A Bishop’s Message To Legislators

On Feb. 7, three days after the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session convened in Carson City, LEAN hosted an informal open house luncheon for legislators, staff and church clergy and representatives from around the state.

The event, which was held in the Capitol Building, offered an opportunity for Grand Canyon and Sierra Pacific Synod members and clergy to meet with state assembly and senate members, offer their hopes for the new biennial session and express how their faith informs their interactions with government.

Rev. Deborah Hutterer, Bishop for the Grand Canyon Synod, gave an impassioned keynote address centered on why the ELCA’s published and nationally recognized Social Statements are at the center of LEAN’s efforts, represented personally in this year’s session by Advocate Bill Ledford.

Following is the text of Rev. Hutterer’s address.

Rev. Deborah Hutterer

A caveat to this talk today. I have been in my position for six months and the learning curve has been high. And I also come at this from a position of humility. There are some of you who know far more than I do and so if you hear something that is not right, please let me know.

It was late in the afternoon of December 23, 2010. My husband, 55 years old, had been diagnosed with ALS at the end of September, just three months earlier; he went to reach for the cribbage board, lost his balance and hit the hardwood floor.

He passed out, his head was bleeding. I called 911 and he was taken to the hospital. It was the first time either of us had ever spent Christmas Eve in a hospital. He was hospitalized for two weeks. The only way he could be discharged to come home was if I could find a hospital bed an electric wheelchair and 24-hour care. None of this was covered by insurance.

We weren’t sure what we were going to do as this disease had been progressing faster than either of us could possibly imagine. I am grateful to the ALS association who helped us with equipment we could have never been able to afford and yet was necessary. I am grateful for family and friends who helped fill in the round the clock support, so I could go to work and keep the health insurance.

While we were very fortunate to have health insurance, we knew that if he was unable to stay at home and had to go to a skilled care facility, depending on how long he needed to stay, we could lose everything that we had spent our lives working for. There were days we wondered what the future held and if our resources ran out.

We were one of many who worry about health care costs.

A pastor who serves in Las Vegas as a hospice chaplain shared some insights with me around this topic of end of life. He is daily mortified by the limitations placed on patients and families with low incomes to have to rely on Medicaid — or not being able to find beds in skilled care facilities because of the low allocation of resources to this program both federally and on the state-wide level.

Having a loved one with a terminal illness and the strain of coping with that loss is hard enough under any circumstances, but the added duress and uncertainty makes the experience worse.

I know far too many people who have felt the strain, confusion, and frustration of navigating our medical system and the resulting anger and guilt has inhibited people from finding the peace they need with the situation.

Lutheran pastors have first-hand experience with the lack of mental health resources for people with lower incomes. So often they must work with clients who have issues beyond the scope of what pastors can do in grief recovery and support.

Individuals who need access to mental health resources often face long wait times and poor service at public mental health centers. These resources need to be improved.

As a pastor in Las Vegas wrote: “All I have is the agony and frustration I’ve heard from many people about trying to get the help they need at difficult times. Working in a community organization that strives to do the right thing can feel incredibly lonely.”

Those who serve the church feel a sense of hopelessness and pain. I’m guessing that you feel asense a helplessness and pain as you see the system and know that reform is needed.

Healthcare is central to our well-being and our vital relationships. Access to healthcare helps us to live out our vocations in our family, work and community. Caring for our own health and the health of others expresses love for our neighbor and it is our responsibility for a just society.

In Nevada, love for neighbor and justice would be all people having access to quality and affordable healthcare in their communities through federally funded health centers, home delivered meals, Medicaid waivers and reimbursement rates.

Health care reform is but one of many issues before the Nevada Legislative body this session.

WHAT IS THE ELCA?

I am Bishop Deborah Hutterer. I was elected by our church body to serve in this role and I’m in my sixth month. For those of you who are new, perhaps you aware like I am about how much there is to learn. And getting to spend time with you is one my learnings.

Today I stand before you as a bishop who, like you, cares about our common good and our neighbors—especially our neighbors who do not have a voice or who can be easily overlooked. I represent Lutherans from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the Grand Canyon Sybnod that includes the Southern half of Nevada, all of Arizona and St. George, Utah. The Grand Canyon Synod represents about 100 worship communities, as well as Lutheran Social Services of Nevada.

