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State group organizes churches for prophetic role

John Boonstra

John Boonstra

As the Washington Association of Churches (WAC) prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary in June, it has taken steps to become what it believes a state ecumenical organization should be today.

“We have made some major changes in its programs,” said the Rev. John Boonstra, executive minister since 1989.

Early years focused on ecumenical dialogue and a variety of programs, consultations and projects of the faith community, but after years of building a sense of the common ground for common action, the WAC is now emphasizing two strategies:

1) It is becoming a progressive, prophetic faith-based public policy education and action network.

2) It is linking member churches with other sectors in the state, including labor, education, environmental and tribal communities with shared concerns.

John said that for today’s world, a state ecumenical organization needs “to develop a strong, credible, effective, influential, progressive and prophetic faith-based public policy advocacy network.”

While some denominations have their own public policy advocacy networks, it is important to speak with a common voice and as a voice of the faith community that contrasts with voices in the religious right, he said. 

“In the last election season, the prophetic, progressive faith-based voice was almost unheard. ‘Moral values’ were defined in a limited way,” John said.  “We need to create a sense of urgency to have an ecumenical organization with the capacity to make a difference.”

The WAC board realized there are likely 30,000 church people who support reform of tax structures, better health care provisions for state residents, increased support of welfare and addressing environmental issues. 

So the board decided to connect with those people and amplify their voices on state public policy, organizing congregation by congregation and district by district to be that voice.

As it has done every year, the WAC helped organize four legislative briefings throughout the state in January and February, and an Advocacy Day on Feb. 24. 

In January, the WAC hired Alice Woldt as public policy advocate to educate and organize people in congregations throughout the state to write letters, make phone calls, send emails and go on visits to legislators.  Previously the WAC had one lobbyist in Olympia, trying to speak on behalf of church people.

We will now organize people, so when there is need to bring pressure about a bill before the legislature, we have the capacity to generate letters from many,” John said.  “To augment that work, we have invested in electronic advocacy capacity.”

The Faith Advocacy Network (FAN), formerly the Ecumenical Legislative Advocacy Network, uses software that allows people to sign up, so messages are targeted to their legislators or members of Congress.

The program offers sample letters on issues, which members of the network may revise and send.  The WAC knows only the number of letters sent, not what is said.

“With the $2 billion state budget deficit and the huge federal budget crisis, this is timely,” John said. 

Meanwhile, local ecumenical agencies can tie people in and can work on city and county public policies.

“We had much discussion about what terms to use to describe our advocacy as an ecumenical community.  We chose to describe it as prophetic, because it is from our faith-based traditions.  ‘Prophetic’ means we are committed to social transformation that produces greater democracy and economic and social justice.  ‘Prophetic’ also means speaking the truth to power,” he said.

Our core interest is in our communal soul, taking on the teachings and policies of our churches,” he said.  “We seek to help churches come alive by building their capacity to influence state and public policy based on statements they have developed over the years on the issues.”

John said that along with the public policy actions, the WAC will offer resources to link the message of why faith compels people to take particular stands.

“The name of the game today is to frame issues.  We need to be more creative in how we do our theological framing, how the prophetic social change agenda connects to our faith and religious teachings,” he said.
As a nonprofit organization, the WAC may not endorse or work for any political candidates.  Its public policy advocacy comes as education, informing people of issues, implications and actions.

People are free to use the network if they agree or disagree.  Our goal is to build greater civic involvement,” he said.

Through building links among churches and other community sectors, the WAC seeks to encourage church people to act in partnership to strengthen their public policy efforts.

The WAC is also collaborating with other local inter-religious partners, giving them access to the network for local and county issues, so they will also use the WAC for their state and federal policy network.

Including federal issues— such as Social Security and the federal budget —is also new for the WAC.

Through the National Inter-religious Staff Community, the WAC works with other state ecumenical agencies and with national communion public policy staff to facilitate advocacy on national issues.  John met in December in Washington, D.C., with 100 people from 27 state ecumenical organizations and denominational public policy programs to address the interconnection of federal cuts with cuts in funding to states.

For information, call (206) 625-9790.

John Boonstra has retired.

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - copyright © March 2005