Virginia United Methodists advocate for justice at General Assembly

By Madeline Pillow and Linda Rhodes

Joyce Winston, president of Virginia Conference United Methodist Women (left), Bishop Young Jin Cho (second from left) and the Rev. Tom Joyce, assistant to the bishop (far right), visit with Delegate Timothy Hugo (R-40th District) (second from right) during United Methodist Day at the General Assembly.

About 150 United Methodists traveled in buses to the General Assembly on Feb. 4 to call on Virginia lawmakers and advocate for social justice during the 24th annual United Methodist Day at the General Assembly.

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Attendees gathered early in the morning at Bon Air UMC, Richmond District, where United Methodist Men cooked breakfast for participants before they left for Virginia’s Capitol Square in downtown Richmond. Once at the capitol, United Methodists met in the offices of their legislators, were debriefed about the status of some of important legislation and viewed opening sessions of the Senate and House before heading back to Bon Air UMC for lunch.

Bishop Young Jin Cho told participants that what they were doing is an important part of our church’s commitment to social holiness.

About 150 United Methodists traveled to the General Assembly on Feb. 4 to call on Virginia lawmakers and advocate for social justice during the 24th annual United Methodist Day at the General Assembly.

“We not only pray that ‘thy will be done on earth’,” Bishop Cho said, “we are also called to live out that prayer.” He noted that one way United Methodists do that is by “meeting with the legislators and sharing with them our hopes and dreams and prayers.”

Key issues that United Methodists focused on included:

  1. Providing driving privileges for immigrants;
  2. Expanding Medicaid to provide health care to more than 400,000 Virginians who now fall in the health care coverage gap; and
  3. Raising the felony threshold from a value of $200 to $1,500.

In addition, Bishop Cho urged lawmakers to support “Breakfast after the Bell,” Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s 2015-2016 budget proposal of $537,000 funding to provide schools with an additional $0.05 per breakfast served when breakfast is made a part of the school day served in the classroom or through other models outside of the cafeteria.

“More than 300,000 children in Virginia come to school with a hungry stomach,” Bishop Cho told his own representative, Hyland "Buddy" Fowler Jr. (R-55th). “We need to do something.”

The Rev. Amy Beth Hougland, pastor of Saint Andrew's UMC in Richmond, gave the invocation for the opening session of the House of Delegates.

The Rev. Barbara Lewis, pastor of Laurel Park UMC and Greenwood UMC, Richmond District, was most interested in Medicaid expansion.

“The senator that we talked to is not really in favor of it,” Lewis said. “He is really concerned about how it might impact our budget long-term. But he was willing to listen to us and to hear our ideas and to talk about the pros and cons of Medicaid expansion and some of the other health-related issues like mental health care and the needs for that.”

Rick Pillow, a United Methodist who is president of the Virginia Credit Union League and works as a lobbyist for credit unions in Virginia, saw the United Methodist group at the capitol and stressed the importance of United Methodists coming to the General Assembly.

“It is extremely important, because if you are not here your message never gets heard. So you have to stand up for what the Methodists believe in, and they need to communicate that to their state legislatures and their federal legislatures on laws that have a good effect,” said Pillow.

Members of Williamsburg UMC sit in the balcony of the Virginia House of Delegates to observe the opening session.

Rob Bohannon, who works as a contract lobbyist with Hunton & Williams in Richmond, said it is important for United Methodists to share their points of view.

“Delegates get a lot of information, they vote on a lot of issues, there are hundreds of issues every session, and it’s really important for them to hear from groups in their districts on issues that are important to them,” said Bohannon. “You don’t want them to assume anything, you want them to know what’s important to you, why it matters and why they should care and why it’s important to the district for them to vote a certain way.”

After lunch, a panel composed of Becky Bowers-Lanier, Lana J. Heath de Martinez and Jesse Frierson spoke further about the issues of immigration, Medicaid expansion and criminal justice.

Panelists (left to right) Lana J. Heath de Martinez, Becky Bowers-Lanier, Jesse Frierson and the Rev. Charles Swadley spoke to UM Day participants about immigration, Medicaid expansion and criminal justice.

Bowers-Lanier is president of B2L Consulting which specializes in consulting with health care and educating non-profits on advocacy strategy and grassroots advocacy development. Heath de Martinez is an M.Div. student at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond and president of the Virginia Chapter of American Families United, a national 501c4 for mixed status families. Frierson is executive director of Virginia Alliance Against Mass Incarceration, a direct advocacy organization that analyzes and provides education about Virginia laws that lead to excessive incarceration of many Virginians at great cost to taxpayers.

Calling discouragement “the devil’s perfect tool,” the Rev. Charles Swadley, United Methodist pastor serving as interim director of Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy (VICPP), told participants not to get discouraged even when they are unable to influence legislators.

“All of us have to realize that we have each other,” Swadley said, “and lean on each other and encourage each other” as we work for justice for the least of these.

The Rev. Dan Kim, pastor of Kenwood UMC, Richmond District, said he believes that United Methodist Day is not just important, but necessary.

“In Scripture it says we’re not of this world but we’re in this world, and being in this world means we have the responsibility to engage this world,” Kim said. “Coming from a western tradition as United Methodists, there is no religion without social religion. There is no holiness without social holiness. This is exactly what it means to be called to social holiness. Changing policies that fit our faith background. Working and advocating for the last, the least and the lost.”

—Madeline Pillow is editor of the Advocate.
Linda Rhodes is Virginia Conference director of Communications



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