There are 65 bishops in the United States. Bishop Mark Holmerud from Sierra Pacific Synod represents Lutheran churches in the northern half of Nevada—and has had the privilege to be with this esteemed body.

There are a few Lutheran brands. I am attached to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Evangelical” means “good news.” There are 3.5 million ELCA Lutherans in the United States. One thing that separates us from the other major Lutheran group, LCMS, is that the ELCA ordain women.

A MESSAGE FOR LEGISLATORS

From its inception, Lutherans have seen God active in the world. God’s activity includes government laws, good order, and the belief that Christians can serve in government roles. Government service to God, however you construe God, is service to neighbor. For that time in history it was startling because government was seen as something to be held at arms length, corrupt and irredeemable. ELCA sees your service as essential to serving neighbor.

I want to thank you for your tireless work in representing the people of Nevada and working for the common good.

Some of the pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who serve in Nevada are here today. Like me, they have met far too many children, women and men who don’t feel like they have a voice or access to this place of government, especially in the areas of health care reform, judicial reform and pay day lending. Many of our pastors and congregation members are advocates for systemic change; they also see the church as part of the community. In addition to worship, church doors are open to host community meals and provide education. One of our churches in Pahrump just started a Bible study in the detention center. There are some pastors who have been knocking on doors and inviting others to do the same to get out the vote—not telling people who to vote for but to encourage voting. They believe and support the good work you do on behalf of the people and see that participation in the process is essential. Lutherans Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada have been at this work for quite a few years now. Together you did some incredible work last year for anti-sex trafficking. Thank you.

FAITH AND THE SOCIAL CONTRACT

Many of our Nevada churches also partner with Lutheran Social Services of Nevada. This social service agency primarily serves in the Las Vegas area. Their mission is to express the love of Christ by serving and caring for people.

LSS-NV is a trusted grassroots nonprofit. Dedicated volunteers started the agency many years ago by providing food and clothing to our community members. It has since grown to become known for its diverse services. With a limited staff and many volunteers LSS-NV serve low- income, at-risk of homelessness, homeless, families with or without children, youth, veterans, people with disabilities, and senior citizens.

Since 1996, over 210,000 individuals have been cared for by the agency. One of their cutting edge services is Digi-Mart. It is an online grocery style food pantry, where individuals shop on line for bread, fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, dairy, and non-perishable food items. LSS offers classes to help them think more creatively about ingredients and eat healthier.

As a bishop I have a pastoral role and I am the leader of this faith community in the state. I am here to build a relationship through this opportunity.

Like me, you have been elected, but you have also called to this work to provide structure and safeguards for those who suffer. We need leaders like you who can focus on our neighbors who suffer from hunger, poverty and other ills.

From time to time people will tell me that I have a thankless job. From my perspective—it is this way for legislators at time where people are cynical and hardened about government. I can only imagine the challenge to represent all people in Nevada when there are many constituencies.

THE PAYDAY LENDING PROBLEM

One of the areas that affects many of your constituents is the payday lending industry. It has a wide reach and great impact on Nevada families, especially those in the poorest neighborhoods. Payday lending traps people in a vicious and downward spiraling debt cycle.

Did you there are more payday lending stores in Nevada than the number of McDonalds and Starbucks stores combined! They make money easy and accessible and individuals find themselves trapped.

If you needed money, where would you go? You might go to your family but I’ve discovered in my line of work that people would rather talk about their sex life than money. Money is so personal—many keep it secretive. Even in their relationships.

Mike B lives in Las Vegas. He is 48 years old and a gambler. He would cash his paycheck and then go to the casino. One day he lost his entire paycheck and knew he could not go home to his wife empty handed. As he considered his options—he had no friends or family that he could ask about this embarrassing situation. But he had driven by many pay day loan places. Rather than face the wrath of his wife, he made his first stop into payday loan store.

Showing his driver’s license, paystub and signing the paperwork he got his first $1,200. It was so easy. He had a great income so getting money was no problem. In fact he discovered that he could go to multiple pay day lending places and no one asked if he had any other paydays loans.

With high interest rates he learned the loans were not easy to pay off. He knew if he got home before his wife, she’d never see the mail. And he could keep his secret. As with most secrets, one day his wife got home before he did and in the mail was a notice for payment.

