The Power of the People: 2015 Parliament of World Religions

If I’ve learned one thing over these many years of working on social justice issues it’s that no one person holds the solution. It’s the power of people – the more diverse the better – that forces change. In the blog post below, our partner – and friend – Sandy Whidley from Associated Ministries writes about  her “epiphany of sorts” at The Parliament of World Religions.

Hey Sandy, I’m in!

-Lisa Gustaveson, Program Manager

Spiritual Expansion: A Life-Changing Conference

Sandy Windley and Tibetan Buddhist Monks of Drepung Gomang Monastery

Sandy Windley with Tibetan Buddhist Monks of Drepung Gomang Monastery

By Sandy Windley, originally published on 11/13/15 by Associated Ministries

10,000 people representing 80 countries and 50 faith traditions…all under one roof for five days (five days of sheer bliss for me!).  The Parliament of World Religions holds its interfaith conference once every 6 years or so, this years’ gathering being held in Salt Lake City.  Their mission:  “The Parliament of the World’s Religions was created to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.”  Over the course of the conference, people of faith from all corners of the globe discussed and explored topics around Income Inequality, War/Hate/Violence, Climate Change and Emerging Leaders.  This conference included the first ever Inaugural Women’s Assembly, presenting speakers and dialogues around women’s issues around the globe.AdobeStock_42684509-[Converted]

Speakers, presentations and conversations in the hallways and over langar lunch all pointed to one question:  how can people of faith create the change that is needed in the world, working TOGETHER to achieve better and sustainable living for all beings on the planet?  The earth and the beings living on it are at a crucial point in time.  Change must happen, and people have to work together, in harmony, to bring change to fruition.

Being in community with 10,000 diverse peoples over the course of five days, a moment arrived (an epiphany of sorts) when I realized with all my heart that it was true…we really could do this.  We really could stand arm in arm, differences embraced, and stand up as one people to do what is right and imperative.  The power of an individual’s good intention and action is amazing, but standing together, bringing our unique perspectives and energies, now that is where the momentum for global change lives.  Start at home in your local communities, embracing all diversity and faith traditions, and expand that love and momentum outward.

To be among 10,000 people from 80 countries and 50 faith traditions, and to feel the amount of love between people and their willingness and desire to learn more about one another and how our traditions can work together to create a better world…words can’t even explain it.  Eutopia…that’s what comes to mind.  I received a little piece, a little insight, into what this world could be like.  That it’s do-able.  Really do-able.  With work, persistence, truth, honor…and faith.  I’m in.  Are you?

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Making Change through Community: An Organizer’s Story

Our guest blogger Julia Moen, an organizer for The Sound Alliance, is working to inform the community about King County’s Proposition 1 or “Best Starts for Kids”  which aims to improve the health and well-being of children, youth, families, and communities in King County by investing in prevention and early intervention.

Julia shares how her personal experience of supportive communities led her to become a community organizer and speaks to the importance of building relational trust and uniting across our various institutional and social divisions to call out for change. 

Contact Julia with any questions about Best Starts for Kids:

Julia Moen
Organizer, Sound Alliance

Making Change through Community

 By Julia Moen

Throughout my life the communities I have been a part of offered me support, challenged me to grow, and shaped my identity.

17585334183_74a145c884_oWhen I was about nine years old, my mom got really sick and no one could figure out what was wrong. It turned out that something inside her ear was upsetting her balance. She ended up hospitalized for almost a month and spent about six months after recovering with a walker. Two of my aunts flew to Texas to support us, but because we lived far away from extended family, it was our church community that offered the most day-to-day support. During the months of my mom’s recovery, the small group of women from my mom’s spirituality group provided my family material support, bringing food and carting me around to school and various activities.

As I grew up, our church community also offered me the safe space I needed to grow and question. For most of my childhood I attended my mom’s Wednesday night spirituality group, often bringing toys and books and playing quietly (and sometimes not-so-quietly) in the corner. At the same time I was empowered to think deeply about my own faith identity, to ask questions, and to make my own decisions about what living out my Catholic faith would mean.

During high school, I became even more involved in my church and began participating in a yearly retreat that created a tight-knit group of teens. High school was a vulnerable time for many of us and we supported one another through mundane drama and teenage angst as well as heavy personal experiences and challenges. Some of my best friends and deepest relationships came from this group.

These are just some of the communities I have been blessed to have been a part of. Other communities in my life have also supported me emotionally and materially and allowed me to be in communion with people who knew to hold and encourage me when I needed. My communities have challenged to be my best self.

Having a deep respect for community building, and having learned what people can accomplish when they work together drove me to my current work as an organizer with the Sound Alliance. The Sound Alliance serves as a vehicle for 30 faith, labor, education, and community organizations to act together in the public arena for the Common Good. Through this work, I have reflected on the relationships and trust I experienced in various communities in my life and have seen how that “relational trust” can be cultivated across diverse institutions. It is rewarding to build relationships and a sense of community on a broad level where we are also building power to take action. I have learned that when people come together, bringing their own unique experiences and institutional values and sharing with one another, every-day people can create meaningful change.

