Should The Episcopal Church be involved in politics? Spend some time with the Rev. Wendy Abrahamson in the halls of Iowa government and she might convince you the answer is yes, when she’s not busy persuading state lawmakers to listen to the church.
In addition to her primary calling as rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grinnell, Iowa, Abrahamson is a registered lobbyist – unpaid, nonpartisan and candidly Christian.
This is her fourth year advocating, on behalf of the Diocese of Iowa and Bishop Alan Scarfe, for and against legislation that intersects with policies approved by The Episcopal Church’s General Convention and the Iowa Diocesan Convention. “Lobbyist” may strike some as an unusual label for a priest, but that is the state’s term for the 653 people registered to do what Abrahamson does. She embraces the label.
“In the United States, the distribution of good things is often regulated by legislation,” Abrahamson said. While congregations do good work alleviating the symptoms of inequality through ministries like soup kitchens and clothing drives, she said, “I think legislation is one way to get at the source of some of the problems. That’s why I think it matters that the church is there.”
The church was there at the state Capitol in Des Moines on March 3, when Abrahamson brought together more than a dozen Episcopalians for an afternoon event dubbed “Episcopalians on the Hill,” the diocese’s third annual lobbying day. Participants, some wearing clergy collars, came to meet with lawmakers and to learn how constituents like them can amplify their voices in representative government.
Being a registered lobbyist primarily allows Abrahamson to update the state’s lobbyist database with the Diocese of Iowa’s official positions on certain bills, but Episcopalians in the state don’t need to be lobbyists to talk to their elected officials. They just need to show up and ask.
Some brought deep experience in the legislative process. The Rev. Jeanie Smith, a deacon at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in West Des Moines, once worked in Washington, D.C., as a congressional lobbyist on behalf of an airport trade association. And the Rev. Marc Haack, a deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church in Iowa City, recently joined Abrahamson on Iowa’s list of registered lobbyists, drawing on his experience 18 years ago when he lobbied for Iowa school administrators.
No experience is necessary, however. Abigail Livingood, a parishioner at St. Timothy’s, said she had visited the Capitol before but never for something like this. Even so, she had nominally more experience than the Rev. Stephen Benitz, priest-in-charge at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Mason City.
“I’ve never been in the building,” Benitz said.
Even Abrahamson admitted she’s “still learning the ropes,” and there are so many bills to follow. Through her deliberations with Scarfe, they have narrowed their focus to a handful of core areas that reflect the diocese’s priorities: gun safety, immigration, the environment, economic equality, LGBTQ rights and mental health care. Abrahamson sometimes reaches out to The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government Relations in Washington for further clarification of the church’s policy positions.
“She doesn’t lobby her own opinion,” Scarfe, who had joined the group at the Capitol, told Episcopal News Service during a break. “She lobbies issues that we know there is some track record” of Episcopal engagement on.
Like Abrahamson, Scarfe readily justifies the church’s political advocacy, which he says is a calling made plain in Episcopalians’ Baptismal Covenant – to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself,” and to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.”
“You cannot be a person of justice and of truth and uphold the dignity of every human being without engaging yourself at some point in the political life of the human race,” Scarfe said. “That’s where the struggle, the collective struggle, happens.”
He also underscored that Christian advocacy is not partisan, and Episcopalians from both major parties have represented Iowans at the Capitol. He credited Maggie Tinsman, a Republican who served as a state senator until 2007, with encouraging the diocese to become more active in the legislative process. Tinsman, a past deputy to The Episcopal Church’s General Convention, was particularly supportive of legislation curbing human trafficking.
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Source: Episcopal News Service