The New Northeast

tracking the Spirit in the Episcopal Diocese of Maine

Maine Episcopal Network for Justice: How did we get here?

by Heidi Shott
Canon for Communication and Advocacy
Episcopal Diocese of Maine

MENJ Director John Hennessy (Photo by Jeff Kirlin)
MENJ Director John Hennessy
(Photo by Jeff Kirlin)

Last week at our 196th annual diocesan convention, we announced the news that the Diocese of Maine will receive a $30,000 grant from The Episcopal Church to launch the Maine Episcopal Network for Justice (MENJ). Those funds will be combined with $8,000 from the 2016 diocesan budget to hire John Hennessy, a member of St. Luke’s Cathedral in Portland, as the part-time director of MENJ. John has vast experience in advocacy work in Maine, most recently as the policy director of Maine AARP, as well as strong relationships with leaders in Augusta and Washington, D.C.

“I am excited to help lead the MENJ as we engage people of faith throughout the diocese to talk about and work on the important public policy issues of the day. Maine Episcopalians are uniquely positioned to make impact with both our citizen legislature in the state as well as our very accessible federal delegation,” he said upon learning of the award.

In making this grant, The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations, which runs the Episcopal Public Policy Network, has shown confidence that the Diocese of Maine is well-suited to lead the way for other dioceses in the creation of a grassroots network that helps Episcopalians exercise voices of faith about issues of urgent concern in our communities, our state, our nation, and our world.

At this point you may be asking, like the Talking Heads’ lead singer David Byrne, “Well, how did we get here?”

t-stop
David Byrne c. 1983

Last December Diocesan Council created a Public Policy Advisory Group to assist in deciding which issues – among the many that come across our desks – the Diocese of Maine should take on in a meaningful and sustained way.

Over the past seven years Bishop Lane and I have enjoyed a great working relationship around public policy and advocacy. It usually involves me bursting into his office in a pique of enthusiasm and asking, “Hey, are you busy? May I ask you something? Should stick our noses in this [current] issue?” Or he will shoot an email or text to me about a timely subject and say, “I think we need to do something about this.” We use as our guide two measures: issues we know about something about – we’re not policy wonks – and the Gospel imperatives laid out in Matthew 25:

Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the kind will answer them, “Truly, I tell you, just as you did it to one of the lease of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

That’s pretty clear, right? Poverty, hunger, and housing, refugees and asylum seekers, healthcare, restorative justice, and giving voice to our vulnerable neighbors whose voices often go unheard. It’s easy to hear the echoes of the prophet Micah to “love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly” with our God.

Forming an advisory group made sense. But here’s the truth, the group we pulled together has had exactly one meeting and that was a conference call. However, during that one conversation last February, the idea for a statewide Episcopal public policy network emerged.

The point is that unless our advocacy around issues we people of faith care about has both a focused legislative effort and a life as a local, grassroots movement, then we are not doing all the work we should to engage the people in our congregations in matters of justice.

So I started to roll the idea around in my mind about what such a network might look like. How could we possibly pull it off when I would be the only staff person and I already have a full-time job? Also, I was starting my sabbatical in a few months. Arrrgghh! How could we possibly put this on the back burner until September?

A week before my sabbatical began, I called the Social Justice Missioner at The Episcopal Church, Chuck Wynder, to ask for help. He was very supportive and enthusiastic about the idea and said he was already speaking to bishops in other dioceses about statewide public policy networks. However, he said, networks are hard to pull together because many of the dioceses that want to do create one are in states where there are multiple dioceses. The rub: to create an effective statewide network means all the dioceses have to work together.

“We don’t have that problem in Maine,” I assured him. “Our state and our diocese are one and the same.”

And then he told me the staggering news that caused me to practically fall out of my chair. “We have grants available to help you fund it; up to $30,000 a year, renewable for up to three years.”

I immediately called John Hennessy, a member of the Public Policy Task Force. Earlier in the spring Bishop Lane and I had asked John to step in as a consultant during my sabbatical to assist the Bishop in following several issues that we were tracking, including the state budget process and various bills still in play in the Legislature.

“John, there’s money to do this thing!” I think I said – loudly. “A lot.” I asked him to be in touch with Chuck to find out about the application process while I was away. I would be stepping out of sabbatical to return to work during the ten days of General Convention in Salt Lake City, so I asked him to check back in with me in late June.

I was sitting in the quiet press room in the vast Salt Palace Convention Center when John’s email complete with a well-crafted draft of a grant application arrived. A little yelp of happiness escaped my lips. I turned to some of my bemused communicator colleagues sitting nearby and whispered, “I think I might cry.”

This fall John and I buffed up the grant app and asked the Finance Committee and Council to consider upping the Advocacy budget line for 2016 by $8,000 to prove to The Episcopal Church that Maine has skin in the game. Bishop Lane contacted the bishops of Vermont and New Hampshire to see if they would be interested if Maine was to expand its network in the second year of the grant to include their dioceses. Bishop Ely of Vermont and Bishop Hirschfeld of New Hampshire responded with enthusiasm and are waiting to learn how things go in the first six months. 

So here we are: ready to engage the members of the Public Policy Task Force and, with the addition of a few people with various types of expertise, turn it into a MENJ Steering Group. We have our first meeting with Bishop Lane next week. John says it well: “We need to be strategic in our work and recognize where our leadership, our voices and our actions will make a difference. We can’t be everything to everybody but we can certainly do our best to make (progressive) voices of faith part of the civil discourse.”

Together, with John taking the lead, we will venture into new territory with two major goals ahead of us: maintaining a strong advocacy presence in Augusta while nurturing partnerships with other denominations and organizations that hold the same values as the Episcopal Church, and building local networks of people in our congregations empowered to give voice to their faith by learning to advocate for Gospel issues of local, state, national, and international concern.

Stay-tuned, there’s more to come. Lot’s more!

Join the MENJ group on Facebook for news, updates, and ways to connect. www.facebook.com/groups/maineenj

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