by Jessica Brodie

Communicators from across The United Methodist Church gathered in the historic sanctuary of Arch Street United Methodist Church March 8 for a panel discussion on Communicating Change Through Advocacy, part of the 2018 United Methodist Association of Communicators gathering in Philadelphia.

Arch Street, a reconciling, inclusive church itself rooted in community and individual advocacy, hosted five denominational leaders known as much for being champions of social justice as for faith: Arch Street’s pastor the Rev. Robin Hynicka, Philadelphia Area Bishop Peggy Johnson, the Rev. Hector Burgos of the Greater New Jersey Conference and Hispanic/Latino caucus MARCHA, Susan Greer Burton of the General Board of Church and Society, and the Rev David Brown of Temple University.

One by one, the five talked about how focusing on the people behind the issues was the most effective way to open eyes and effect change.

Hynicka, up first, said that of the various avenues his church uses—from the pulpit to organized protests—the best communication is relationship-centered. When Arch Street focuses its efforts less on “issues” and more on authentically doing justice, loving God and walking humbly with its flock, that’s when real advocacy begins to happen.

Johnson, who served 20 years in a church for the deaf before her call to the episcopacy, shared about the importance of reaching the people on the outside, whether because of race, language or disability. For those who are deaf, she said it’s like being in Antarctica. For those deaf and blind, she said it’s like being in outer space. Connections, she said, are everything.

Burgos spoke on how a small-picture focus can make the larger message truly hit home. In MARCHA, they have shifted from the big (immigration reform) to more fine-tuned issues, specifically DREAMers and DACA, enabling what he called “a voice for the voiceless.”

Burton said much the same. Burton, who does women and children’s advocacy, said when we shift our focus from faceless issues to the real-world people affected by them, the issues come to life and begin to matter. Whether it is sexual assault, health care reform, AIDS or family planning, making the issue about policies and politics rather than people takes away the personal tie-in and diminishes the message and import. Instead, she said, we need to “envelop all God’s people.”

“One of things we don’t talk about is the number of women dying in childbirth in the United States, particularly among black women, and how around the world 830 women die a day in childbirth. Somewhere, some way, somebody thinks it’s OK to dispose of women.”

In Liberia, Burton said, rape is used as a weapon of war, but when we focus on the vulnerable who are affected—the 80 percent of children sexually assaulted by 12 or 13 years old— that’s when reality sets in. In the United States, rather than talking about Democrats or Republicans in the health care debate, the message became real when instead we began to talk about the people with addictions suddenly without access to help because of slashed Medicaid funding.

Brown said the bottom line is to be “out there and have connections,” not just bring people to the pews, and sometimes that means teaching people about social issues so they, too, can share the story from their own moral compass.

“We’ve got to get ahead of the curve,” Brown said. “Sometimes the gangs near our church know more about our community than our church does.”

But when we do get ahead, and when real, human-focused communication is happening, change happens.

“People in poverty still have health care—United Methodists did that!” Burton reminded the crowd. “We can’t stop telling the stories. We don’t get to rest.”

Jessica Brodie is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate.
Photo by Matt Brodie.