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Bearing Witness, Seeking Justice

March 22, 2023

As deacons of Waterloo (Ont.) CRC, Lorraine Hellinga and Wayne Miedema started to notice a pattern in requests for financial help. Many of the people who were having trouble making ends meet were recipients of social assistance.

Conversations with Ann, another Waterloo CRC member, helped them see that the problem was not due to lack of money management skills – it was largely due to the inadequacy of social-assistance amounts. Looking “upstream,” the three concluded that the best way to solve the problem was to advocate for more just supports for people on social assistance, said Miedema.

The Waterloo CRC trio had had a variety of prior experiences with advocacy. But after taking part in the Christian Reformed Church’s Faith in Action Workshop, which focuses on helping church members understand how to advocate for causes more effectively, the team began to go deeper in learning about advocacy.

Through regular meetings, Ann, Lorraine, and Wayne worked through the workshop materials to prepare for advocating. In those meetings, they learned from Ann the struggles of being on social assistance and the energy that is consumed by finding ways to make do with so little. This “bearing witness” to the lived experience of someone receiving social assistance opened their eyes to realities they had never experienced themselves.

Taking a cue from the workshop that they all went through in their church, they saw that their next step was to have a deeper understanding of the system that was in many ways failing to offer to Ann and others the amount of resources to meet their daily needs.

“I realized I had no lived experience of being a social-assistance recipient,” said Miedema. “Ann did. She knew where the problems were in the system. Of the three of us, she had the insight to see what would make things better.”

The Faith in Action Workshop was first developed in 2018 in response to the Justice and Faith Project, which conducted research attempting to understand the relationship between justice and faith in the CRC’s Canada congregations, said Cindy Stover, justice mobilizer for Canadian Ministries.

Among the research findings, said Stover, was that more than 85 percent of Canadian CRC members believe that doing justice is an essential part of Christian faith.

“Despite this consensus on the importance of integrating justice and faith, many respondents to the research expressed uncertainty about what that means, and were unsure how to apply a passion for justice to their everyday lives,” said Stover.

Stover developed the workshop in partnership with Mike Hogeterp, director of the CRC’s Centre for Public Dialogue, and with Jeanette Romkema from Global Learning Partners. Additional partners in the project included World Renew and Diaconal Ministries Canada.

The U.S.version of the workshop was later developed in partnership with the Social Justice staff team. And Jason Lief, a professor at Northwestern University in Iowa, has used the workshop recently to share with students engaged in advocacy.

“This workshop is one of many responses of the CRC to help churches and individuals learn how to integrate justice into their spiritual lives and to take advocacy actions on justice issues that they care about,” said Stover.

Helpful in creating the workshop, added Stover, was the book on advocacy called The Art of the Possible by Amanda Sussman. Organizers also consulted the Citizens for Public Justice Advocacy Toolkit, Live Justly, and the CRC’s Biblical Advocacy 101 booklet.

Overall, Stover added, the advocacy resource helps church members overcome the daunting reality of contacting elected officials to advocate for change on various issues.

The workshop material engages participants to do the following:

  • mobilize to embrace seeking justice as an integral part of Christian faith and life
  • recognize that speaking out about injustice and practicing biblical advocacy is a spiritual discipline
  • realize that communicating with elected officials is a powerful and effective way to combat injustice that impacts the vulnerable and oppressed in our society
  • see that contacting elected officials is not scary and that the workshop provides a step-by-step process to call, write letters, and meet in person with municipal, state, and federal representatives
  • be equipped with the tools to communicate with elected officials
  • become a strong advocate on justice issues that matter and become aware that real change can happen and that vulnerable and oppressed neighbors will be protected, provided for, and able to live in peace

The effort undertaken by the Waterloo CRC trio is a good example, said Stover, of how the workshop better equipped them to lobby for changes in the social-assistance system. Other Waterloo CRC members have used the workshop to help them to advocate on various issues as well.

“We realized, in going through this material, that an important aspect of advocacy was to bear witness to the experiences of Ann,” said Miedema. “Listening to how difficult things were for Ann galvanized us to address and advocate around the issue of social services.”

Following steps laid out by the Faith in Action Workshop, Ann, Lorraine, and Wayne got involved last spring in speaking about social-assistance rates to candidates running for a position in Ontario’s provincial government.

“Working through the workshop curriculum gave us a solid background and talking points for engaging with the candidates,” said Miedema.

It turned out that three of the four main parties running for election also recognized the injustice and promised to double social-assistance benefits. But the party that was elected offered only a 5-percent increase.

However, the group didn’t stop. Fueled by advocating for justice for people on the local level, they turned to Mike Morrice, a member of Parliament (MP) from their federal election district and a strong supporter of legislation aiming to reduce poverty and to support the financial security of persons with disabilities.

In a meeting with Morrice, said Miedema, the three thanked him for supporting the legislation, still in process, to help people such as Ann.

But the focus of the meeting was an opportunity for Ann to share stories of life on social assistance: “Stories out of lived experience are so compelling. It is no longer an issue affecting nameless people. It is now a hardship borne by a friend.” Morrice listened carefully.

“We had a powerful meeting with Mike Morrice – and it was all about Ann and the opportunity for her voice to be heard as she spoke about her lived experiences,” said Miedema. “She also spoke of the need to convince others that this is an issue that needs attention in Ottawa.”

Before they left, Ann let Morrice know that she is willing, if the opportunity arises, to tell her story to others, said Miedema.

“In the past, my advocacy on social justice issues has been to write letters to people who have the power and to let them know of my stance,” said Miedema.

With the Faith in Action Workshop in mind, he and others seek to hear the stories of people affected by issues of social justice and to stand beside and advocate with them for necessary changes.

“We now have a better approach to advocacy that is more effective. We seek to establish relationships and have ongoing relationships with our MPs and our MPPs [members of Provincial Parliament],” said Miedema.

Stover said the workshop has been widely used in Canada: “We offer it as an in-person or webinar workshop, led by CRC justice staff, and it has been run in many churches in partnership with various advocacy aims (such as advocating alongside Canadian Foodgrains Bank or World Renew's Refugee Sponsorship team).” It has also been used for immigration justice with U.S. congregations, she said.

Both the Canadian and U.S. versions are available as an online course via the CRCNA's Learning platform and can be used on one's own or with a group to complete advocacy letters or to prepare for meetings with elected officials.

“Anyone can enroll in the online versions too, and our team will support anyone who needs help or has questions along the way,” said Stover.