WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the words, “United Methodists: Finding Our Voices – Shaping the Future,” 15 high school youth from the Illinois Great Rivers Conference gathered around a table in the Washington, D.C., office of U.S. Senator Dick Durbin on July 3 to share their concerns about homelessness, hunger, and health care for the poor, and to ask how the senator was addressing them.
The youth were prepared for the congressional visit by three days of seminars with the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society, whose office on Capitol Hill faces the halls in which the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives meet, as if to say, “United Methodists care how our leaders lead.”
Expressing the hoped-for outcome of the pilgrimage to Washington, D.C., June 28 – July 7, Sydney Elliott, a 16 year-old from Rochester UMC, said, “God opened my eyes to the world around me. I will take home my knowledge that young people can change their community and world.”
Alexis Smith, a 17 year-old from Colchester UMC, said, “It makes me want to start special programs for homeless and those in poverty from my community. My commitment has been strengthened by the reminder to serve.
Raeann Boero, a freshman this fall at Knox College and member of Mahomet UMC, added, “I now have a plan on how I want to follow up with these issues, and the power of hope has brought me closer to God…. I found it a life-changing experience.”
The three days of seminar included times for reflection on a variety of topics. In one revealing conversation, the youth discovered that the causes of poverty are seldom addressed in the ministries our local churches traditionally offer to the poor.
In that conversation the youth named a number of causes of poverty, including lack of quality education, dysfunctional family systems, corrupt institutions, greed, physical disabilities, disease and addiction, lack of adequate health care, poor money management, poor role modeling, joblessness, homelessness, and downturns in the economy. They noted that the local church’s response to poverty is often limited to food baskets and pantries, soup kitchens, angel trees at Christmas, and collections of clothing. None of these, they noted, get at root of the problem.
On two occasions, the participants heard the stories of formerly homeless persons, whose experiences living in cars and shelters, going without showers, feeling rejected and invisible, and begging at times for basics helped them see un-housed people as real, gifted, endearing, inspiring, and gentle.
One afternoon the participants walked through the old Shaw neighborhood of Washington, which had its origins in the encampments of freed slaves after the Civil War. The neighborhood thrived for many years on African American creativity, ingenuity, financing, intellectual resources, and sweat, producing such artists as Duke Ellington and through Howard University leaders as Vernon Jordan, Thurgood Marshall, and Roland Burris. The neighborhood went into decline after the race riots of 1968, and in the years since has gradually become gentrified, displacing the very people on whose backs the neighborhood was built. In the midst of this displacement, there are efforts such as those launched by Shaw Community Ministry to provide affordable housing to those who might otherwise have to look further away from the place they call home.
A high point of the trip was visiting Ben’s Chili Bowl on U Street, a landmark restaurant best known for sustaining emergency and law enforcement personnel, as well as those negotiating peace, during the riots. They are even better known for their original chili half smoke, which participants had a chance to sample.
On Sunday, the group attended Capitol Hill UMC and helped set up and serve Café Capitol Hill, a luncheon for the housed and un-housed that is often held in the park across the street from the church. Because of the threat of rain, however, the event was held inside.
In addition to seminar activities, the participants visited the Capitol building, Holocaust Museum, and National Cathedral, along with traditional landmarks such as the Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jr., Pentagon 9-11, Vietnam, Korean, Constitution, and World War II memorials. They also toured Arlington National Cemetery, visiting the Kennedy graves and witnessing the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Some in the group toured national museums, Chinatown, and Union Station, while others waited in a long line for a Georgetown Cupcake and a hoped-for sighting of the celebrity owners. After attending the Independence Day fireworks on the National Mall, 18 year-old Jennifer Druse from Coal City UMC said, “Now I can cross that one off my bucket list.”
Additional adventures included riding on the Metro, discovering that the automated fare gates don’t like soggy passes, and conceding that sometimes walking is faster than long lines for trolleys and subways.
Persons who are interested in participating in a future Church and Society seminar trips to Washington, D.C., and/or New York City are invited to contact Rev. Alice Shirley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 217-529-2646.