January 31, 2016 – Epiphany 4C – Diaconal Ministry Update

Diaconal Ministry Update 2015 – Proper 4C – Lk. 4:21-30
St. Mark’s – 1/31/16 – Sallie O. Simpson, Deacon

We missed hearing the first portion of the 4th chapter of Luke since we were iced in by Mother Nature, so I want to summarize what was in that text so we can better understand the reading for today. The chapter begins with the story of Jesus in the wilderness for forty days being tempted by the Devil. Jesus does not give in to the devil, and “filled with the power of the Spirit”, returned to Galilee. A “report about him spread through the surrounding country.” Jesus began to teach in the synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he got to the synagogue in Nazareth, where he had been raised, he was given the scroll of the prophet Isiah to read from. The words he read are very powerful, but what he says after the reading is earth-shaking. Listen carefully.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Well, the people of Nazareth knew Jesus as the son of Joseph. Jesus realized what they were thinking and told them that they will say to him to “do here also the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Jesus goes on with the familiar phrase about no prophet being accepted in his home town and then proceeds to make several references to events that refer back to First and Second Kings, illustrating that foreigners sometimes experienced God’s aid when Israel did not. It is probably these references to Gentiles receiving help from God that got the listeners so angry, rather than his apparent messianic claims.

All fascinating stuff! But today I am going to step out in a different direction, not even preaching on the wonderful reading from First Corinthians about love. Today is my time to report to you what I have been doing in my role as a Deacon for the past year. Yes, time flies and I now mark the end of my second year at St. Mark’s! Some days I feel like I have been part of the St. Mark’s family for years and other days I feel like I am beginning my first days here. St. Mark’s has much to offer and I am grateful for the opportunity to serve here. But serving “here” is a misnomer. Even though I am based here and participate in most of the parish activities, my real work is outside the four walls of the church. The Diaconate is a servant ministry, and at the time of our ordination, we publically recognize that ministry and take vows and promise these things:

• We affirm that the Diaconate is a special ministry of servanthood
• We are to serve people, especially the poor, weak, sick and lonely
• We are to study the Holy Scriptures, seek nourishment from them and model our lives on them
• We are to make Christ and His redemptive love known by word and example, to those among whom we live, work and worship
• We are to be an example in word and action, in love and patience
• We are to interpret to the church the needs, concerns and hopes of the world

There are so many needs in the world today that it would be impossible and impractical to try to address them all, so I have chosen three main areas in which to concentrate my efforts – addressing the issues of hunger and food insecurity, addressing the special needs of women in prison as they journey down the path towards release from incarceration and re-entry into the community, and support for the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry.

Hunger and food insecurity (not knowing for sure that you have regular access to nourishing food) can be considered an invisible problem. You cannot tell by just looking at someone as you pass them on the street that they are suffering from chronic hunger. In fact, people who are food insecure may be “fat” because they are unable to get anything but high calorie processed junk type food at local convenience stores. Often people living in poverty do not have access to good transportation and have to walk to stores to get food – if there are no real grocery stores in their area, they have no choice but to get poor quality food. In our area, 1 in 4 children and 1 in 5 adults are at high risk for hunger and food insecurity. This adds up to about 275,000 people in the seven county area around Raleigh.

I am a volunteer with Interfaith Food Shuttle (IFS) to help address the needs of the hungry. Interfaith Food Shuttle was started 25 years ago by two soccer moms, one a member of Temple Beth Or and the other an Episcopal Deacon. They had the brilliant idea to gather up food that would otherwise be wasted and “shuttle” it to locations where people have inadequate access to food. Interfaith Food Shuttle takes a three prong approach to tackling the issues of hunger: Feed, Teach, and Grow.

Feed: IFS believes that hunger is fixable if the communities work together to create sources of affordable, healthy food in every low-income neighborhood and to provide opportunities to learn job skills to gain employment and learn how to grow some of their own food. IFS rescues and redistributes food that would otherwise be wasted (items past the “sell by” date, ugly produce, bakery items that have been “squashed” or not sold promptly, unused food at restaurants). Last year IFS rescued over 7 million pounds of food that would otherwise gone to waste. Food is rescued through donations from grocery stores, some restaurants, the state farmers market and from gleaning in local farm fields. The food is distributed via food pantries, food trucks, mobile farmers’ markets, school pantries, grocery bags for seniors, and back pack buddies programs. Unlike many traditional food assistance programs, over 40% of the food that is distributed is fresh produce (and even higher during peak growing seasons).

Teach: IFS offers classes called “Cooking Matters” that are held in several different locations throughout the service area. I am a culinary instructor for the classes that are held at Wake County Urban Ministries. Class participants learn how to plan nutritious meals on a tight budget, how to store and prepare fresh foods (imagine if you had no experience with fresh foods and your basket from the food pantry had a kohlrabi and a butternut squash in it), and how to shop. Each class is co-led by a nutritionist and a culinary instructor. The first part of each class is didactic and the second part is cooking and eating a meal together. One class each cycle takes place at a grocery store (thank you Food Lion) where the participants learn how to interpret unit pricing, how to choose the most economic items and how to read nutrition labels. IFS also teaches a Culinary Job Training program that prepares clients to work in restaurants and other commercial food enterprises.

