When you think about your spiritual life, it is likely that the first things that come to mind are time spent in prayer, Bible study, worship, and the like. But Jesus teaches that our spiritual journeys should also include working for justice by feeding the hungry and caring for the vulnerable.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe leads Church and Society, a United Methodist agency that helps raise our awareness of justice needs around the world, and works on our behalf to make the world a better place for everyone. In this conversation, Susan talks about issues of poverty, health, peace, and migration, and teaches some ways you and I can work for justice in our communities and around the world.
The Rev. Susan Henry-Crowe
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This episode posted on November 16, 2018.
Joe Iovino: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
When we think about our spiritual lives the first things that come to our minds are what church people call ‘acts of piety’—things like how often we pray or read the Bible. But there are other things that we can do that also help us in our spiritual journeys.
My guest today is the Reverend Susan Henry-Crowe. She leads the United Methodist Church’s Board of Church and Society, our general agency that works on justice issues. They raise awareness in United Methodists about places where people are being harmed and they coordinate our efforts to make the world a better place for everyone.
In this conversation, Susan talks with me about issues of poverty, health, peace and migration. And along the way she shares some things that you and I can do to get involved in working for justice in our communities and across the globe.
Joe: Susan Henry-Crowe, welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape.
Susan Henry-Crowe: It’s great to be here.
Joe: You work with the General Board of Church and Society and one of the things that people know is that our spiritual journeys often depend on going to worship. Or we do Bible study. We do those kinds of things. How do justice issues, how do the things that Church and Society deal with help us in our spiritual walks?
Henry-Crowe: The journey of Methodists in justice really began with Jesus, and then with John Wesley. One of the quotes of John Wesley that I really like is when he said that there is no holiness without social holiness, which is a principle and a value that undergirds the work of Church and Society.
Wesley was very concerned about several issues. One of those issues was prison reform. Another was…he was very opposed to slavery. And he wanted children to not have to labor and to be educated. So all of those really undergird the work that we do. It’s taken on a 21st century face, but it really comes both out of the Gospel and out of Wesley’s commitment to holiness that is social holiness.
Joe: Tell me about the work that Church and Society does today.
Henry-Crowe: We use the Social Principles as written by the General Conference as sort of the guiding work of what we do, and there happen to be 76 statements in the Social Principles. Some of them are interrelated with each other. They interface with each other.
Some of the issues that we work on, that you can certainly find in the Book of Discipline in the Social Principles, are poverty, gender-based violence, prison reform, care for women and children, healthcare.
Right now our priorities are poverty, peace, health and immigration. So a lot of our energy is spent on really advocating on those issues, responding to communities like, in Tennessee for example or North Carolina or Oregon, on those issues and helping grassroots efforts empower people at the local level to really engage on those issues. And they have a national and sometimes international component as well.
Joe: How does your own involvement in these things keep you in touch with the spirit’s movement in your life?
Henry-Crowe: I came from a church and from a family that really engaged in the public square and in the larger community from a very early age.
I have an aunt who was a deaconess. In 1905 she served in school in Porto Alegre, Brazil as a 25-year-old. Then she went from Brazil on to Brownsville, Texas and worked for the rest of her life as a deaconess. So the dinner conversations in my house were about my Aunt Della and what she was doing, and about what was happening in our local community. So it’s really very much in my DNA and how that the personal life, church life and societal life can’t be isolated from each other.
Joe: And we like to do that, don’t we? We like to compartmentalize things. Your work helps integrate that for people.
Henry-Crowe: We do that, and so many people really like this work. We have internships and fellowships, and many groups that come to Washington, D.C. to work. Young people are very enthusiastic about injustice and oppression and working for justice and freedom. So we have a great deal of energy around the ministry and the work that we do.
Joe: I understand it’s a place where some people find their initial connection to the church because they see that the church cares about something that they care about, too.
Henry-Crowe: Many people say to us. Even people who grew up in the church, will often say, “We didn’t even know that there were Social Principles.” And we say, “Yes, there are Social Principles,” and they really are drawn to the church because of those, and are very committed to being advocates with the church. Many people are drawn to the church, as you say, because of this outreach and the justice work that happens with Church and Society.
Joe: Let me back up a little bit. You were talking about your aunt. It was kind of turn of the century, early 1900s…
Henry-Crowe: From 1900 to 1950.
Joe: Okay. What were some of the issues then that maybe she was dealing with?
Henry-Crowe: She was dealing with education in Brazil at a school. Then in Brownsville, Texas she was dealing with immigration. It’s been an issue that the United Methodist Church has dealt with since the beginning of the United States and the colonies and the formation of the country, and we have not been of one mind on it. We have had ministries along the border, or borders, and there are many borders in the world in which the United Methodist Church has a presence and engages. But her work was in Brownsville, Texas with the families that came there.
