SHERIDAN—The Wyoming Association of Churches met in Sheridan last week for their annual business meeting and a weekend full of educational workshops. This year’s conference theme for the group was “Faith-Action in Response to Poverty.”
While the connection between churches in business and politics is often unacknowledged, the WAC embraces the reality that social change is more effectively incited when diverse congregations work together toward common goals via economic strategy and public policy.
Reverend Doug Goodwin of the First Christian Church said the WAC is an ecumenical group that represents eight traditions of congregations from around the state.
“It’s not a large group,” he said,”But it represents a lot of people.”
“Most of the time, on most of the issues, we tend to follow the national, larger bodies of the church. Their general assemblies that have made these decisions,” Goodwin said. “We follow along those lines, but we try to put a local face on it since it follows Wyoming churches and Wyoming people, we address social issues that go on in Wyoming.”
Goodwin said this year’s meeting theme was inspired by the discussions initiated by Sheridan’s Center for a Vital Community, which organized an ongoing community discussion and action group based on the book, “Bridges out of Poverty,” by Philip E. Devol, Ruby K. Payne and Terie Dreussi Smith.
“We thought since we’re already having those discussions, let’s meet in Sheridan and continue talking,” Goodwin said. “The church is always interested in poverty.”
“When we look at poverty in Sheridan, I feel like the important aspects are people have shelter, and they have food and they have clothing,” he said, referring to community food programs, the homeless shelter and multiple thrift stores that were initially started with the help of faith-based initiatives.
Goodwin said his church’s business arm operates to an extent that many people are unaware. For example, Heritage Towers is on of the congregation’s corporations, which was established to address housing concerns in the area.
The religious initiative to improve the community also has a political edge on a local and national level.
In fact, the WAC Summary Report, which reads like a manifesto, identifies myriad social and environmental issues that are directly related to political undertakings.
“Our collective sin undoes the delicate balance of nature, which warms the atmosphere, changes the climate, reduces habitat and species, threatened ecologically rare areas and poisons the groundwater,” it reads. “Wyoming’s high rate of workplace fatalities reflects the dangers of work in the oil and gas industry. while we do not oppose development, developers need to be responsible and accountable.”
Other passages within the report advocate for immigration reform, ending discrimination based on sexual orientation, improving access to affordable food and housing via a living wage, the elimination of the death penalty and opposing the state lottery, among others.
“When you talk about politics, a lot of what the church is politicking is public policy in the legislature, and that’s what the Wyoming Association of Churches comes into play there,” Goodwin said. “We try to work with legislators on establishing meaningful, healthy public policy.”
WAC Executive Director Chesie Lee admitted to feeling the red-state pressure when trying to raise funds for her organization, but said she ultimately feels the organization has to speak its intent.
“We should not tone our message down in order to please our opponents,” she said in her opening address to the group, when she revealed her theme for the coming year will be, “Fear not, be bold, and do justice.”
“We need to say who we are. When I look at who we are and who’s becoming a part of the Wyoming Association of Churches, its’ because we’re willing to step up and do things.
“We need to look at the Bible and history as to who has made a difference and how they’ve done it,” Lee continued. “They weren’t popular at the time.”
“Most people in the church don’t like conflict and they kind of want to be middle of the road,” Goodwin added. “In some ways, you can’t help but be involved in politics in the church because it naturally comes up in scriptural conversations, but for the most part I think church leadership engages people in conversations versus making it antagonistic.”
“In my mind, the church has no choice but to be political, because that’s where the capitol is. That’s where the money is, and that’s where you help a lot of people over the long term,” Goodwin said.
In addition to an extended workshop centered on understanding and acting against poverty, the WAC hosted Mike Hogan of the International Justice Mission, who discussed his group’s platform: ending human trafficking.
“It seems important that all of abolitionist movements work around civil-rights have all been relatively church-driven and been faith-based missions, too,” Hogan said, pointing out that at their last session, the Wyoming State Legislature passed anti-trafficking laws thanks to the initiative of the religious community.
“We really believe in compelling communities to be at the forefront of fighting modern-day slavery,” he said.
Another guest speaker hosted by the WAC was Director of the Wyoming Department of Health Tom Forsland, who talked on the merits of Wyoming accepting the optional Medicaid expansion as a part of the Affordable Care Act. Forsland has included the WDH in the Wyoming Coalition for Medicaid Expansion.
Forsland explained the expansion would primarily benefit childless adults under the age of 65, and would save the state $47.4 million over the course of seven years. Wyoming Hospital Association statistics show currently Wyoming’s uncompensated costs add $200 million per year to be shifted onto all healthcare consumers.
Amidst making a conscious-driven proclamations far from the mainstream Wyoming political base, the WAC introduced a resolution this year calling for the elevation of political discourse, which the organizations perceives to be deteriorated.
“This deterioration is expressed through the demonization of polite al adversaries, falsehood masquerading as truth for political gain, the corrosive effect of anonymous money and personal attacks and hateful speech rather than addressing the issues thoughtfully,” the resolution proclaims. “We call for civility, mutual respect, financial transparency and truth telling in dealings between constituents and public officials…and in other forms of political activity.”
The WAC opposes public policy that unnecessarily imposes on individual religious liberties. Still, that leaves plenty of room for political play that affects church business: federal Housing and Urban Development allowances that help local congregations address homelessness, state policies that allow for the protection of land sacred to Native Americans and a local environment that doesn’t discriminate among all types of people.
“We have to remember we’re not going to please everybody, we won’t please anyone,” she said. “I think if we act our of fear, what we fear will happen, so we just really need to remember that message.”