By Kirk Petersen
People of every ideological persuasion are well aware that the political environment will shift dramatically on January 20, as one American president gives way to a very different successor. After years of divisiveness, months of a global pandemic, and appalling revelations about a violent insurgency, the stakes are high — and the Church is not immune from the turmoil.
In that context, five department heads from the Episcopal Church gathered virtually on January 11 for a webinar sponsored by the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, titled “Mr. Biden Goes to Washington: What a New Administration Means for the Church.” The short answer is that it means quite a lot.
Immigration and Refugees
Perhaps the most dramatic changes will involve immigration and refugee resettlement. Episcopal Migration Ministries “for the past 40 years has been one of the nine official refugee resettlement agencies for the United States — and for the past 80 years, the church engagement unit of EMM has supported refugees, asylum seekers and others who have left horrific situations in search of a new home, and a new hope,” said the Rev. C.K. “Chuck” Robertson, canon to the presiding bishop for ministry beyond the Episcopal Church.
But for the past four years, EMM has been living in limbo, as the Trump administration has steadily and severely tightened the rules on immigration. Demetrio Alvero, director of operations for EMM, said the Biden administration has promised “a big change — to lift the refugee admission ceilings from 15,000 to 125,000. But while we’re pleased with the change in direction, in reality it’s more of an aspirational announcement, that will really take about 12 to 18 months to realize.”
“The U.S. had been one of the world leaders in the resettlement program” run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “but these past four years have seen its leadership virtually vanish,” he said.
This has led to the dismantlement of much of the infrastructure that supports refugee resettlement in the United States. EMM went from having 31 resettlement partners around the country to only 12, Alvero said.
Office of Government Relations
Nobody in the Church is more plugged in to the daily machinations of Washington than Rebecca Linder Blachly, director of government relations. Her team has offices in the United Methodist Building directly across the street from the Capitol, and on January 6 she told Episcopal News Service “We condemn violence in all its forms and the effort to overturn the will of the people and the peaceful transition of power.”
But the webinar was scheduled long before the insurrection, and Blachly stayed on message, describing five “big-picture issues” as the focus of the Church’s lobbying efforts:
- Racial Equity, including timely topics like disparate COVID impact and police reform;
- Immigration, in conjunction with EMM;
- Human Rights & Peace Building, representing the interests of the Church and the Anglican Communion to the State Department and Congress;
- Creation Care, most recently focused on pollution and Arctic preservation; and
- Anti-Poverty Efforts, both domestically and internationally, ranging from food assistance to homelessness.
“All of our advocacy is based in the resolutions of General Convention, going back decades and decades,” she said. “We want to make sure that we, as people of faith, can have our voices be heard, and can make sure we can represent our values, and that our government can respond.”
The Rev. David Copley, director of global partnerships, oversees relationships with the global Anglican Communion and the wider international community. The Church has four partnership offices, staffed with professionals experienced in specific regions: Africa, Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Caribbean, and Jerusalem and the Middle East. Copley urged congregations and dioceses with projects or interests elsewhere in the world to be in touch with his office, which also oversees Episcopal missionary programs.
“We do not have all the answers,” he said, “but we so often know somebody who does.”
Because of the pandemic, the physical missionary operations have largely been put on hold. “At this point in time, it’s difficult to think about sending volunteers to work internationally,” but the office is working to develop support for border dioceses and ministries, while looking ahead to a more normal environment.
Ecumenical and Interfaith Partners
The Episcopal Church maintains extensive relationships with other faith-based organizations throughout the United States, in part through coalitions such as the National Council of Churches, Churches Uniting in Christ, the Congress of National Black Churches, and others. “We often work together on a number of public policy issues,” said the Rev. Margaret Rose, director of the Office of Ecumenical and Interreligious Relations.
Some of these organizations have very different perspectives on public policy, but Rose said the Church is always “looking for ways to speak across the divisions, without denying they are there.” The pandemic has in some ways broadened these relationships, as people who were reluctant to attend a physical meeting were more willing to participate over Zoom. For example, Shoulder to Shoulder, which addresses anti-Muslim bias, hosted a virtual Ramadan road trip in conjunction with the Islamic month of fasting and prayer. “In the past, it would have been a real road trip,” she said.
“I think the collaborations and coalitions strengthened during this past year, among diverse groups of Christians and interfaith partners, will be a continuing foundation for the work that lies ahead,” she said.
Communication Across Differences
Robertson, to whom the others all report, served as moderator for the webinar. Near the end of the discussion he obliquely raised the issue of political conflict, without referring to the crisis at the Capitol that occurred five days earlier. “We’ve seen in this election season an opening up of just how significant the divisions are amongst us in this country,” he said, and asked the others to describe resources available from the Church.
Blachly said her office offers a civil discourse curriculum titled “Make Me an Instrument of Peace,” aimed at facilitating conversation across differences. Also, “I think it’s important to notice the prevalence of disinformation, we have a whole series on that.”
Rose said the Church this week is releasing a new resource called “From Many, One: Conversations Across Difference,” aimed at “listening with love,” and helping to resolve conflict.
The webinar was sponsored by the CEEP Network, formerly known as the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes, which describes itself as “the largest group of resourced institutions from across the Episcopal Church. The network’s membership is committed to strengthening leaders for a changing church through connecting, equipping, and diversifying.”