She thought this had to be wrong, so she called the company to find out what was going on. And it all came tumbling out. Mike says while he was embarrassed—he was a smart guy. Had a great job. Had a nice house, but he was trapped. His wife finding was a huge relief. He was caught in an endless cycle and did not know the way out.

Mike B. says matter of factly, “this won’t stop. The industry is too big.” In some ways we could agree this business does fill a purpose. However, these are also predatory business practices that victimize people.

So I advocate in support of the two Bill Draft Requests.

BRD 568 would enhance and enforce existing regulations on payday lenders that both lenders and people seeking loans seem to skirt around. One common problem is that a person, like Mike, get a payday loan and is unable to pay it back and will seek out a payday loan from another place to pay off the first and compounding their debt. This bill would make that nearly impossible to do.

BRD 621 would enact a 36% interest rate cap. This still may seem high, but 18 other states and DC have enacted as it stems from the Military Lending Act. This is a place where Arizona has passed legislation and set the interest cap at 36%. I advocate that Nevada follow suit.

CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM

If these two topics for reform weren’t enough on their own, there is also the criminal justice system. I don’t have much to say, but we all know it needs reform. Working together we can change systems for changes in prison re-entry.

I recently read that a panel of Nevada criminal justice leaders is forwarding to the Legislature a package of 25 recommendations that those in the know say could save the state $640 million in prison costs over the next decade if enacted.

The proposals came after the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute spent about six months poring over state data to pinpoint why Nevada’s prison population grew almost 700 percent since 1980, while the general population has grown by about 250 percent over that same period.

It’s not just a financial matter, it is a justice matter. I would urge any changes for reform be applied drug treatment, post-incarceration reentry services. Anything that could prevent crime and recidivism.

THE CHURCH AS CONSTITUENCY

The ELCA is an active church. We have many social statements that seek justice and care for those who can be overlooked. We invite you to visit with us on these issues. ELCA churches in this state are sources of expertise around hunger, poverty, human need and you can tap us as resources. We want to support you and your work. It has been a part of our history.

Every pastor I know became a pastor because they felt a call, they couldn’t not answer it despite all of the reasons why it makes sense to do something else. And, I’m guessing that is your experience. Despite the cynicism, and public mistrust and putting your lives out for all to judge, you couldn’t ignore the call to serve and to make your county or this state a better place to live. So thank you for letting me be here today. Thank you for your service. For your thoughtfulness. For weighing matters of public good and individual gain.

God does good through you, and we keep you in our prayers.

For Lutherans It’s ‘Us Too’

By Sheila Freed

At the end of September, the country was absorbed in a real-life soap opera, broadcast live from a hearing room in the U.S. Senate. The Brett Kavanaugh hearing was just the latest event in a year’s worth of controversy over sexual assault and harassment. The Me Too movement seemingly just happened last year. One might be surprised to know that the ELCA identified and addressed gender-based violence in 2015.

ELCA Social Messages are second in rank below the Social Statements, and are typically used when the church wants to speak out on an issue that needs immediate attention. Social Messages are adopted by the Church Council, and do not require the lengthy deliberation of a Social Statement. So the [churchwide] Church Council adopted a message on gender-based violence in late 2015.

The introductory paragraph says, “Gender-based violence is an ancient sin that for thousands of years has harmed countless women, children, and men. It is a sin that Christians need to recognize, understand, and confront, for our religious history also bears its stain.” The message then recounts a shocking story from Second Samuel, in which Amnon, King David’s firstborn son, rapes his half-sister Tamar. King David learns of it, but does nothing to punish Amnon, whom David loved and intended to succeed him as king. How many versions of this story have we all heard?

The message goes on to explore the ways we are all involved in gender based violence, which is defined as “physical, sexual, psychological, emotional, or other personal harm inflicted on someone for gender-based reasons.” Included are hurts some don’t think of as gender based violence, such as harassment, coercion, elder and child abuse, and pornography. The message notes that the factors contributing to gender based violence are deeply woven into society and our individual lives. It says we all share in the brokenness and judgment brought on by this sin. It points out that we are all survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders.

The message bluntly states, [Gender-based violence] “occurs in the church, in workplaces, the educational system, city streets, war, the military, and the health care system. It occurs, for example, by acquaintances, friends, strangers, caregivers, teachers, clergy, coaches, and work supervisors. Through this violence, someone creates or maintains power and control over someone else. God calls us to love. Gender-based violence is not love.”

