Youth Voice Is Heard in New York and Washington During Christian Citizenship Seminar

Photo by Gimbiya Kettering
The 2013 Christian Citizenship Seminar group photo. This year’s CCS brought 55 Church of the Brethren youth and advisors to New York and Washington, D.C., to consider issues surrounding child poverty.

During the last week of March, 55 Church of the Brethren youth and advisors joined forces to learn more about the issue of childhood poverty at this year’s Christian Citizenship Seminar. CCS is a week-long event sponsored by the denomination’s Youth and Young Adult Ministries and Office of Public Witness (formerly Peace Witness Ministries) based in Washington, D.C.

CCS gives senior high youth the chance to explore the relationship between faith and a particular political issue. This year the focus was on how a child’s lack of adequate housing, nutrition, and education may perpetuate the cycle of poverty and limit a child’s potential.

The event was planned and led by a number of denominational staff including Becky Ullom, director of Youth and Young Adult Ministries; Nathan Hosler, director of the Office of Public Witness; Rachel Witkovsky, a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) worker and coordinator of National Junior High Conference; and Bryan Hanger, also a BVS volunteer and advocacy assistant in the Office of Public Witness.

Photo by Rachel Witkovsky
A CCS guest speaker highlights poverty across the nation through a graphic. Speakers at the 2013 Christian Citizenship Seminar offered varying perspectives on poverty and children affected by it.

The week began in New York City where Nathan Hosler and I spoke of our experiences with the issue as part of our work at the church’s Office of Public Witness. The week began in New York City where Nathan Hosler and I spoke of our experiences with the issue as part of our work at the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness. We spoke specifically of the “sequester” and the effects these cuts to the federal budget have on children facing poverty. For example, some 600,000 participants will be cut from the Women, Infants, Children (WIC) program designed to help the nutrition of young infants and mothers. In another example, more than 100,000 formerly homeless people will lose access to shelters due to drastic cuts in homelessness assistance (see ).

In Washington, so much emphasis has been placed on the bottom budget line that the human costs of these cuts has been tragically overlooked. We encouraged the youth to instead look for inspiration from Jesus’ example in scripture to care for the “least of these.”

Photo by Rachel Witkovsky
CCS offers citizenship education from a faith perspective for Brethren youth who attend. The event is held annually (except for National Youth Conference years) in New York City and Washington, D.C., for senior youth and their adult advisors. Each year’s theme focuses on a current issue of interest that offers youth an opportunity to learn and engage in advocacy in the nation’s capital.

This theme was expanded by the first guest speaker, Shannon Daley-Harris, who is the religious affairs advisor for the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF). Her vast experience of working with religious communities addressing childhood poverty provided great insight for our youth on the human cost of poverty. She spoke specifically of the CDF’s program “Be Careful What You Cut,” which emphasizes long-term effects of cutting anti-poverty programs for young children (more information is at ).

The second guest speaker was Sarah Rohrer, deputy director of Bread for the World’s office in New York. The Church of the Brethren has a history of working with and supporting the mission of Bread for the World through the Global Food Crisis Fund. Recently Stan Noffsinger, Church of the Brethren general secretary, signed Bread for the World’s Circle of Protection Pastoral Letter to the President and Congress ( ). Rohrer talked about the effects of poverty on children around the world, and spoke specifically about Bread for the World’s 1,000 Days program and Offering of Letters advocacy effort. The 1,000 Days program focuses internationally on the early development of children and is designed to eliminate malnutrition of young children and mothers by providing ample and healthy food during the 1,000 days from pregnancy to the child’s second birthday. The Offering of Letters is an advocacy effort that provides a way for church members to speak out on issues of poverty from a faith perspective and encourage their representatives and senators to support policies that will help programs like 1,000 Days be effective.

Photo by Rachel Witkovsky
A visit to the United Nations in New York is one of the opportunities for youth who attend CCS.

In between these two sessions with guest speakers, youth got to explore the Big Apple including a trip to the United Nations where youth were able to take a tour and learn about UN efforts to reduce poverty. After three days of fun and learning in New York, the CCS group boarded a bus to Washington, D.C., for the second half of the seminar.

In the nation’s capital, the educational tour continued with a trip to the Department of Agriculture (USDA) where three staff members of the USDA’s Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships spoke about how they work with churches and social organizations to implement government policies at a community level. The USDA staff encouraged our youth to learn from the success stories they shared, and create community programs that collaborate with the USDA to help as many people as possible. We learned how recent budget cuts have affected many of the USDA efforts to combat poverty effectively, but also how they were proactively adapting their strategies and goals to transform many of their programs. One of the changes is a new program entitled “Strikeforce,” which will work to reduce poverty and encourage economic development in rural communities that have not traditionally been recipients of USDA programs ( ).

After the USDA visit, the youth had a chance to learn how to put their knowledge into action. For this task our guests were Jerry O’Donnell, a member of Washington City Church of the Brethren and also press secretary for Rep. Grace Napolitano (CA-32), and Shantha Ready-Alonso, director of the National Council of Churches (NCC) Poverty Initiative. O’Donnell provided an insider perspective as a Congressional staffer while Ready-Alonso demonstrated the advocacy skills and strategies needed to be an effective Christian voice on Capitol Hill.

This combination gave our youth the confidence and knowledge to go to Capitol Hill themselves and lift up the issue of childhood poverty with their own representatives and senators. By the time the seminar concluded, Brethren youth had advocated their concerns with senators and representatives from Virginia, Pennsylvania, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, California, Ohio, and Oregon.

Overall, the week was a rousing success. Brethren youth connected with each other and worked with adult advisors and staff to learn more about child poverty. Visiting New York and Washington, and getting to speak faithfully with a Brethren voice to policy experts and lawmakers, was truly a unique experience. We can’t wait to hear about the fruits of this experience once the youth carry their ideas home and put them to work in their own communities.

— Bryan Hanger is an advocacy assistant at the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Public Witness.