Joe: Wow. That’s something that sounds exciting. And something that we think of as right now, she was dealing with 60 years ago.
Henry-Crowe: She was. She wrote a book that I have been reading and some of the stories… some of them are just delightful and funny. She was a very good writer and had a great sense of humor. And as she talks about with great sort of sympathy and compassion and humor, the lives of the people with whom she engaged.
Joe: Wow. That’s something that would be a lot of fun.
You mentioned these four initiatives. You mind if we just kind of spend a few minutes…?
Henry-Crowe: Yeah. The priorities. Sure.
Joe: Tell me a little about the ministries with poverty.
Henry-Crowe: One of the things that we’re working on is poverty and ministry with those living in poverty and learning more about what annual conferences and churches and communities are doing in this area. We’ve had over a hundred conversations in communities to learn about the ways in which they are engaging. Many are engaging in mercy ministries, sort of humanitarian ministries of helping people.
Joe: Sort of like a food bank or that sort of thing.
Henry-Crowe: Exactly. And some are beginning to move into more systemic change, which is what we also want to have happen. Both of those things need to happen. But recognizing what are the systems that cause poverty and how do we help alleviate poverty by addressing systemic poverty, and the stigmatizing of people who are living in poverty.
There are many people in communities that stigmatize people who live on the street or who are episodically poor, or who are long-term chronically poor. So we are trying to help the church articulate how we engage with people across economic strata and with the kind of equality and appreciation and respect. Recognizing that all people can be in ministry, and that it’s not just kind of a one-way street.
Joe: What are some of the ways that a congregation or an individual can get involved in ministries that assist in poverty?
Henry-Crowe: There are a lot of ways. Coming together with many other churches of different denominations or interfaith ministries to really begin to address the issues in the community is one way.
I think discovering what the issues are. Many churches don’t know when there is poverty that surrounds them. So really getting out and just seeing what really is there. There are a lot of young people who move from city to city who are homeless and sometimes they’re invisible or not very visible. So you have to look around to see what God is showing you.
That’s one of the things that we try to encourage, too, and there is a great willingness, I think, for people to reach out and to learn more and to be in new relationships, and to figure out ways that people can walk together in life.
Joe: I like the way you talk about this big issue, but brought it very local… to know what’s happening in my community, what’s happening in my town. How would I find out those kinds of things?
Henry-Crowe: Number one, we’ll have a report before too long about what we’re discovering.
We’re doing this in a very systematic way, but it’s all in conversations. So we’re not asking people to fill out reports. We are calling them and talking with them. So places like Georgia or Virginia or Missouri or Texas, we are beginning to get a good idea of what some churches and annual conferences are engaging in. So we will have a report and that should be very helpful, and eventually it’ll be broken out into different kind of issues, I suspect.
Joe: A lot of times we like keeping that at a distance, as if it happens someplace else. But aren’t there statistics that a large percentage of Americans are like one paycheck away from… being in a bad place. So it’s not so far away.
Henry-Crowe: It’s not so far away at all. And most churches…. You know, we have about 30,000 church buildings in communities in the U.S. and as the country developed and there was this westward movement, Methodism at the time was in a lot of different places. And so we do have a good way of beginning to see sort of where the poverty is and ways that churches might begin to think about it.
Joe: Yeah, and there’s something about how churches are so local that they can actually be the discoverer, (if that’s a word.) But to be the ones that are on the ground knowing who’s in the community.
Henry-Crowe: Exactly. They also know how to access resources. So one local church or congregation may not know how to address an issue that they find, but they know how to go to the town and how to bring goods together to begin to address the issue. So it’s really important to have a grassroots movement to address some of these issues.
The other thing that I also think I want to add which begins to lap over into another area is immigration. Many people who are immigrants, really, some do live in the shadows, and the poverty is very hard to see and define, but can be extreme. So there is fear.
I think there’s fear everywhere about being poor, and stigmatized, and churches seem like a natural place to help de-mythologize poverty and make people’s lives vivid and real and for churches to have a compassionate attitude that’s not paternalistic or condescending, but really seeing people as fellow travelers in the world.
Joe: I remember in the very first church that I served, one of the saints taught me this phrase that I know is really common. But I had never heard it before, “There but for the grace of God go I.” We really are very connected to those who we want to say are different than us.
You started to talk about immigration a little bit. Is it okay if we move into that focus? Tell me about the ministries helping with issues surrounding immigration.
Henry-Crowe: The church is becoming increasingly committed to the issue of immigration. There are a couple of task forces, both in the Council of Bishops and across the connection, on immigration and migration.
Migration is a big issue in the world. There are about 65 million migrants in the world. And we don’t know what the immigrant population is, depending on how we define it.
My family is of Irish descent. Most people that live in the U.S., except Native Americans who were here first, really are an immigrant population. So it may be a hundred years ago. It may be 50 years ago. It may be 5 years ago. But ours is a life of migration, and throughout the biblical stories, migration was an important fact.
