ยท Ministry With the Poor

Photo: Three thousand people responded to a call to prepare Stop Hunger Now packets for Haiti. The Forest, Va., event also reaised $51,000 to pay shipping costs of the 13-ounce feeding packets.


by Elliott Wright

New York, NY -- An international aid specialist urged United Methodists not to slack off or give in to the "sin of despair" in the church's essential, ongoing work to conquer poverty.

Mary Roodkowsky, an executive with UNICEF, acknowledged that fatigue can result when faced with poverty's reality but said that to submit to it is sinful and paralyzing. "We have Holy Communion to revitalize and keep us going," said the Episcopal laywoman who holds a master's degree in theology and ethics from the Harvard University Divinity School.

Ministry with the poor is one of four current United Methodist priorities. It reaches far back into the church's heritage as a major commitment of John Wesley, the 18 th century British founder of Methodism. The emphasis is on "with," not ministry "to" or "for" the poor. The approach involves all persons in the life of faith in Jesus Christ and engages the marginalized in forging strategies for poverty alleviation.

Roodkowsky's remarks were addressed to a group of denominational leaders--representing most of the denomination's 13 general agencies--who met on January 21, 2011, to continue the exploration of ways to collaborate within the United Methodist connection on ministry with the poor. She spoke as an individual, not a representative of UNICEF, where she is chief ethics officer.

Importance of Faith Communities

Ms. Roodkowsky said that religious communities are essential in making the links among people on the different sides of economic divides, to make clear the "shared humanity" and to get everyone engaged in responding to needs. She regretted that many people in churches today do not grasp the connections among people in different places, cultures, and economic conditions.

The speaker has worked with United Nations agencies for more than 30 years in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and the United States. She also has wide experience working with faith communities in their efforts to improve health and other conditions of the marginalized.

"General agencies today and yesterday embody our United Methodist commitment to do God's work together, as a faith connection," explained Thomas Kemper, chair of the interagency task force in an interview following the meeting.

"Our agencies, program boards, and special commissions have the responsibility to link the various components of the church in common ministries," he said. "While each has distinct jobs outlined by the denomination's legislature--the General Conference--we also collaborate in achieving shared goals."

Kemper is general secretary of the General Board of Global Ministries, which has a lead role in addressing ministry with the poor. The Council of Bishops also takes part in the group. The council has its own panel on ministry with the poor, and Bishop Joel N. Martinez (retired) made a report from its last meeting.

Role of the United Nations

The all-day January event took place at the Church Center for the United Nations, a facility owned and operated by United Methodist Women for the church as a whole and the ecumenical community. Given the setting, special attention was put on the church capacity to promote the UN Millennium Development Goals--eight objectives affecting the poorest segments of society in the poorest countries. The goals cover education, child and maternal issues, gender equality/women's empowerment, preventable diseases such as malaria and AIDS, environmental sustainability, and sustained economic development partnerships.

Roodkowsky reported that progress on some goals is encouraging but slow on others. She noted that one hopeful measure is the reduction of deaths by measles through a sustained immunization effort in Africa.

Task force members were especially interested in Roodkowsky's comments on how anti-poverty efforts should target the most extreme cases. "Often we have picked the low hanging fruit [that easiest to reach] to show success," she said, "but we are finding that it may be more successful, and more cost effective, to reach out to the worst places first. If the situations of the poorest can be improved, it will be easier to reach all the others."

The UNICEF executive also said that organization--she called it "bureaucracy"--is essential in responding to the acute and systematic needs of the poor. She recalled a small window opening in central Africa to launch a measles immunization program.

"We had only three weeks to get organized and get the vaccine on the ground, and it was Christmastime. The vaccine would not have been there on January 3 had lots of people in lots of places not worked long hours during holiday time to make it happen. The death rate from measles in that area has declined 30 percent. The victory belonged to all who helped, but it took good bureaucrats to get the job done."

Response from Gil Hanke

"Participation in these meetings and the generated ministries in this area are a return to our Wesleyan roots," said Gil Hanke, top staff executive of the General Commission on United Methodist Men. "These are not issues and ministries we do just because they need doing.  These are ministries that are at the core of who we are as United Methodists and who we are as disciples when we read Matthew 25:31."  

Resources and Events

Meeting on a cold winter's day, with several members connected electronically because of snowstorms, the task force reviewed selected existing ministries with the poor, shared information on forthcoming work, and refined collective communications and advocacy strategies. A shared website on ministry with the poor is in the making and will, if plans hold, be launched in mid-May. The group considered ways in which each agency can be involved in providing stories and resources for the site.

Among the forthcoming resources and events focused on ministry with the poor are:

  • A devotional guide reflecting the millennium development goals prepared by the General Board of Church and Society.
  • An educational campaign with an emphasis on how to have mutuality in mission, to be launched at annual conferences.
  • Material on John Wesley and the Poor from the General Commission on Archives and History.
  • The January 24, 2011, launch of a certificate program on Engaging in Ministry with the Poor in Ohio, an outgrowth of a partnership involving a seminary, a local church with strong community ministry, the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, and missionaries of Global Ministries.
  • A February 2011 consultation in Budapest on ministry with Roma people, related to Global Ministries.
  • Ongoing educational efforts by United Methodist Women around the issue of violence against women.


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