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Council leader restores trust and vision with personal contact

Given that God’s reign is beyond human vision, the Rev. Bob Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, said humans are to “provide yeast so we can produce beyond our own capability.”

Bob Edgar
Bob Edgar

Beginning his first of four presentations while visiting Spokane for The Fig Tree’s 20th anniversary May 20 and 21, he told of starting in ministry at the age of 19, as youth minister in a United Methodist church in the coal strip-mining region of Pennsylvania.

“It helped me understand poverty to learn about the lives of these people who owned only what was in their homes, not their homes, because the company would strip mine right through the property.

In February 1968, he heard Martin Luther King, Jr., speak to religious leaders at a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C.—five weeks before he was assassinated.  He told them:  “War expenses take the oxygen out of human needs programs.  We are the first generation who can mutilate the future for everyone with nuclear weapons.”

Since then, Bob has been among the leaders who continued their commitment to help people see the connection between war and poverty: “We must face the fact that tomorrow is today in the conundrum of history,” he quoted from Coretta Scott King’s book Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community.  She said that most civilizations learn too late to choose nonviolent co-existence over chaos.

Bob said her words have stretched him: “Words help shape who we are.”
He summed up some population information and than commented:  “Christians need to stop thinking we are in the majority.  We also need to be aware that 80 percent of people in the world live in substandard housing, 70 percent cannot read or write and 50 percent go to bed hungry.”

In 1997, Bob came to the National Council of Churches (NCC) when it was suffering financially.  In the 1980s he had brought Claremont Theological Seminary from the brink of collapse.  He raised the NCC endowments from $2 million to $25 million by building trust and sharing a vision.  “With trust and a vision, raising money is easy,” he said.

Several of the 36 mainline Protestant and Orthodox member churches had reduced their contributions before he came.   In addition to those churches—including historic black and historic peace churches—55 other churches—Pentecostal, Evangelical and Roman Catholic—serve on NCC commissions:  Faith and Order, Communications, Education, Justice and Advocacy, and Interfaith Dialogue. Catholics are the eighth largest supporters, Bob said.

Aware that sometimes churches live past their mission, he helped the NCC rediscover its mission—making known its work:

• The NCC is “in the Bible business.”  It publishes the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and the New RSV Bibles—so, with a note of humor and sincerity, he urged people to read their Bibles.

• The NCC promotes civil rights, human rights, women’s rights and people’s rights.  In 1957, for example, the NCC loaned its youth director, the Rev. Andrew Young, to Martin Luther King, Jr., to organize white ministers and lay people to go to the South to promote civil rights.
• Church World Service/CROP is the NCC’s aid and development ministry working to end poverty, heal the environment and bring about peace in the world.

The money problem was a symbol of the problems the NCC faced, but was not the real problem, Bob said.  “We needed to change our beatitude—our be attitude—about life.  We were talking about poverty, the environment and peace, but we were not acting.  We needed to stop worrying whether it was safe for the NCC to act, to be faithful and to draw people together to work on issues.”

The NCC is taking five steps:

1) It is looking at “trend lines” in American society on health care, wages, CEO salares, integration, school funding and teacher salaries.

2) It is setting achievable goals:  assuring high school graduates car read and write, and moving people off food stamps. 

3) It promotes the goals without worrying who among collaborating partners takes the credit.  The goal is to do something about poverty. Bob finds when people read the Bible “literally enough,” they discover God cares about poor people. 

4) It can do what churches cannot do to measure results and evaluate what works.  Four years ago, the NCC committed to the “Mobilization Against Poverty.”

5) As part of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, it works behind the scenes with Jewish and Catholic leaders to convince people, including seminarians, that “God cares about the environment, the creation.”

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