Some 200 members of United Methodist Women are in Chicago this week to learn from local community organizers and social activists.
National Seminar 2015, from July 29-Aug. 2, will highlight the four issues the organization plans to focus on in the years to come: mass incarceration, economic inequality, climate justice and maternal health. Basic information on three of those topics is available online in prerecorded webinars.
Taking cues from Chicago communities most directly affected by those issues, “we’ve spent the last six months or more building relationships here,” said Carol Barton, UMW staff executive for community action.
UMW’s flagship social justice training event occurs every four years, the year before General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative meeting. It offers an opportunity for UMW representatives from every U.S. conference to “really go deep in understanding why women of faith — from a biblical and theological perspective — would get involved in justice work,” she explained.
The heart of National Seminar, Barton noted, is building that perspective through Bible study and theological reflection.
Chicago Area Bishop Sally Dyck, for example, will provide a Wesleyan perspective on social justice work during one of the seminar’s public events, a town hall meeting on mass incarceration and criminal justice reform from 7 to 9 p.m. July 31 at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Janis Rosheuvel, UMW executive secretary for racial justice and the meeting’s organizer, said the bishop will be one of several panelists responding to a video clip from Michelle Alexander, a civil rights lawyer and legal scholar. Alexander calls for prophetic action from people of faith to move beyond reform and “really think about what it means to transform these systems so they are ‘just’ for all people,” Rosheuvel said.
Dyck said she has long been appreciative of UMW’s social justice and activist roots and views the National Seminar as a forum to look at mass incarceration in a way the larger church has not.
The issue intersects with several of the four areas of focus within the denomination, she noted, including ministry with the poor and evangelistic efforts within prisons. Within the Northern Illinois Conference, many churches have focused on restorative justice as part of an urban mission strategy for Chicago.
Another town hall panelist is Charlene Carruthers, national director of the Black Youth Project 100, which trains, organizes and mobilizes young adults from 18 to 35 years on issues of police accountability, police violence against black women and girls, LGBTQ concerns and economic justice.
Carruthers has been a social activist since her first year of college, about12 years ago, but said she has “never seen this level of activity before.” She believes there are many opportunities to join “a community of folks who care about the same thing,” but advises that people first take the time to educate themselves on the issues and organizations.
When it comes to the racial dynamics of black, white and brown, she said, it’s important that white people take their anti-racist message to white communities outside metropolitan areas. “That means political education,” she added. “It also means organizing them around issues impacting the most marginalized people.”
‘Standing in solidarity’
Seminar participants will learn more about such issues during a “faith in action” public rally at 1:30 p.m. Aug. 1 at Hartzell Memorial United Methodist Church. “That event is really about UMW standing in solidarity with people on the South Side of Chicago,” Rosheuvel explained.
The Rev. Robert E. Biekman, senior pastor of Maple Park United Methodist Church, “has been instrumental” in organizing the event, Dyck said, working with the Community Renewal Society, which has the support of many local congregations, including those in the suburbs.
Biekman —who also serves as the conference’s urban ministry coordinator and calls himself “a community organizer at heart” — noted that part of the strategy is to build capacity by working together to identify issues and advocate for them in the public square.
He expects 500 to 600 faith leaders will be at the Aug. 1 event for a public presentation of two initiatives.
One is the “Reclaim Campaign,” aimed at reducing violence by focusing on prevention programming, such as mental health and substance abuse treatment. The leaders are asking Cook County Commissioners to shift about $2 million in funding “from incarceration to restoration,” Biekman said.
The second initiative calls upon Chicago’s elected officials to reform police accountability practices, including allowing public input into a police body camera program and modifying stop-and-frisk procedures.
“In Chicago, we have some communities that are policed and some that are protected,” Biekman said. “We want to have them all be protected.”