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FAN leader has changed policies, lives

Paul Benz visits Spokane church for Fall Cluster meeting.

By Mary Stamp

Paul Benz leaves an imprint on the State of Washington in the influence he has had turning priorities of the state's faith communities into laws that improve lives.

Over his 10 years with the Faith Action Network, he has marched with people in the streets and halls of power related to a $15 minimum wage, farmworker safety, cutting gun violence, addressing climate catastrophes, fighting a Muslim ban, welcoming refugees, declaring that Black lives matter, challenging policies that perpetuate poverty, assuring food security, increasing affordable housing, standing with the voiceless, caring for neighbors, improving health care, reforming immigration policies, caring for children, seniors, women and more.

Through his political savvy, he has promoted compassionate justice.

On Dec. 31, Paul retires, but he intends to continue to advocate for issues, because there is and always will be so much more to do.

"There are two sides to the coin called advocacy," he said of his work for 11 years as executive director of the Lutheran Public Policy Office (LPPO) and 10 years at the co-director of the Faith Action Network of Washington (FAN).

One side of the coin of advocacy is about how well "we care for our neighbors" in terms of feeding, sheltering and visiting the imprisoned—as in Matthew 25—and the other side is being a voice to bring about change in systems on behalf of neighbors who are oppressed and suffering from systemic injustices—as set forth in Exodus 3.

Paul offers this reflection because he is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, as well as being a long-time social justice leader addressing numerous issues in FAN's legislative agenda.

Rather than acting alone, Paul combined lobbying and meeting elected officials with organizing faith communities around the state. 

He has helped FAN nurture a growing network of Advocating Faith Communities that partner with FAN to advocate in the halls of power. He has traveled around Washington to meet clusters of representatives of faith communities to elicit priorities in the fall and to report back on successes in the spring.

His roots as the son of a small farmer in southwestern Minnesota during the 1950s set him on the walk for social justice. His father engaged in grassroots organizing for economic justice in the form of fair prices for farmers. He sought to organize farmers to withhold products and hold protests.

His paternal great-great-grandmother, Sophokab, rebelled against the U.S. treaty with the Sac and Fox tribes, now in Oklahoma.

She was in a group led by Black Hawk that crossed the Mississippi in 1832 in violation of a treaty. The group of men, women, children and elders with Black Hawk drew the attention of the U.S. military, which chased them through North Central Illinois, and Southern Wisconsin for three months.

They ran out of supplies and were desperate. Many died of malnutrition. Their only way to survive was to cross the Mississippi into Iowa, which was not a state, but then the military attacked and killed many beside the Bad Axe River, in what is now called the Bad Axe Massacre.

Sophokab, then six, was put on a log canoe that floated to East Dubuque, Ill., where she was picked up by Jordan's Ferry as a military boat taking survivors to prison passed by. She was adopted by a family, and called Indian Kate after her mother, Katequah. She married an Eberle, whose daughter, Katherine, married a Fishnick. Her daughter, Pauline, his grandmother, married a Benz.

"I remember my father's respect for Native Americans and his social activism. I did not understand then, when farmers had a strike and dumped milk, that farmers were independent and resisted uniting for higher prices for oats, beans and soybeans," he said.

Another social justice seed was planted in Paul during high school when his pastor ran for school board in Pipestone, Minn. When Paul went on to college, he majored in political science and religion.

He has helped with political campaigns, including Minnesota Senator Hubert Humphrey's 1972 run for U.S. President. That was related to his participation in a summer institute in political and economic systems at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.

After graduating from high school in 1971, he worked on the farm for two summers. His father decided there was no future in farming, sold the farm in 1973 and moved to town.

Paul did studies in D.C., Texas and Seattle, and youth ministry in San Jose in 1975-76, before coming to Seattle Pacific University, where he graduated in 1979 after two years there. In 1980, he worked on the campaign of Senator Warren Magnuson.

Then he went to seminary at Pacific Lutheran Theological School in Berkeley, where he earned a master of divinity degree in 1985.

His first church in Appalachia in Northeast Kentucky engaged  him in social justice issues as he saw the disparity of the wealth of a few and the poverty of most people. He engaged with the NAACP and Kentucky Council of Churches.

His wife Linda's work in domestic violence led them to return to Seattle where she was executive director of the King County Domestic Violence Agency. Paul was called to serve a Lutheran parish and then to direct the Lutheran Public Policy Office.

In that role, he worked ecumenically on a common agenda for public policy with the Washington Association of Churches with former directors Loren Arnett and John Boonstra.

"Realizing the two organizations were of one heart, they merged to form the Faith Action Network: A Partnership for the Common Good," Paul said.

Alice Woldt and Paul served at first as part-time co-directors. Three members of each board and three others—one each from the Jewish, African-American and Hispanic communities—formed the governing board.

Its 30-member advisory council included other members of the former Washington Association of Churches and LPPO boards, as well as diverse faith groups.

"Our vision was to bring together two organizations with limited resources and a common purpose to be a strong interfaith organization to do public policy advocacy," he said.

The new organization brought together the two agencies' staffs and constituencies in "a statewide partnership of faith communities striving for a just and sustainable world through community building, education and courageous public action."

Now 162 faith communities are involved in the network.

"The dominant religion in the state was and is Christian, but we chose the name, Faith Action Network, specifically 'faith,' rather than 'Christian' or 'church' to build a larger tent for social justice as a faith organization," Paul said.

In 21 years of lobbying in Olympia, he has worked on many bills, but he said part of his advocacy is still being accomplished. That is to make known the progressive faith voice in Olympia.

"When many in the U.S. think of religion and the political realm, it is usually dominated by the religious right," he said.

"How the LPPO, WAC, FAN and advocating partner the Church Council of Greater Seattle view faith is different from that. Always our witness and purpose are to have those in power and the broader public realize there are many faith communities, not just the religious right," he said.

What have his efforts and those of FAN accomplished? There is a long list over the years of successes related to priorities of housing, hunger, child care, minimum wage, health care, the safety net and more.

In the last legislative session, the main  issues were police reform and tax reform. For years the religious and secular communities spoke of Washington having the most regressive tax structure and have challenged the built-in racist structure of the criminal justice system, Paul said.

The 2021 session adopted a capital gains tax on wealth.

"Wealthy businesses need to pay their fair share to the state treasury. To whom much is given economically, much is required," Paul said."It's not enough for them to donate to a good neighbor fund.

Racial equity called for police reform and accountability regarding training law enforcement officers on de-escalation tactics to reduce use of violence, like chokeholds, he added.

After he retires, Paul plans to volunteer to add his hands bending the moral arc of history towards social justice and racial equity via his new consulting, lobbying, advocacy organization, Partners for Social Change.

So he will be lobbying on social justice issues both in Olympia and in Washington, D.C., in 2022.

"I look for greater impact. There are always more people who can be involved and there will always be more issues requiring advocacy," he said, noting that the work of advocacy is never done.

FAN's recent Annual Dinner honored Paul, presenting him with the Justice, Leadership Legacy Award for his work putting faith into action. The dinner raised more than $122,000 on Nov. 21 towards a goal of reaching $150,000.

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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, December, 2021