Grow: The main teaching farm on Tryon Road and other small urban gardens not only grow food but connect people to where food comes from and teaches them about sustainable agriculture in an urban setting. I volunteer usually one day each week at the Tryon Road farm – planting, harvesting, preparing the land, starting plants from seed, weeding, collecting eggs and taking care of the chickens, moving the goats from place to place as they clear fields, and even one day praying over a dying goat and the farm manager who was so sad that her favorite goat was dying. The Teaching Farm also provides an opportunity for Incubator Farmers to learn to be self-supporting sustainable farmers through a three year program. IFS and Logan’s have also partnered with Johnson Correctional Institute where the inmates grow food for distribution by IFS.

My time teaching the Cooking Matters classes and working on the farm are too much fun to count as “work”! There are many opportunities for community involvement – volunteering, donating money and supplies (thanks to you all for the generous donations of kitchen equipment last year), and advocating for IFS with your friends and family. This year, in addition to many other bills in the legislature, there is one to help get nutritious food into low income areas – this is a bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. Yvonne Holley. Keep your fingers crossed on that one!

My second Diaconal Ministry is with Interfaith Prison Ministry for Women (IPMW). This remarkable ministry was started over 30 years ago as the Presbyterian Prison Ministry for Women, but morphed into an interfaith program about 5 years ago. Thanks to the generosity of First Presbyterian Church, the offices, wireless connectivity, and classroom space are provided at no cost. Job Start Classes are provided by the Department of Public Safety and Wake Tech with some support from IPMW. IPMW coordinates the volunteer mentors who work one on one with the incarcerated women while they are participating in the classes. IPMW also pays the salaries of three part-time chaplains who serve in the minimum security facility in Raleigh. There is a special building on the campus there called the Hope Center devoted to chaplaincy programs including worship services, pastoral counseling and support, religious studies (including one program in conjunction with Duke Divinity School), and spiritual enrichment. The Hope Center is also used for computer classes for the incarcerated women.

Many of the women end up in prison as a result of being in abusive or otherwise unhealthy relationships that lead to substance abuse as a “coping” mechanism that leads to crime to support the substance abuse. There are many societal issues that must be addressed to help break these downhill cycles, but these are beyond the scope of IPMW. But IPMW can provide Bridges of Hope for these women as they move along the path towards release from prison through education, chaplaincy support, transition programs, and one on one mentor support while still incarcerated and after release.

People who are incarcerated face many obstacles – how to re-enter society, how to find housing and a job, how to cope with the issues that got them into trouble in the first place, how to stay out of trouble! Women in particular often face additional problems. Of the approximately 2,500 women currently in prison now in North Carolina, 76% are mothers. When the mothers are incarcerated, the children face being placed into foster care programs run by the state or are placed with family members if there are appropriate ones available. In purely economic costs, keeping someone incarcerated costs a lot of money – and that does not take into consideration the psychological and emotional costs for the inmates and their families. The “average” cost for a woman in prison is approximately $30, 200 per year, so for women alone, the annual cost of incarceration in North Carolina is $75.5 million!

Recidivism, or re-imprisonment, is a huge issue. The support provided by programs such as the Job Start Program and programs supported by IPMW definitely help with the problem of recidivism. IPMW is focusing on transition programs that will help ease the re-entry into society. If someone has a “record”, it is very difficult to get housing and jobs after release. Our own Sara Stohler has worked very hard to get the “box” on employment application forms removed from the front page of the application.

I serve in two roles with IPMW. I am a “floating” mentor for Job Start participants, so that they will always have a mentor even if the primary mentor is not available. My other role is also very important. I am on the Board of Directors and serve as Treasurer and Chair of Finance and Fundraising. We were fortunate this year to recruit a new Executive Director and a Director for Transition Support Programs. Both of these ladies are real fireballs and are moving things forward in a great direction, but as with most non-profits, the ministry relies on grants and donations, so that part of my ministry is very crucial to the programs. Opportunities are available for serving as mentors, fundraising, and advocacy in the community.

This year I became involved in the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry by coordinating donations of clothing and toiletries for the migrant farmworkers in the area around Dunn, NC. My role is to sort the generous donations from this congregation and make arrangements to get them to the ministry. The clothing that can be used by the Farmworkers Ministry now is protective clothing for the men who work in the fields – that is long sleeved shirts and long pants. Basic toiletries are also needed as the men need to shower and change clothes as they leave the fields each day.

I am so grateful for the support you all provide to these and the many other ministries supported by the St. Mark’s family.

And from the gospel of Matthew: …” Come, O Blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me. Then the righteous will answer Him, Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome thee or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you? And the King will answer them, ‘Truly I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.”

Amen