The message goes on, “Acts of gender-based violence always involve sinful individual choices to exercise power and control. The choice to inflict violence is a personal responsibility.” . . . . “While individuals are culpable, social systems influence individuals’ actions. This church has proclaimed that God’s grace calls us not only to confront individual sin, but also to confront sin in social systems.” The message talks about how patriarchy and racism in our society and the church contribute to gender-based violence.

Advocacy is our response to God’s call to confront the sins in our social system. LEAN is already working to learn about the bills that will come up in the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session. We know of at least one Bill Draft Request (14-87) by Assemblyman Steve Yeager, about protecting rights of sexual assault victims. We will be watching this and other bills as more is known. However the Social Message makes clear that gender-based violence is more that criminal acts. The power relationships we all engage in and tacitly allow are sin, and we need God’s forgiveness and love to deal with it. It is Us Too.

The Sierra Pacific Synod, of which Northern Nevada’s ELCA congregations are a part, recently published a link in its newsletter to a call to action regarding the August 2019 nationwide Churchwide Assembly and the opportunities to add much-needed language to the church’s Social Statements. You can read it here, and please take a moment to watch this eye-opening video regarding the persistent obstacles and offensive language current and potential female ELCA pastors encounter in some congregations.

LEAN Advocates Become ‘Legislators’

By Sheila Freed

On August 7, Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada met at the Nevada State Senate for a role-play called ULegislate.  It was great fun, and in typical Lutheran fashion, the group questioned authority.

ULegislate is a learning experience in which participants play the roles of Senators and have floor debate on actual bills that passed in the 2017 Session.  On two of the three bills that were up for debate, LEAN voted the same way that the Legislature did.  However LEAN voted down the third, and the reason was quite Lutheran.  The bill, Senate Bill 322, requires every pupil in Nevada to pass a civics test before graduating high school.  This is a concept we can all support, and LEAN did.  However the bill has several exceptions, and the group did not like that.  We Lutherans embrace the “priesthood of all believers,” and take seriously the notion that all believers are equal before God.   So the majority voted no, in hopes that the bill would return in a more acceptable form.

Participants learned the rigid protocol of Senate business, and that much of the legislative process happens not on the chamber floors, but in committee meetings and legislators’ offices.  Here is where advocacy comes in.  Our paid Advocate meets with legislators individually to present the moral arguments on selected bills, with particular reference to the ELCA Social Statements.  Individual parishioners can do the same, either in person or by email, phone call, or letter.  The LEAN Advocate also testifies at committee hearings on selected bills.

The Senate staff was helpful and accommodating. They even made a video for us!

It’s great fun to watch, for several reasons.  First, you will learn some facts you may not know, and hear some arguments for and against the bills that you might not have thought of.  You will hear a bit of Bob Marley quoted! You will see people you know and those you don’t, so a roster of participants is included here.  LEAN is excited that people came from Las Vegas to participate, and that new people from both north and south were there.

“Senators” participating in ULegislate were:  Chad Adamik, Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Family, Carson City; John Biggs, Pastor of Saved by Grace, Pahrump; Veralyn Combs, member of Holy Cross, Reno; Ed Cotton, member of Community Lutheran, Las Vegas; Diane Drach-Meinel, Pastor of Christ the Servant, Las Vegas; Sonja Dresbach, member of Faith, Reno; Sheila Freed, member of Good Shepherd, Reno; Timothy Johnson, member of Lord of Mercy, Sparks; Bill Ledford, LEAN Advocate; Diane Ludlow, member of Holy Cross, Reno; Shaun O’Reilly, pastoral intern at Lord of Mercy, Sparks, Mike Patterson, retired pastor, Gift of Grace, Fernley; Barbara Peterson, member of Holy Cross, Sparks; Thomas Rasmussen, member of Saved by Grace, Pahrump; Pennie Sheaffer, member of Lord of Mercy, Sparks; Scott Trevithick, Pastor, Holy Cross, Reno; Ashlynne Valdez, member of Lord of Mercy, Sparks; Vic Williams, member of Good Shepherd, Reno.  “Secretary” of the Senate was Allan Smith, former LEAN Advocate.  If you want to learn more about LEAN, please connect with one of these folks.