People migrated throughout human history. So crossing borders and going into new lands is nothing new. But how… As Christians we’re taught through the Scripture about how to care for the sojourner and care for those who cross borders, is in our DNA as Christians and as United Methodists.
So our work is both on advocacy…. We have advocated on behalf of Dreamers who are young people who were born here or came here at a very young age because of decisions that others made. It is not really fair for them to go back to some place they don’t know—without family, without connections. So we have been an advocate for Dreamers.
We also advocate for change in policies that discriminate and keep people out. We, of course, favor legal immigration. There are a variety of circumstances that have to be considered. Most people migrate because of climate, because of violence, and because of war. So there is a lot of work that has to be done to be, again, de-mythologized, who migrants are and why they come and go.
Joe: Say a little bit more about why people would migrate because of climate.
Henry-Crowe: A great example of climate…the influence of climate is in the case of The Philippines, for example. Philippines is one of the countries that is most affected by climate change with storms and floods and typhoons. And often they’re displaced. And so they have no home. They migrate to another home. So that’s one of the examples.
Another example in the U.S. was in the case of Katrina. So in 2005 many people were displaced and their homes were lost. Their communities were lost. They had no place. So many people went to Houston or Atlanta or to New York or to Chicago because there was no home to go back to. So we feel it domestically and we also know it in many places around the world.
Another example is in the case of South Sudan. People are deeply and profoundly affected by war. They are fleeing war and violence in Central America as well. So there is not a place for them to be.
Another reason that people migrate sometimes is domestic violence and violence in the home. Of course, as people of Christian faith and, you know, are Jesus followers, we really want people to live in faith and help the environment. Children need a safe home. They need a home that is peace-filled and not full of violence. So there are a variety of reasons that people flee to find a better home.
Joe: And our call is to help them find that safe place where they can have security and…
Henry-Crowe: …flourish. Yeah.
Joe: Poverty, immigration, health.
Joe: Talk to me a little bit about advocacy for health.
Henry-Crowe: Advocacy for health in the past couple of years has really been in the United States’ situation, preserving Medicaid for about 40 million people who without Medicaid would have no healthcare. This would involve the elderly. It would involve children, people with mental health issues and people with disabilities. So preserving Medicaid for people who are vulnerable is one of the things that the United Methodist Church has worked for as well as with our other faith partners.
Joe: We have other initiatives globally as well. Are there other places that we’re working for Global Health?
Henry-Crowe: Different agencies and different conferences and communities are working on health. In some places it’s systemic and we look at it sort of in a comprehensive way. In other places it’s more local. We look at what are the healthy habits of a work place. How do we provide space for people to eat healthy meals as opposed to running out to a local fast-food place? So how does the work environment, how does the church environment, how do the places that people spend their days, how healthy are they? And so we look at it from a very kind of micro perspective as well as what happens in a city.
If you live in Flint, Michigan and there’s a water crisis, then water becomes a health issue. If you look at water globally, there are a lot of places where impure water is a health issue. So something like, in the case of water, you have both health issues, you may have poverty, you may have other kinds of issues. So many of these issues overlap. And at different levels of the church, in different communities worldwide communities are addressing the health issues in a variety of ways.
Joe: I think the fourth one you said was peace. That’s what I wrote down. Did I get that right?
Henry-Crowe: We don’t have world peace yet. But hopefully we’re on the way.
Joe: Absolutely. What are some of the issues there?
Henry-Crowe: The most recent thing that we did was two weeks ago. We helped with other agencies and colleagues to bring a group together to talk about peace on the Korean peninsula and the reunification of families in North and South Korea. It was a very moving experience to have people come together. This gathering happened to be in Washington, which was not the first one.
But to really talk about how that in my lifetime there has never been a peace-filled world. We’ve had endless wars in my entire lifetime. And whether…. And it was partly in Korea and it’s been in other places. But it is now time for the Korean peninsula to begin to figure out how to live more peacefully.
Of course any time that you’re working on negotiations and agreements that hopefully would lead to a peace treaty there are many factors that go into that. How do peoples live together after conflict and war?
An example of that, the Board…our board meeting was in Germany last march. One of the things that we were looking at was how do people come together after the Cold War and after World War II? So coming back together is not an easy thing. There are different economies. There are different cultures. There are different peoples. There are different communities. So how do you begin to bring communities together that have not been able to be together for a long time? Often the government has prevented the coming together, but it’s habituated and so the people don’t really know how to be together again. So there is peace and then there is the coming back and what happens after conflict and war.
Joe: I keep coming back to… These are super big issues to deal with. What can I do as a member of a congregation? Or what are some things that the individual can do to get involved in any or all of these?
