast communities threatened by encroaching water are connecting with communities in Alaska losing land because of melting tundra and putting their heads together, Peterson said — the local becoming global.

Continuing advocacy

Those are exactly the types of connections Bautista hopes the church will promote. Scheduling five gatherings provided a way to help refine the vision, he said.The previous gatherings included a focus on human rights and peace, Oct. 24-26, in Alameda, Calif.; immigration, global migration and indigenous peoples, Nov. 12-14, in Oahu, Hawaii; climate change, environmental justice, sustainable development and ministry with the poor, Nov. 28-30, near Anchorage, Alaska; and African organizers and advocates, Jan. 9-11, at Africa University in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

Input from those events and, most recently, the New York gathering, will help Bautista further refine the “concept note” detailing ideas and elements related to glocal advocacy. The revised concept will guide the production of a resource guide that will provide people across the denomination with tools for organizing and advocacy work in the public square, he said.

He also hailed the revival of the “Isaiah Circle,” a network founded by the United Nations and International Affairs Office in 2000, in connection with the gatherings. The circle will link its members throughout the year so they can update one another about efforts in their communities.

“The Isaiah Circle will help bridge the knowledge gap about social issues and how we as United Methodists might act on them,” Bautista explained.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her on Twitter

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or[email protected].

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