ULegislate was just the first in a line-up of events designed to engage parishioners as LEAN moves into the 120-day 2019 Legislative Session.  Watch for “Pencils for Pupils” in January, followed by the LEAN kickoff lunch on February 4, the session’s first day.

How Christians Can Help Save Democracy

By Sheila Freed

The research branch of The Economist magazine has for the past several years published an annual report about the health of democracies around the world.  In 2017 they downgraded the United States from “full democracy” to “flawed democracy.”   We knew that, one might say, and it’s certainly true that most Americans report dissatisfaction with the way our government functions.  The Economist uses statistics for its analysis, and has documented declining faith in the functioning of government and a significant drop in political participation.  In vernacular terms, we can say we think government is beyond fixing, so we’re dropping out.  Unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong approach because it allows the worst abuses of government to grow.

I was stunned recently to hear Professor Fred Lokken, chair of the Political Science Department at Truckee Meadows Community College, say that he tells his young students, “You will live under facism in your lifetime.”  That is a really grim prediction, and it derives in part from what he described as the lack of an engaged electorate.  This is true at all age levels, but especially students.  Under-30 people are often very good at protesting and Tweeting, but the majority do not vote or register to vote.

The ELCA Social Statement “The Church in Society:  A Lutheran Perspective” speaks directly to the danger of losing our freedom due to apathy.  The Statement says, “The witness of this church in society flows from its identity as a community that lives from and for the Gospel.  . . . The Gospel does not take the church out of the world but instead calls it to affirm and enter more deeply into the world.  . . . This church must participate in social structures critically, for sin is also at work in the world.  . . . This church, therefore, must unite realism and vision, wisdom and courage in its social responsibility.  It needs constantly to discern when to support and when to confront society’s cultural patterns, values, and powers.”

The statement names many ways we Christians carry out our baptismal vocation in daily life, and then says, “Christians also exercise their calling by being wise and active citizens.”  The statement closes with several Commitments on behalf of the entire church, including:  “Promote sound, critical and creative citizenship and public service among its members,” and “Expect its pastors, bishops and lay leaders to pray for and to exhort those in positions of authority on the basis of God’s prophetic Word.”

The ELCA’s position clearly is that staying on the sidelines is not an option.  Democracy doesn’t just happen, and we Christians, who believe all are equal, must work through public institutions to make equality the hallmark of our democracy.  Lutheran Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada exists to carry out both the commitments.  We work to keep people informed on issues Nevada Lutherans care about, and we have an Advocate at the Legislature to do the prophetic exhortation.  Our name says it all.

The next Nevada legislative session will begin in February 2019, and we expect the topics most in need of attention will be shortage of affordable health care, shortage of affordable housing, and education.  We will share information on these and other issues as we learn it.  However in the meantime, LEAN will be offering an exciting learning experience.  This will be a role-playing time at the Nevada Legislature, in which people can experience firsthand the give-and-take required to pass legislation.  More details will be published soon.

ELCA Bishop Eaton Responds To Alleged Trump Comments

Editor’s Note: On Friday, Jan. 12, ELCA Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton issued the following statement in response to President Donald Trump’s alleged comments regarding immigrants from certain nations the previous day:

I am very disappointed and disturbed by the remarks that President Donald Trump is reported to have said yesterday – and confirmed by others who were present – in the context of a discussion about immigration.

Regardless of the context, references of that kind have no place in our civil discourse and, if true, reflect racist attitudes unbecoming any of us, but especially a president of the United States.

Instead, we should be fostering a world where each of us sees every person – regardless of race, origin, ethnicity, gender or economic status – in the image of God and, therefore, worthy of dignity and respect. Our church has relationships and partnerships with Christians and others on six continents. These are our sisters and brothers. We strive to accompany them and they us, across boundaries and cognizant of our diversity, yet all seeking the common good. In working for a healed, reconciled and just world, we all should faithfully strive to participate in God’s reconciling work, which prioritizes disenfranchised, vulnerable and displaced people in our communities and the world, bearing witness – each of us – to the love of God in Jesus Christ.

“We have before us the glorious opportunity to inject a new dimension of love into the veins of our civilization” —Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

God’s peace,

Elizabeth A. Eaton
ELCA Presiding Bishop