Ecumenical Advocacy Days is a movement of the ecumenical Christian community that works to strengthen the Christian voice and to advocate for a wide variety of U.S. domestic and international policy issues. Participants gather for a weekend of worship, theological reflection and education. On the following Monday, some meet with their state’s U.S. senators and representatives to advocate for policies related to the theme of the conference.
The theme of this year’s conference, March 13-16, was “Enough for All Creation,” focusing on climate change and other environmental issues.
Here are two stories of Presbyterians at the conference:
A newcomer’s perspective
From Decatur, GA, came a group of students from Columbia Theological Seminary. Their trip was sponsored by the seminary and marked the students’ first time at Ecumenical Advocacy Days.
Although she had never been to the conference before, Maryalice Omokeye Moses has been an active advocate. Before coming to seminary, she worked as an advocate in the areas of mental health, homelessness and disparities in health. She left the conference with a better grasp of climate change and environmental issues and was “motivated beyond measure,” she said.
“It turned a light on a little brighter that was kind of flickering,” she said, adding that she especially appreciated the connection between the theological, spiritual and political she saw at the conference.
“That’s the beauty of coming to this event,” she said. “You can connect the dots.”
Also important to Moses was remembering to consider a third perspective to a problem instead of seeing problems as either/or situations. Looking at dilemmas in this way can require new ways of thinking, and it was helpful to see this strategy played out ecumenically, she said. God gives us opportunities and we must not close ourselves off from them, she said, adding that this lesson is one that will stay with her.
While Moses is familiar with means of advocacy such as letter writing and capital visits, another student in the Columbia group was new not just to advocacy, but to the U.S. governmental and political structures.
Sung-Eun Yun is an exchange student from South Korea, where he attends seminary. He will be at Columbia for about six months.
For him, Ecumenical Advocacy Days was another step in his introduction to the United States, as well as his first real foray into ecumenism.
“I’ve always said that I want to participate in ecumenical movements, but actually I didn’t know what it was,” he said. “Coming here, I think I’ve found some clue. The clue is: do something.”
One thing he learned at the conference is that everyone can make a positive difference for the environment, both through individual practices and by participating in larger organizations to bring concerns to the public discourse. Yun said he hopes to work with the National Council of Churches or a similar organization in the future.
Yun viewed many parts of the conference from an outsider’s perspective, he said. As someone who is not from the United States, he said he is able to profess that the world is not equal for all. Countries are arranged in a hierarchy, he said, and the United States is at the top, giving it much responsibility.
“The leader has to lead the movement related to global ecological justice,” he said. “The one who is responsible for the matter has to take responsibility.”
To take responsibility will mean making sacrifices and confronting financial and cultural differences, he said, adding that these steps take great courage.
Remembering and facing this conflict is important, Moses said. Also important to her were the relationships formed and the sense of community displayed at the conference, both within and between denominations and with her fellow students. When they are in classes, they don’t have much time to get to know each other, and the trip made for a good bonding experience, she said.
A conference veteran
Phyllis Albritton is no stranger to advocacy.
She’s worked with a senator on Capitol Hill. She’s taught at an African school as part of Operation Crossroads Africa. She’s worked in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace. She was active in the civil rights movement, helping black people register to vote. She helped found an integrated preschool in Virginia. The list goes on and on.
So it’s not much of a surprise that Albritton, who lives in Blacksburg, VA, is a regular at Ecumenical Advocacy Days, having attended every one since the conference began in 2003.
“I really think we, as the body of Christ in the world, are here to do God’s mission in ministry and speaking to power,” she said. “I’ve just always seen as part of my faith understanding taking concerns of a faith perspective to our elected officials. If we don’t share our concerns with them, I don’t feel we’re being true to our calling as a citizen or a person of faith.”
Albritton first became interested in advocacy when she traveled to the Middle East as part of a Christian youth caravan when she was 16. Seeing the world and the church universal was an eye-opening experience for the teen, daughter of a Jewish father and Russian Orthodox mother. Ecumenism and inclusivity remains valuable to her, she said.
This year’s focus on climate change and the environment comes at a key time, Albritton said. With the change in administration, now is the time to effect change that can help God’s creation, she said. Albritton is aware of the real struggles confronting such legislation. In this time of economic distress, climate change is often pushed aside. Corporate lobbyists also work hard to protect business that can be environmentally harmful. But even so, Albritton remains hopeful and dedicated.
“I’m very excited that we can bring this to (elected officials). We may be the movement that brings it to the table for them,” she said. “We are called by God to bring this concern for creation, for the care of the planet, for the care of the people.”
Meeting with politicians and their staff can be intimidating to new advocates, but Albritton reminds people to see them simply as fellow humans. Instead of being nervous, advocates should see themselves as doing a service to elected officials, who can often be flooded with information. It’s an advocate’s responsibility to form connections and help politicians learn about an issue, she said.
It’s her love for God and the United States that keeps Albritton going on her journeys of advocacy.
“I’m very grateful for our country and what it stands for,” she said, adding that she expresses her love for the United States by fighting to make it better. “I am very grateful for the position the Presbyterian Church takes on issues. I think we’re very lucky to have our church taking such stances.”