Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Leader Raises Voice for the Poor

Visits Parishioners of Little Egg Harbor and Tuckerton
Aug 05, 2016
Photo by: Pat Johnson The Rev. Sara Lilja (right), director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey, and Southern Ocean ZONTA President Jeanne Ellis meet with church members on July 20.

The Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey represents the positions of the Lutheran and Episcopal churches on the issues of justice and social policy. LEAMNJ serves to shape and influence public policy in the state and in local communities as it affects and impacts vulnerable populations.

On July 20, the Rev. Sara Lilja, director of LEAMNJ, visited the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Little Egg Harbor to explain the nonprofit’s mission. The ministers and parishioners of the Church of the Holy Spirit Episcopal in Tuckerton also joined the meeting, and both churches made and enjoyed a potluck dinner beforehand.

LEAMNJ had been active in the past but for whatever reason, it had become inactive. With the appointment of Lilja, the advocacy group has revived as of May 1. Rev. Lilja represents 80,000 Lutherans and Episcopalians at the Office of Government Ministries when she is in Washington, D.C. or at the statehouse in Trenton.

“There are four key areas of interest,” said Lilja. “Striving for justice and peace throughout the world; economic justice for the unemployed and income challenged; immigration justice and criminal justice and violence prevention in the areas of human trafficking; and building relationships of trust in our communities.

“We are available to all our parishioners if there is a particular issue before the state Legislature that needs the church to speak on.”

Lilja said the advocacy group had recently been influential in getting TANIF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formally called welfare) reform through the Legislature but Gov. Chris Christie had vetoed it.

“TANIF allows $425 a month, an amount that hasn’t changed in 29 years and keeps people in deep poverty – particularly the homeless with a psychiatric disorder, homeless veterans and senior citizens: the poorest of the poor,” said Lilja. “The Legislature would increase the benefit over a period of three years and raise the income limit to $10,000 a year rather than the current $7,000 a year. Can you imagine anyone living in New Jersey on $7,000, or even $10,000, a year?”

Although the governor vetoed the bill, Lilja said it would be reconsidered again.

Other ministries in the statehouse join Lutherans and Episcopalians. “We put a coalition together with rabbis, emons (Muslim), Roman Catholics and Baptists. We invited the legislation leadership to a breakfast, and they thought it would be a softball government meeting. They were shocked that there were all these bishops there who voiced their clear concerns on national issues. These faith-leaders are engaged in the world, and bring that to the table. We are not lobbyists. We have a commitment in faith, a baptismal (Christian) covenant to care for one another.

“It seems our government is glad to forget about the poor, unless people of God make a stand. We need to care for all our citizens in New Jersey.”

The coalition and LEAMNJ is nonpartisan, said Lilja. “We are not about being Democrats or Republicans. We encourage people to live their faith out loud. Yes, we make prayers for the poor, but what else are we doing?

“How come wages aren’t enough to keep people from becoming homeless? Why are people paying more than 50 percent of their income on rent? In the Trenton soup kitchen, they have an express line for people who have to go back to work. This is economic injustice – people working 40 hours a week have to go to a soup kitchen to eat.

“That’s the reality. But every county is different. Because of something called home rule, we have 556 municipalities in New Jersey and 624 school districts.

“Another program we are engaged in is “Breakfast After the Bell,” where children get something to eat in the morning in their classroom – not just the poor children, because it stigmatizes them. Everyone gets a choice of cereal or fruit. It’s not steak and eggs but it’s something, and it can make an impact on children’s lives.”

Lilja said there are studies that show school children can’t learn when they are hungry, and that also leads to discipline problems.

“Hunger drives the achievement gap,” she said.

Jeanne Ellis of Southern Ocean ZONTA, a women’s charity organization, asked if Lilja knew how effective letters to government leaders were.

Lilja said 20 letters from constituents gets an issue before a busy legislator. “But send it to their home office, not Washington, D.C. Every letter to Washington legislators and the President’s office is now screened for Anthrax and that takes two to three weeks.”

— Pat Johnson

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