Church Chat: Brillhart on the church and community action
Sligo Church, Columbia Union College work with other faith groups to bring about change
Rebecca Brillhart, a pastor at Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church, says Adventists can improve lives by uniting with other faith groups to bring about change. [Taashi Rowe/ANN]
Brillhart works with members from the church as well as faculty, staff and students of Adventist-owned Columbia Union College, including Otis Coutsoumpos, campus chaplain. [Taashi Rowe/ANN]
While soup kitchens and clothing drives are hallmarks of community outreach for many churches, Pastor Rebecca Brillhart says teaming up with other faith groups can do more to improve lives.
Brillhart, discipleship pastor for the Sligo Seventh-day Adventist Church in Takoma Park, Maryland, United States, also serves as co-chair of Action In Montgomery, a group of 29 interfaith congregations using their united voice to improve the lives of the people in Montgomery County.
The group claims that affordable housing, all-day kindergarten, tax reform of fare policies for taxi drivers, and funding to upgrade community centers are results of its working with government leaders. Action in Montgomery meets quarterly with about 200 congregational representatives. Brillhart and about 30 members of Sligo Church and the nearby Columbia Union College work with 30,000 believers belonging to Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim associations to petition the county's civic leaders.
Sligo, a congregation of more than 2,900 members, joined Action in Montgomery in 2003 and is the only Adventist church in the organization.
Brillhart recently sat down with Adventist News Network to talk about how teaming up with other faith groups to help the community has affected the church's ministry.
The following are excerpts from that conversation:
Adventist News Network: You say Action in Montgomery works for social justice. What does that involve?
Rebecca Brillhart: When we talk about social justice we talk about going beneath good programs that provide food, shelter and clothing on a temporary basis to address the systemic problems that really plague our citizens.
ANN: What kind of role does Sligo Church play in addressing these problems?
Brillhart: We talk to our members about what is getting in the way of peace in their homes. Maybe it's where they live, maybe there is an inability to find a place to live, maybe it's the quality of security for their children or maybe there is a lack of recreational things for children to do. We are identifying issues and problems that our own members experience in order to have empathy and passion to use our voices and partner with others and find a solution.
ANN: What is one of the group's biggest victories?
Brillhart: One major concern is a lack of affordable housing. We are holding our county executive and civic leaders accountable because to be a citizen who is firefighter, a nurse or a teacher in the county you cannot afford to live and buy a home in Montgomery County because it too expensive. Frankly we think that's immoral. We would like people who serve the county to be able to live here. These people are driving sometimes out of state to find affordable housing. It causes a lot of problems in people's families when parents are away and taking second jobs. This last fall on October 18 the coalition met with the county executive and he made a historic decision. He said he would support these affordable housing initiatives that we put forward. Historically that would mean to replace one-on-one the housing that is really hemorrhaging from the county as old housing is being destroyed and new housing isn't replaced for workforce and low-income people.
ANN: What are some of the unexpected results of doing this work?
Brillhart: Some people have never thought of using their voices or experiences to do ministry in our community. Communicating with others and partnering with others helps people know that they can have a part in alleviating some of the things that are causing problems in their lives and the lives of others.
ANN: Can the work that you are doing be considered political?
Brillhart: In bringing those concerns to civic leaders we definitely are being political because we are asking civic leaders to re-imagine how they will use the resources that are from taxes ? and perhaps rearrange personnel to address these important needs. But, it is not partisan. It's not an effort to support any particular candidate. The issues involve things that are holding people back from a life that provides basic needs [such as] housing, food, equitable education. These are the things that we have a concern about.
ANN: What are some of the challenges in doing work like this?
Brillhart: The greatest challenge that I see as a pastor and a leader is to keep our focus clear that Christ calls us to meet the needs around us.
ANN: What has been church members' reaction to Sligo's involvement in something that is not wholly Adventist?
Brillhart: Very positive. Since we have been involved we are very well known [among church members]. When we have major actions -- when we are asking leaders to be accountable -- Sligo Church is the church in the coalition that really turns out the numbers -- in the hundreds -- to come and support action.
ANN: Adventist churches are well known for having a system of education, health and community services. Why work outside that system?
Brillhart: One of things I love about being an Adventist is the openness to building bridges of hope. We want to tell people ? that we are a people of hope because we believe in a Savior that is going to make the things that are wrong with our world right but we have a responsibility as Adventists in the here and now. And the only way to build bridges, the only way we are going to be a credible enterprise is if we are doing all we can to partner with people who may know even better than we do how to come together in consensus on things we can agree on and address some of these systemic issues that are plaguing our society.
ANN: How has being involved in an organization like this affected your concept of ministry?
Brillhart: I have been so energized by being with clergy and members and civic leaders who want to lift up Christ's mandate to free the oppressed and to alleviate the concerns of the broken hearted. It has just touched me to my very core and I will never be satisfied in ministry without looking outside of the church as well as inside in terms of ministry.
ANN: Are you saying that Adventists are too internally focused?
Brillhart: I think we are in general. It is truly my desire that more [Adventist] churches in our location will take notice of some of these associations, to be less fearful and know we can play an integral role because of the message that we have, because of the hope that we have. I think it's not just a nice thing to think about but it is a critical thing to do to be credible as Christians in today's society.
ANN: Why don't more Adventists engage in more partnerships like Action in Montgomery?
Brillhart: [One] fear is that we are going to get sucked into something that is decidedly not Adventist. But in a coalition like this you are not asked to support things that you can't support. Power is necessary to make change. But the power that we have is to use our voice to the glory of God and push forward mandates that Christ laid down for His own ministry. We have to be aware of where the hurt is around us and to be available to address it.
ANN: Does theology come up at these meetings?
Brillhart: It comes up all the time because I'm partnering with clergy from other churches. One of the great delights of this experience is to think and reflect theologically together about why we are doing what we are doing. That I've been asked to lead the group is confirmation that we are needed around some of these tables to do this important work.
ANN: What is the organization's plan for the future?
Brillhart: We will continue to focus on affordable housing and community centers for our youth. Nothing we do is quick; everything we do is long term. Even with the October 18 success for affordable housing we will still be doing follow-ups.
"Source: Adventist News Network"
P.S. Bolds and Highlights added for emphasis. Blogman.