The Rev. Maria Campbell and the Rev. Bruce Draper point to a quote attributed to Bishop Desmond Tutu: “There comes a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”
Mercy and justice efforts, they say, have concentrated more on the former than the latter.
“We do a great job with mercy ministry,” said Campbell, pastor of Overland Park Heritage UMC. “But we really don’t address the broader-based issues that are the systemic cause.”
Draper, pastor of Roeland Park and Kansas City Kansas Bristol Hill UMCs, said that a growing number of churches are refocusing on justice ministries.
“Some churches don’t really understand it,” he said. “It’s kind of a big leap from serving at Cross-Lines (a community outreach organization in KCK) to actually going and tackling issues. We’re slowly but surely talking about justice every Sunday and teaching them that you can be involved in the political process, but not in a political party.”
Their churches, in Johnson and Wyandotte counties, are part of one of several burgeoning justice ministry missions the Great Plains Conference is undertaking.
The suburban Kansas City counties are part of Direct Action & Research Training, or DART.
DART is a network of 23 affiliated organizations in nine states, forming ecumenical organizations to tackle the justice issues in their area. Both the Wyandotte and Johnson County organizations are seeking lead organizer/executive directors and associate community organizers, hoping to fill the positions in March.
“We’re making huge strides in Kansas City in terms of building out the first two organizations,” said the Rev. Sarah Marsh, chair of the conference’s mercy and justice team. “That, to me, is very exciting progress.”
DART already works with the Justice Matters organization in Lawrence and Topeka Justice, Unity and Ministry Project, or JUMP. The Johnson and Wyandotte groups already have nonprofit status, Marsh added.
When originally pitched to the conference’s Connecting Council in 2019, it was anticipated that 2020 would be the big rollout for DART. Marsh said that thanks to the coronavirus pandemic the debut wasn’t as large as anticipated, but training has been done with some clergy to inform them of DART’s mission.
“Even in a pandemic, we have been moving,” Marsh said.
Which issues DART will tackle in the KC area will be determined after a series of house meetings that will take place in the late summer and early fall.
“I just feel like there’s energy and movement toward justice with these communities where something is being built,” Marsh said.
Campbell has been a part of two national DART trainings.
“The power of the way DART is leading us to lead is that we’re actually listening to the people in the community and the county where the greatest needs are and then we begin the good work,” she said.
At its April 2019 meeting, the Connecting Council approved $2.1 million for seed money for DART and Western Organization of Resource Councils, or WORC, that is starting work in smaller, rural communities in Nebraska.
The funding, the clergy say, shows the conference is behind the initiatives and see it as a focus of the five-year Doing Justice Initiative, approved in 2017.
But the leaders are awestruck at the commitment that has been made by Bishop Ruben Saenz Jr. to the project. The bishop has given an opening prayer — while waiting in an airport to board a plane — for the national organization to convening leaders from the Lutheran, Episcopal, Catholic and Missionary Baptist churches in the Kansas City area to talk about the ecumenical project.
“For him to take the time and tell the story on a national stage was pretty darned cool,” Marsh said. “It’s been amazing to watch because Bishop Saenz gets his hands dirty with this work.”
“We’ve called upon him a lot to speak in different places along the way, and he has jumped at every chance,” Campbell said. “It shows his compassions for all of God’s people.”
If the DART efforts makes the kind of progress it has in other areas, Draper said, it could evolve from an ecumenical church organization to a public entity.
“What’s cool about this is it’s going to be very large — which it has to be to have momentum and be able to shift policies and administrative minds — but it starts out very biblically based and stays that way,” he said. “It’s going to shift from clergy, to clergy and congregations, to community people who may not have any church of any faith.”
Churches in each county will be asked for a contribution to the DART efforts to supplant the conference’s seed money, Draper and Campbell said.
“If it comes from the people, and it is literally being embraced as their ministries, I think we can make the difference we hope to make,” Campbell said.
If it follows the lead of the other national DART organizations, Campbell said, it may be a never-ending ministry.
“This is the beginning of the true foundation of us answering the call to do justice,” she said. “There will not be a time while we’re here on earth where everyone is treated with the equity and the respect they deserve. In the meantime, we’re being asked to stand in the gap and make sure the voices that need to be heard are heard and bring them to the powers that be.”
Introduced to the Connecting Council and approved at the same time as DART, in April 2019, the Western Organization of Research Councils, or WORC, is getting a foothold in smaller Nebraska communities, said Marsh, associate pastor of Manhattan First UMC.
“They have really done a great statewide assessment of Nebraska and dug into a lot of issues, built a lot of relationships, and got started on honing in on the best places to do the work,” Marsh said. “The exciting thing for them is looking at this new thing that is making a difference in cities, grassroots efforts where people share their issues, and what that means for Nebraska.”
WORC is primarily looking at justice issues in the southern half of Nebraska, and after two years will begin the same process in Kansas.
“We’re just beginning to have the conversation with United Methodists and others across the state, creating energy about what this will look like in Nebraska,” Marsh said.
Contact David Burke, content specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.