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March 30, 2017 – By Diana Williams
MCC photo/Diana Williams
Rev. Sandra Strauss, Director of Advocacy & Ecumenical Outreach at Pennsylvania Council of Churches, John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, Advocacy Programs Coordinator at Pennsylvania Council of Churches, Curtis Book, Peace and Justice Coordinator at MCC East Coast and Patrick Cicero, from Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, meet to discuss MCC’s advocacy priorities at the Council offices.
Congregations supporting the ministries of MCC sometimes experience both positive and negative impacts of our country’s legislative system. While MCC has been involved in national and international advocacy for years in the Washington D.C. and United Nations offices, some change can only happen at the state level.
“National and international advocacy work is critically important, but not enough. For example, the vast majority of prisoners in the U.S. are in state prisons whose sentencing laws are dictated by state legislation. The same is true for laws affecting gun sales and registration,” stated Curtis Book, Peace and Justice Coordinator at MCC East Coast.
Knowing this, in 2010 MCC became involved in state level advocacy in Pennsylvania with volunteer representation on the Interfaith Justice Coalition of Harrisburg. MCC soon realized, however, that the work required a full-time dedicated partner as an avenue for the church to speak into some of the challenges related to state legislation.
After meeting in late 2015 with constituents Bob Walden from West Swamp Mennonite Church and Patrick Cicero from Harrisburg Brethren in Christ Church, MCC pursued a partnership with the Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
“As a member of the Brethren in Christ Church, I felt MCC needed a voice at the table. We need to share in the burden to speak out on behalf of vulnerable people and issues that matter,” said Cicero, executive director of a legal aid office. “I think the work the Council does in Pennsylvania along with other religious-based advocacy groups is essential. There is no other group of individuals and organizations representing constituents that has the moral authority to make claims on behalf of vulnerable people.”
Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.
–Proverbs 31:8-9 (NRSV)
The Pennsylvania Council of Churches is the oldest state council in the country beginning in 1911. However, it was not until the 1960s that the Council started its advocacy ministry. Besides advocacy, they are involved in campground, farmer/migrant and trucker/traveler ministries.
Representing 20 denominations in Pennsylvania including Church of the Brethren, another Anabaptist group active in state level advocacy, the Council was excited to partner with MCC. “I can’t tell you how much we appreciate having the assistance from MCC because it gives us the opportunity to bring in additional help,” said Rev. Sandra Strauss, Director of Advocacy and Ecumenical Outreach at Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
“We don’t have the financial clout that other lobbyists have, so for us it’s being able to say, ‘We represent people of faith throughout the Commonwealth.’ The larger the faith population we represent the more we can be heard.”
–Rev. Sandra Strauss on the importance of MCC joining in their advocacy work
Partnerships are essential to MCC’s work domestically and around the world. “MCC cannot do state level advocacy alone,” stated Book. “Collaboration and cooperation, especially with other Christian organizations like the Council whose values we share, is vital.”
Working with the Council, MCC’s advocacy priorities help address poverty, oppression and injustice—and their systemic causes. These include immigration, criminal justice reform and gun violence prevention.
MCC’s advocacy priorities in Harrisburg include:
Criminal justice reform
Gun violence prevention
“From my perspective, an Anabaptist advocacy position has a distinct voice with a history of nonviolence and nonresistance. Pennsylvania has a large Anabaptist constituency, so I think to have that unique perspective on the state level advocating for Anabaptist values can have a distinct impact. It adds a creative voice to the faith perspective that is already advocating,” said John-Michael Cotignola-Pickens, Advocacy Programs Coordinator at Pennsylvania Council of Churches.
The Council encourages people to get out of their comfort zones and take action. Attend an advocacy-related event. Call your local state senator. Send an email or write a letter to your local state representative. “Become uncomfortable for the future of our children,” said Cotignola-Pickens.
“Even if you don’t resonate with any one of these causes personally, the idea that your community is calling you to action should be enough for you to pray about it, think about it and figure out whether or not God is pricking your conscience to pay more attention to these issues,” stated Cicero.
For more information about MCC’s work in advocacy, visit:
NOTE: This article is reprinted by permission of the Mennonite Central Committee. The original appears at https://mcc.org/stories/speaking-out-pennsylvania.