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Bridging the religious divide: Ministering to the poor at home and abroad

Part two of three

By Rachel Buller/For CU-CitizenAccess -- For many years, Champaign-Urbana residents of diverse religious backgrounds have come together to help those struggling with poverty – locally and abroad.

The idea that religious and political change can be facilitated through collaboration and discussion in informal settings, outside formal houses of worship or religious centers, is slowly gaining momentum. Rather than focusing on theological differences, people of faith are finding ways to solve problems of mutual concern, including environmental, political, economic and social issues.

There are more than 300 religions in the United States alone, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives. A recent study from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life shows that the Midwest most closely resembles the overall religious makeup of the U.S. population. In Champaign-Urbana, there are more than 50 different churches and religious centers.

In recent years, these local religious groups have been contending with rising poverty. In 2010, about 20 percent of Champaign County residents – one in five individuals – lived below the poverty line, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau. That was up from 16 percent in 10 years earlier.

The Rev. Tom Royer, former pastor at St. Mary Catholic Church in Champaign, is one of several local religious leaders who have worked to combat that trend.

“I see the church as a big tent,” Royer said. “A tent doesn’t have doors that close or lock. People look for a spiritual home. They should look around the big tent to find that community that seems to meet their needs. That’s my sense about the church.”

St. Mary Church may be a spiritual haven for parishioners, but the building has also been a haven for the homeless in Champaign-Urbana. In 2009, the church’s grounds became a temporary home for Safe Haven, a group of homeless people who formed a self-governing community to serve as an alternative to sleeping on the streets.

After staying at St. Mary for 100 days, first in tents and then inside the church’s parish center, many of Safe Haven’s members moved to Restoration Urban Ministries, a similar religious program that houses the homeless and teaches them job and life skills.

While Safe Haven has since disbanded, several churches, representing a variety of denominations, came together to support the group as it tried to establish itself. (Read more about Safe Haven here and here.)

Royer, who recently retired after 38 years of ministry at St. Mary Church, is far from done serving the community – locally or abroad.

Several years ago, St. Mary Church established a relationship with a small town in the mountains of El Salvador called Calavera, five settlements in one of the most impoverished areas of the country. Calavera is in the northern section of the Department of Morazon, next to the Honduran border. St. Mary began its sister relationship with Calavera in 1989.

“We decided that we’d like to have a sister relationship with some church or some little town,” Royer said. “That has been a very significant experience for us. I feel much more at home with what is called ‘the People’s Church,’ or the church of the poor, than I do with anyone else.”

Since 1992, the parish has sent a delegation of four to six people each year to Calavera. The delegations are designed to establish ties where there is no electricity or running water near the Honduran border.

The trips, which don’t just include Catholics, began out of a greater outreach called the Sanctuary Movement. “Sanctuary” is the age-old tradition of providing safety within a church.

The movement insisted the Reagan administration follow the 1980 Refugee Act, which gave temporary status to refugees and displaced persons in South America. As a response, five local churches – including St. Mary’s, the Disciples Foundation, the McKinley Foundation, United Church of Christ and the Urbana Friends Church – formed a committee to fund work at the border and in El Salvador. These efforts lasted from 1983 to 1990.

“The war in El Salvador was a truly tragic, savage upheaval that was consuming lives and tearing the place apart,” Royer said.

Currently, professional medical help is one of the greatest needs in Calavera. Royer helped doctors and nurse practitioners set up a health clinic at each of the five settlements. Provena Covenant Medical Center provided the church with medicine for the delegations and assisted in establishing a nutrition program.

“When we stick our head above our own busyness, we begin to notice beyond our own walls,” he said. “Modern life is hectic. People don’t have a chance to sit and think and feel. You let people know about people’s stories and they’ll respond.”

The parish’s most recent delegation addressed serious crop failure in El Salvador, a result of excessive rain generated from hurricanes that disrupted South America last year.

Nevertheless, Royer said, some faith communities are doing much more.

“There’s a lot to be done,” he said.

¨ Copyright 2011 CU-CitizenAccess.