NORTHERN MICHIGAN: Diocese finds its voice

By Rïse Thew Forrester
Posted Oct 9, 2012

[Hiawathaland/ Episcopal News Service] Access to health and dental care, elder care and educating young people topped the discussion during “Finding our Voice,” a one-day conference on issues affecting residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula held at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Marquette in mid-September.

Sponsored by the Diocese of Northern Michigan’s Peace and Justice Committee, the fifth annual conference aimed at an interfaith discussion on religion and politics was intended to help set the agenda for further action in the year ahead. More than sixty people, including state legislators and philanthropic leaders, gathered to explore the issues, advocacy and action

“The very fact that people of different religions and different parties can get together and civilly discuss issues that affect everyone is part of the huge piece that we hope to continue,” said Jean Mather, a member of the Peace and Justice Committee and of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Manistique, in a telephone interview with ENS. “Each person from the Episcopal Church is going to go back to their congregation and spread the word and help in clarifying issues before elections — who stands where on what.”

One of the primary ways that the Episcopal Church in Northern Michigan, which includes 25 congregations, lives out the fourth of the Five Marks of Mission (seeking to transform unjust structures in society) is by hosting conferences that encourage advocacy and action of its members as citizens.

“Finding Our Voice” gathered people from different faith traditions and political persuasion to have a conversation.  “The hope of the justice and peace committee of the diocese was to raise the awareness of issues that are dear to our hearts. … The goal was to gather a common vision that did not separate humanity into factions, but to seek to transform the unjust structures of society. Participants had the opportunity to explore what they could do to take positive action, and our diocese will continue that conversation at our diocesan convention in October,” said Bishop Rayford Ray in an e-mail message to ENS.

With 300,000 people spread out over more than 16,000 square miles, it is often difficult for residents living in rural areas to access resources. And even where present, obstacles persist.

For example, Mather explained that some dental clinics will only see one patient from a family at a time, meaning if three children from the same family all need dental care, they cannot see a dentist on the same day. The clinics can be a long drive away, making it hard for families to get there; which has led to the clinics, in fear of more one cancellation, to make the rule.

The themes for this year’s conference came directly from the communities, said Dennis West, a member of the Peace and Justice Committee and the president of Northern Initiatives, a private, nonprofit community development corporation that provides rural entrepreneurs with access to capital, information and markets.

In a telephone interview with ENS, West explained that the conference’s workshops were designed to educate the attendees on all dimensions of the issues, to understand data needs and limitations, and to go beyond education into action.

Michigan Democratic Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow each sent video messages of encouragement to the more than 60 people gathered at St. Paul’s. Levin reminded those gathered that in the same way that the nation came together in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, people need to come together today in the name of seeking justice.  Stabenow reflected on the good work that many people are already doing, working together, and shared that she keeps a reminder quote from Helen Keller on her refrigerator:  “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;  and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”

Rob Collier, president and CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations, offered stories and inspiration for people seeking to make a difference in their community.

“We tell stories to one another to teach, persuade, and understand our life and context,” he said.

Collier shared stories of the impact of giving in the state of Michigan, and the importance of helping people to understand that they can make a difference.

“We want to include and involve everyone,” he said.  He especially emphasized the philanthropic impact of youth; each year youth in Michigan raise and give $2.5 million. “We need to involve youth in the conversation and decision-making about their Michigan.”

Collier went on to share stories of creative and innovative partnerships that are reshaping the response to needs in our state, such as the Double Up program that helps people receiving state food assistance to make use of farmers markets for produce, and a partnership that is helping families save for home ownership in a way that helps to make them successful home owners long term.

Leaders from Jewish, Christian, and Unitarian Universalist backgrounds shared their experience with issues of health care, education and end-of-life care.  They told stories of people forced to make choices about whether their child was sick enough to go to the emergency room when they had no medical insurance, of the ethical choices that our medical system presents as people decide whether the medical care adds to the quality of life or merely prolongs it and of how their faith tradition helps them make decisions when faced with challenging issues.

Harvey Wallace, interim dean of the College of Professional Studies at Northern Michigan University, and speaking from a Jewish faith tradition, said “Does Jewish law mandate universal health care?  There are many different answers, but I think yes. We have an obligation to care for others with whom we live…there is a passage in Exodus that reminds us to be ‘kind to the stranger, for we were strangers in a strange land.’”

Lutheran Bishop Tom Skrenes and retired Lutheran Advocacy Director Ben Baldus reminded listeners to broaden the circle of care to include all in need: elderly, children, immigrants, and prison populations.

A panel on legislative issues addressed the challenges of health care, dental care, education and end-of-life care.  State Representatives Ed McBroom (R) and Steve Lindberg (D) shared personal stories of family health care. Both representatives affirmed the importance of working across the political aisle to work on solving the issues, especially health care, before us.

“We should be having conversations just like this, all across the country.  Sharing our ideas across the political spectrum so that we can be heard and find solutions to the problems that we face as a country,” said Dr. Richard Armstrong of Newberry, a local chapter president the conservative, national organization the Docs4Patient Care.

— Rïse Thew Forrester is Northern Michigan’s ministry developer, and editor of The Church in Hiawathaland. Lynette Wilson, editor and reporter for Episcopal News Service, contributed to this story.