The following is a guest post from Gary Maring, a member of my congregation (Luther Place), who has been blogging for a couple of years and has now written a book. His new book, Faith, Social Justice, and Public Policy: A Progressive’s View, is available through Amazon, and proceeds from his book release event have benefitted N Street Village, the non-profit mentioned below.
My new book regarding faith, justice, and public policy reflects what I have learned over the last 40 years being involved at Luther Place church in DC and immersed in development of the most amazing social justice initiatives like N Street Village, the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, Steinbruck Center and more. I think it is important to share how faith entities like Luther Place can use their loaves and fishes (i.e. land and financial resources) to feed and nurture the thousands. Through foresight of a few key leaders of Luther Place; 21,000 square feet of land was assembled in the 1950s on N Street across from the church. At the time, the anticipated use of that land would be for parking by church members on Sunday. As it turned out, God had another plan for Luther Place. In the winter of 1976, Luther Place took the simple biblical act of welcoming the stranger on a cold winter night. Little did we know that event of opening the church doors to the homeless would define our mission for the next 35 plus years. Out of that decision came N Street Village which is now its own independent entity serving more than 60 percent of the homeless population of women in DC. In the process of developing N Street Village programs for the homeless, we were blessed with volunteers from the Mennonite and Jesuit traditions. Out of their witness, we were inspired to begin a Lutheran Volunteer Corps at Luther Place in 1979. From that meager first year beginning with 9 Lutheran volunteers housed on N Street, the program has grown to 16 cities with nearly 150 volunteers each year. Over the thirty plus years of LVC nearly 2000 young people have come through the program and gone on to change the world. Further, we created the Steinbruck Center (named after John and Erna Steinbruck, former Luther Place pastor and his wife who were the key to founding N Street Village) to educate and advocate on issues such as homelessness.
In the process of struggling with the issue of homelessness in and around our church and N Street Village it also became obvious that our mission to bring the kingdom of God here and now must go well beyond our block. My book thus reflects this bigger picture of the role of faith in helping achieve justice in our society. That follows the example of the Great Prophets including Jesus who took on the power structures of their day on behalf of the ‘least of these’. Increasingly our Luther Place neighborhood and our country are seeing great economic inequality that if not addressed will tear at the very seams of our nation’s bindings. Theologian Marcus Borg, in his book Speaking Christian, says that “the U.S. is the most Christian country in the world yet we have the greatest income inequality of any of the developed nations.” At the same time our nation has the highest poverty rates in the developed world; over twenty percent of our children live in poverty!
In this year of possibly the most divisive and negative presidential primary on record, we witnessed the Religious and Political Right make some really offensive comments and policy proposals affecting the poor, immigrants, gays and lesbians, Muslims, and other minorities. I believe America has the capacity to rise above the hatred, racism, bigotry, xenophobia, and homophobia that we have seen in the political dialogue the last few years, thus I felt compelled to respond and portray another view of what it means to be both faithful and engaged in our nation’s policies toward the disenfranchised. My book builds on a local foundation of a church continually engaged in biblical justice issues to addressing justice on a much broader societal scale.
What I see today is a need for rejuvenation of the progressive spirit in America to counter the more fundamentalist trends that, if followed, would take us back to a period before the 1960s Civil Rights era when the white majority was dominant, women knew their place in the home, homosexuals stayed in the closet, and other minorities were suppressed. Many young people have turned away from organized religion, but there is a large spirituality movement that has much in common with more traditional progressive church values. Many are turned off by members of the Religious Right who have captured too much of the media’s attention with such negative rhetoric. We in the progressive religious community need to find ways to connect with today’s spiritual movement, social justice oriented evangelicals, and secular progressives and be advocates for a more just society.