Tackling Systemic Change

Tackling Systemic Change

By: Rev. Dr. Felipe Martínez, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church Columbus, IN

How do you begin to tackle systemic change?

It is difficult to start a conversation of ministry with that question, because our instinct in churches is to think about the specifics of supporting people in need. We think about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting those in prison. Those actions are important and needed, but they may not answer the larger questions of why people are hungry or in need or imprisoned. The Matthew 25 Initiative of the Presbyterian Church (USA)  is an effort to think about systemic issues alongside the day-to-day work that we do as congregations. The three areas of focus of the initiative are: #1 Building congregational vitality, #2 dismantling structural racism and #3 eradicating systemic poverty.

Our congregation, First Presbyterian Church in Columbus IN, decided in 2019 to become a Matthew 25 congregation. We have also collaborated with our siblings at First Presbyterian Church Bloomington and Fairlawn Presbyterian Church in Columbus, who also are Matthew 25 churches. Together we have formed a cohort which has received Myrtle Collaboration funding for activities to support our work with the Matthew 25 initiative. Fairlawn is focusing on growing as a vital congregation, and First Presbyterian Bloomington is focusing on dismantling structural racism. First Presbyterian Columbus is interested in the three topics, but our area of focus right now is to eradicate systemic poverty. In a sermon, I said that our congregation is focused on the needs of people in a way that zooms in to the needed area. We have a weekly hot meal served to people who are food insecure. We have assistance for people who are experiencing difficulties and transitions such as homelessness. We support a local homeless shelter. We support families with a free bed for foster children. We offer free wood to folk who depend on wood-burning furnaces for heat. We are able to zoom in on where the need is for individuals. But how do we address the systems which are placing people in these circumstances?

Matthew 25 helps us zoom out. A group of dedicated volunteers began to think through the issues at hand, and to gauge where we would want to focus as a congregation. We realized that there were several areas of systemic poverty where we wished to make an impact. Eventually we landed on affordable housing. After one-on-one conversations with stakeholders, leaders, people affected by the lack of affordable housing, we came to a specific avenue for supporting people who are in the midst of a housing crisis. We have decided to focus our energy on supporting the creation of permanent supportive housing in Columbus, IN. We convened a meeting which brought community leaders, agency executives, city officials, and concerned citizens to test the idea of bringing permanent supportive housing to the city. It’s been tried before. An effort in 2017 by two local agencies to create permanent supportive housing fell apart when neighborhood pushback became so strong that the city decided to pull its support from the project. This time around, we are encouraged by the good response from the community, in particular agencies invested in supporting people facing housing challenges.

The church is not going to be the one building the permanent supportive housing, but we are helping to rally support for it, and work with the social service agency partners who would run it. But isn’t this just another way of zooming in to one particular issue? It may be. But along the way, we keep raising the systemic lack of affordable housing in the city. We want to be the kind of community that welcomes people from all walks of life and understands that with a little bit of support those on the margins are able to find housing with dignity that allows them to be safe, productive and involved in the life of a community.

For more information, contact Rev. Dr. Felipe N. Martinez – felipem@fpccolumbus.org.

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