Disciple: Advocacy as Evangelism
Transforming charity into justice
By Aleta McClenney and the Rev. Sally Johnston
[Image: During the March 15 Advocacy Day at the North Carolina General Assembly, members of the clergy rallied for affordable housing. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Pamela Haynes]
What does it mean to shift from charity to justice? What does it look like to see advocacy as evangelism?
Let’s consider a story that explores those questions. Meet Shannon.
Shortly after joining St. Somewhere’s, Everytown (which could be any church, anywhere), they noticed an appeal in the Sunday bulletin for volunteers to help host the town’s overnight winter shelter. They signed up for a shift and soon learned there were more issues to be addressed than just a warm place to sleep.
Those seeking shelter often had untended, chronic medical needs. Some had lost contact with their families, and many had no stable income or transportation. The combination of factors often resulted in a sense of hopelessness and unworthiness.
In their time volunteering, Shannon could offer prayers and encouragement but no real solutions. In addition to all they learned about the challenges faced by individuals without reliable housing, Shannon recognized the inadequacies of charity as a single response to a systemic problem. The misery and its effect on so many beloved but desperate children of God called for more.
Longtime volunteers in many parish ministries of our diocese understand that the food, housing, tutoring or other support they offer can be a crucial but temporary response to a much bigger need. Those ministries produce passionate, well-informed advocates because of their proximity to the most vulnerable among us. In the best cases, these volunteers listen to and work with those who are marginalized to bring about change, exercising power with instead of power over.
Building a world driven by love in which all can flourish is a holy call, and such work requires advocacy for public laws and policies that create a more just and equitable society. Whatever our context, wherever we are in life, we are all called to right injustice. Being aware of our spiritual gifts and talents for ministry as well as the limitations of our perspective helps us live out our theology in its fullest meaning.
And that’s when advocacy can become evangelism.
In a conversation on the “Episco-Pols” podcast this summer, Jerusalem Greer, manager for evangelism and discipleship for The Episcopal Church, and Alan Yarborough, church relations officer for the Episcopal Public Policy Network, broke down these two words that can make many Episcopalians uncomfortable but are important to our faith and foundationally connected to one another.
Both advocacy and evangelism are deeply relational, are rooted in listening and sharing stories, and can manifest as a spiritual practice.
“We like to talk about evangelism for Episcopalians being a spiritual practice where we seek, name and celebrate Jesus’ living presence in the stories of all people and invite everyone to more,” Greer said. “My work is all about helping to form people through good news in order to share good news.”
Advocacy is an important way to share that good news.
As Yarborough said, “When we’re more civically engaged, we’re going to be building a better world through our advocacy.”
Which means more good news to share.
Both agreed not everyone will feel called to advocate in the same way. Public protests are a path for some, while others may start in an area of particular interest or expertise, like the experience that got its start in a bulletin notice at St. Somewhere’s.
Speaking of Shannon, let’s get back to their story.
They soon began comparing notes and experiences with other volunteers: What have you learned? What is needed here? What else can we do?
Conversations fed energy to do something more than respond to the ongoing crisis. Eventually Shannon and others planned a presentation to the town council asking for funding to support the shelter program. The building that housed it was in need of repair, and the town agreed to fix broken toilets, paint the gathering area and install lockers for individuals’ belongings during their overnight stays. It was a long way from elegant, but guests were appreciative of the attention to their surroundings.
Emboldened by their small successes and trying to shift awareness from a temporary fix to systemic change, the volunteers planned their next steps: to bring more public awareness to the immediate needs of their unhoused neighbors and to consider longer-term solutions, like greater access to affordable housing.
Shannon spoke to members of St. Somewhere’s vestry about funding a booth for the shelter at the town’s Holiday Festival. It would include pictures and brochures describing ongoing needs, encourage greater community awareness and response, and provide contact information for elected officials. Shelter volunteers would share some of what they’d learned and dispel myths about why people lack housing.
When the parish’s senior warden asked why St. Somewhere’s should become more deeply involved in a program that wasn’t even their ministry, Shannon was clear in the faithfulness of their response, “Because we promise to do things like this in our baptismal covenant. This is a real and actionable way to show respect for the dignity of every human being. It also aligns us publicly, as a faith community, with efforts to change a system that has people trapped and devalued. This is not charity; it’s evangelism.”
The booth was approved, and over the course of the festival new volunteers signed up to help at the shelter. As importantly, some of them also agreed to learn more about affordable housing, to collaborate with a local secular group trying to identify stable housing options and to reach out regularly to local officials with concrete requests for systemic change.
However it manifests, advocacy is a form of evangelism. Especially when done in service to ensuring that the rights and dignity of every human being are respected, advocacy means we are living into our baptismal covenant and helping to build a world that is beloved community.
Aleta McClenney and the Rev. Sally Johnston are the co-chairs of the Council of Advice on Public Policy. Contact them via the communications department.
The Council of Advice on Public Policy
Each month, the bishops of the Diocese of North Carolina meet with the diocesan Council of Advice on Public Policy (CAPP) for prayer and conversation centered on questions of advocacy and evangelism: What is happening in the public squares of North Carolina that needs our attention and response? What issues or decisions require our public voice so that our silence does not imply agreement? What do members of the diocese need to hear from their bishops regarding a public incident or proposal and how it intersects with our baptismal covenant to act in favor of those who are being marginalized, victimized or oppressed?
These and other questions guide the group, and ultimately the bishops, in their work at the intersection of advocacy and evangelism. A covenant, or mission statement, focuses their attention with commitments such as these:
- We recognize it is our holy call and responsibility to build a world driven by love in which all of creation can flourish.
- To do this work, we must be advocates for public laws and policies that create a more just and equitable society.
- More than words on petitions or in letters, more than demonstrations and justice walks, advocacy begins with a fuller understanding of what we believe, how we are incarnating those beliefs, and a framework for action and change based on the teachings of Christ.
- To that end, we covenant to speak against injustice so that our silence will not be perceived as agreement.
After three years of working together and seeing the results of organized advocacy grounded in the evangelism of faith, CAPP will soon begin offering formation opportunities and advocacy toolkits for parishes to deepen their own local networks for advocacy and evangelism.