Henry-Crowe: Our work can be found on our website which is www/umcjustice.org, and you can see what some opportunities are. Occasionally we will have sign-on letters. We will invite people to sign on for a letter perhaps to the president or to their state representatives or their state senators—I mean, their congressional leaders—to address an issue.
Leadership in the country and in the state really is affected when a lot of people sign on or write letters. I mean, if you have several hundred people writing a letter to your senator or several hundred people writing to your house member, they will listen. And United Methodists have a great deal of influence. Pooling it together can be really important, and it can also be energizing for the community. So our website is one way.
Finding churches in your community that address some of these issues is another way, because in those communities you begin to have a sense of belonging and a sense of common cause with other people. Most United Methodist churches have United Methodist Women’s groups, Church and Society groups, young people who really are interested in justice issues. It’s one of the attractions that I think the United Methodist Church offers, a sense of community and belonging to act for justice in the world. So those are a couple of examples.
I think the third example that I would offer is to seek out either on our website or in with some churches in annual conferences, which is sort of the state level organization of the church, what organizing efforts might be happening. We do have rapid response teams on health. We have rapid response teams on immigration. So coming together with others across the U.S., particularly right now, who are addressing some of these issues really not only helps the cause, but it puts you in contact with other folks.
Joe: You have some great resources on the site, too. I just wanted to make sure people are aware of because if there’s a topic that you’re interested in umcjustice.org is a great place to go and find some resource that you can gather others around and share in some knowledge and then how our faith life matters. I’ve been on there frequently…
Henry-Crowe: Thanks so much.
Joe: One of the things that draws me to Wesleyan theology is the fact that these things matter. What we do with our lives is part of our expression of faith. We have the General Rule of Discipleship that talks about living our lives through justice and compassion and worship and devotion. And we should be in all four of those areas, be active in all four of those. This is part of who we are, and it really does feed us spiritually.
So one of the questions I ask every guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is: What practice that you use…what’s something that you do to help keep you spiritually fed and keep your connection with God alive?
Henry-Crowe: There are several things that are important to me. Because I now work in Washington I see certain people often, at the coffee shop or at the bus stop. But one of the things that I really enjoy is getting out with different congregations, different annual conferences and meeting people and seeing really what life is like for them. So that’s one of the things that gives me kind of a great…it gives me a great sense of pleasure and joy, but it also helps me be grounded, and it helps me stay in touch with my own story and the stories of others, which really impact the work. I think that’s one of the really important things.
Another thing that I really like—and I think this is just because of who I am—but I really like encounters with and conversations with street vendors, with people who live on the street, with the police, with salespeople in stores. So I have nice conversations with the police around Capitol Hill or people I pass going to CVS, who live on the street. If I’ve seen them 3 or 4 times. And so being a little forward, I guess, but engaging in conversations with people that do kind of everyday work. And everyday work and labor is so much a part of sort of Wesleyan DNA.
I wish that I had started a long time ago writing the stories of taxi drivers. They are wonderful, and mostly immigrants, but not entirely. But people who drive taxis have kind of incredible stories. I haven’t written most of those stories down. But some of them are quite moving. I remember not too long ago I had one conversation with a young father who had served in the United States military. He was from Afghanistan, and he’s now in the U.S., but his family is still in Afghanistan. His little girl had her 6th birthday, and she was really angry with him because he was in the U.S. and she was in Afghanistan. He had not seen her since she was two, so he was really heartbroken that day particularly because she was really angry with him that he couldn’t be at her birthday party. He said Skyping is just not the same. Of course it’s not the same. So there are so many people that have served the country in our military and are separated from their families. There are people who live …have come from many different parts of the world for a variety of reasons, that have found a place here and are very proud to be in the U.S. and to be American citizens or on their way to citizenship, and yet they’re separated from their families. So, you know, I wish had sort of kept track of more of the stories.
Joe: We could do this for a long time. I could ask you a ton of questions, but we’re running out of time and I just want to say how much I appreciate having this conversation with you and learning more about your work and how it can impact my life and the lives of everyone.
Henry-Crowe: Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s such a joy to get to talk about these stories and about the work we do and how that people’s lives have a whole ripple effect and how those comprehensive issues also have a ripple effect. So, thank you for the invitation.
Joe: That was the Reverend Susan Henry-Crowe, the leader of United Methodist Church and Society. To learn more about her work go to UMC.org/podcasts and look for this episode. We have several links on the page that help you learn more about the issue that you’re passionate about.
And if you browse around the page you’ll also see some other podcasts that you might enjoy, like the Compass podcast by my colleagues at Rethink Church here at United Methodist Communications.
As always, feel free to email your thoughts at [email protected]. I’d be happy to hear from you. And if you have a moment, give us a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you subscribe to Get Your Spirit in Shape. Good reviews really do help people find us.
Thanks for listening. I’ll be back soon with another conversation that’ll help us keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.