Young clergy sense call to social justice

By Kathy L. Gilbert
United Methodist News Service

The Revs. Brian and Laura Rossbert sometimes show up on the 5 p.m. news—on multiple channels.

It’s not because they are controversial or in any trouble; it is because social justice is basic to their faith and they don’t just sit on the sidelines. It’s not unusual to see either of them at a city council meeting or an organized protest.

Like many young clergy, one of the strong factors that drew the Rossberts to ministry in the United Methodist Church was the church’s Social Principles and its history of serving those living on the margins of society.

The couple has actively advocated abolishing the death penalty in Tennessee (and nationwide) and supported an ordinance to prohibit government contractors from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in Nashville.

Brian Rossbert is assigned to two rural West Nashville churches in the Tennessee Conference. As part of his appointment, he is volunteer coordinator for the West Nashville Flood Recovery Network.

Laura, a second-year Master of Divinity degree candidate at Vanderbilt University, serves as pastoral intern at East End United Methodist Church, Nashville.

Recently, Brian was among several young United Methodist pastors and students in the Vanderbilt Divinity School who wrote letters to their state representatives in support of two bills that would exclude mentally ill persons from execution in Tennessee.

Led by faith

Many young pastors lead their congregations in supporting ministries that help their communities.

Full inclusion and response to the nation’s broken immigration system are two issues especially important to the Rev. Shalom Agtarap, pastor of Ellensburg (Wash.) United Methodist Church.

The congregation recently responded to the needs of undocumented immigrants after Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in their town.

“I am very proud of this church. With uncertainties in hand, they continue to let their faith in Christ lead them through difficult issues,” she said.

“As a young woman of color, it is important for me to model reconciliation as a comprehensive approach. . . . Full inclusion means all genders and orientations, racial and ethnic backgrounds, economic status and ability,” Ms. Agtarap added.

Beyond church walls

“Pretty much all of my time is spent on social-justice issues both inside and outside of the church,” said the Rev. Stacey Harwell, a deacon and minister of community building at Centenary UMC in Macon, Ga.

Centenary does a lot of work with the homeless, including providing transitional housing, serving breakfast each Sunday to about 120 people in need and working on ways to serve the children.

“We partner with Firehouse Productions Inc., an artist’s collective that puts on a fantastic summer camp for children at no cost that helps young girls and boys build the ‘toolbox’ that is themselves. The camp is hosted by Centenary, and many Centenary folks donate time and resources to the project,” Ms. Harwell said.

The Rev. Mara Bailey, university minister at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Neb., said social justice is of great interest to the students on her campus.

She serves on the Risk Taking Mission and Justice team of the Nebraska Conference, which provides funding for a variety of social-justice issues.

An internship funded by the team gives students a chance to advocate for issues important to them.

“This semester we had an intern working on immigration, another working on human trafficking, and a third focusing on children and poverty/educational support,” Ms. Bailey said.

Dialogue important

Both Ms. Harwell and Brian Rossbert said not every congregational member agrees with their positions on some of the hot-button issues, but they have made it a policy that everyone listens to each other.

“We don’t always agree on everything, but we agree on a few things that are key: being open to dialogue, being civil in our discourse, allowing room for mystery, all while making sure that we are in intentional ministry with those in the margins,” Ms. Harwell said.
Ms. Agtarap said she makes it a point to offer everyone the same hospitality she offers guests in her home.

“I listen intently. I let them speak fully. And then I share why I’m passionate about an issue. I’m less concerned with labels and who’s right or wrong. With this start, conversations are likely to take on a different tone than those shown in popular media.”

Ms. Agtarap said she uses two questions to guide her approach to life: “Have I done justice today? Have I grown in love for God and neighbor?

“The prophets and Gospels are summed up in these questions,” she said. “I am not intimidated by any conversation, challenging issue or not, because of this scriptural basis. I also trust that God speaks through those around me, especially those who take opposing views.”

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