Micro-Credit, Restorative Justice Figure in Public Conversation on Ministry with the Poor
by Elliott Wright
New York, NY, December 17, 2009--The first of a series of United Methodist public conversations on ministry with the poor focused on micro-credit as a means to help people move out of poverty, and "restorative justice" as a social policy with positive application to the high percentage of the poor in prison.
Ministry with the poor is one of four current denominational priorities, or focus areas. The emphasis is on how Christians and their churches can promote greater respect and opportunity for the poor and marginalized. The scope is international.
The event in New York on December 16, held at the United Methodist Church in the Village, was broadcast live on the internet by its sponsor, the General Board of Global Ministries, which has a major responsibility for the focus on ministry with the poor. More than 540 computers linked to the webcast during the four-hour broadcast.
Bishop Joel N. Martinez, interim general secretary of Global Ministries, set the tone for the day with a reflection on a verse in the Book of Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (6:8).
Panel presentations on the two topics were followed by general discussion, which included questions and comments from the internet audience, fed into the conversation through Facebook, the online social network.
The panel on microcredit explored the history, operation, stability, and extent of lending organizations that make up a currently expanding microfinance industry.
"There are currently 7,000 microfinance organizations," said Thomas Dwyer, director of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) linked to the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR). Many of the persons receiving loans, often to finance small businesses, are women, and the repayment rate is around 99 percent.
Mr. Dwyer and Donna Katzin of Shared Interest, a microcredit program in South Africa, both gave detailed reports on the way that microcredit finance works and its results.
Bishop Roy Sano (retired) spoke of ways in which United Methodists can become involved in providing microcredit. Marva Usher-Kerr described the involvement of the Women's Division of Global Ministries in microfinance, and Chris Ferguson of the World Council of Churches presented ecumenical opportunities.
Mr. Ferguson also raised questions about the moral and ethical dimensions of some microfinance practices that, as the industry grows, show signs of wanting to make large profits from loans to the poor.
The three panelists on restorative justice were: Bishop Kenneth Carder (retired), who teaches at the Duke University Divinity School, Durham, NC; James Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society in Washington, DC; Carol Barton, a staff member of the Women's Division.
Restorative justice shifts the focus from retribution to reconciliation between victim and offender. It seeks opportunities for new starts for persons leaving prison, focusing on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
Bishop Carder said that restorative justice was generally "hidden" from most church members and hardly mentioned in law schools.
The bishops outlined several levels of possible church and individual Methodist engagement in restorative justice, beginning with visits to those imprisoned, following the mandate of Jesus in Matthew 25 and the example of Methodist founder John Wesley.
"Every local pastor should be as familiar with the insides of jails and prisons in their parishes as they are with the insides of hospitals and nursing homes," he declared.
There are some 2.3 million Americans in prison today, a figure that is the highest percentage of the population in any country. Black and Hispanic males and the poor in general form the greatest part of the prison population. Hundreds of thousands of persons are released from prisons annually and about two-thirds return, many because they are unable to obtain adequate, meaningful employment.
In addition to visiting the imprisoned, said Bishop Carder, Christians have the responsibility to work for the restoration of relationships broken through violence and other unacceptable activities. Next come efforts to rehabilitate offenders, including job opportunities and training for the formerly incarcerated.
Mr. Winkler of Church and Society spoke of the systemic nature of poverty as a factor in criminal justice practice. He cited statistics on the numbers of incarcerated people who suffer from mental illness and alcohol and drug addiction, and the lack of therapeutic treatment. "Sexual assaults are rampant in prison, with 42 percent of the attacks committed by prison staff."
From his office on Capitol Hill in Washington, Mr. Winkler keeps close tabs on efforts in the US Congress to address law and justice issues that affect the poor. He reviewed a long list of measures currently before the Senate and/or House of Representatives that would signify forward or backward steps in criminal justice reform.
Ms. Barton of the Women's Division spoke about general and specific efforts of United Methodist Women and other church programs to address the situations of poor women and children, including immigrants.
Several viewers of the internet broadcast sent questions and comments that were presented to both sets of panelists. Most questions dealt specifically with ways in which congregations can take part in microcredit and foster restorative justice.
There were also requests for more educational material interpreting ministry with the poor. One specific request was for information on the number of United Methodist theological seminaries that provide instruction in restorative justice and prison ministries.
To be informed about upcoming events and webcasts:
Elliott Wright is the information officer of the General Board of Global Ministries.
Date posted: Dec 17, 2009