The Alliance is non-partisan and multi-issue and the issues we take on come from the stories, experiences, and concerns of our members. As an Alliance, we work on issues that cut across our institutions. When we did a listening campaign in January—holding conversations after church, in cottage meetings held in peoples’ homes, union halls, and classrooms—we heard issues around mental health, homelessness, barriers to kids’ ability to learn and reach their full potential in classrooms, and access to health care.

When we are isolated in our own communities, and especially when isolated outside of community, it can be difficult to imagine changing these immense problems. As an Alliance, our leaders come together to research and take action in concrete and winnable ways. Together we have immense power, and together we can encourage one another to have hope.

Our listening and research led to our current work around Best Starts for Kids. University students, faith leaders, school teachers, and union members are teaming up to have conversations in churches, schools, and unions about the powerful impact we believe this levy can have. It has been inspiring to hear so many peoples’ stories about how they have been touched by the challenges that this levy will put money toward preventing and alleviating, such as household mental illness and substance abuse, chronic disease, incarceration and homelessness.

Our members come together in their own communities—churches, unions, community organizations—and then build community across these institutions. By building this power, member institutions can work to change the issues they care deeply about.  

If you are interested in learning more about the Sound Alliance, or in hosting a briefing about Best Starts for Kids, contact me!

Photo/Art Credit (Blog Header): Mia Smith

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Domestic Violence, Homelessness and the Church

By Lani Kallstrom, founder of Christian Coalition for Safe Families

Christian Coalition for Safe Families (CCSF) formed in early 2011, bringing together advocates, therapists, professionals in the criminal justice system, survivors of violence, pastors, and interested parties who are committed to the goal of raising awareness about Domestic Abuse in the Body of Christ.

In her post below, Lani reminds us, as people of faith, we are often the first responders to the crisis of domestic violence. She gives us concrete steps we should take to be ready to serve when violence strikes a family in our congregation.

The faith community – that is, the church – can do a great deal to help families avoid the all-too-common consequences of domestic violence: destruction of the family unit, housing instability and homelessness.

For families in domestic violence crisis, the faith community needs to be a place of safety, understanding, support, guidance, and resources that will help heal the problem, and certainly not add condemnation, judgment or poor advice to an already devastating situation.

To adequately respond to the needs of their congregation, faith community members and leaders should question and reflect on how they deal with domestic violence situations, asking questions of their community such as:

  • When a family in crisis brings their brokenness into the church leader’s office asking for help, is the church leader prepared to respond appropriately?
  • Is the church leader afraid to deal with the messiness of relationships?
  • Does the church leader have knowledge of community resources for the many needs that may present (shelter, food, clothing, bills, healthcare, counseling, DV advocates, support groups)?
  • Does the church leader understand the wisdom that when a couple is suspected to be in a domestic abuse situation, that church leader should never counsel the adults together?
  • Is the leader confident and wise enough to encourage separation, if necessary, to allow for safety and a period of healing?

Or does the church leader pull out the partial scripture “God hates divorce” (Malachi 2:16) or “Wives, submit to your husbands” (Ephesians 5:22) and send the couple home with an admonishment to work harder on their marriage?  (Can you imagine how damaging it is to be sent home feeling like you are the problem, guessing that there must be a secret formula that will end the abuse, without having been given any insight or clarity about what is actually going on?)

And the children don’t miss a beat. 

They see it all; they hear it all. Even if the children aren’t home or are “asleep,” they know.  So they often become disillusioned by the church that won’t help, the church that didn’t help.  Or they may wonder, who is this God who is supposed to be their “father in heaven”?  Do all fathers act like their earthly father – even their heavenly father?  And why would God allow the abuse to continue? Why would their pastor allow it to continue?

So, how can the church help to strengthen the family? Church leaders and all members of the congregation need to take some important steps:

1)     As a church staff, learn about domestic abuse – what it is, in all its nuances, and what it is not. Visit to find out more.

2)      Learn what resources are available in your community; keep a list of resources on hand. Download the King County Domestic Violence Handbook, “Why does she stay?,” “Symptoms of Abuse,” “Responding to Domestic Violence,” and other resources at Visit the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website at to find resources as a survivor, advocate or someone currently in crisis.

I will commit to using my voice to advocate (hand from NCSO)

3)    Take a stand against domestic abuse and advocate! Talk to your neighbors, friends and family, members of your faith community, and use social media and take part in awareness campaigns to advocate. The Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence’s website is a great place to get ideas and start supporting survivors and those experiencing abuse right now.

4)    Address the issue of domestic abuse with confidence and authority from the pulpit. The church pulpit is often the place where society’s struggles are addressed, and most churches talk about God, His values, His character, and His desires for His people.  God absolutely does not want & never condones abuse in families. However, very few sermons directly address the issue of domestic violence. And when family relationships start to deteriorate, many churches don’t know what to say or do to help the families.

When a church leader addresses DV from the pulpit, several things happen.  When the abuser hears the message, the abuser begins to understand that he cannot use scripture or hide behind scripture to abuse.  He hears that the church leadership is wise to his tactics of abuse and that the church DOES know how to respond to the abuse.  When the victim hears the message, the victim hears that the church is a safe place to seek help, that she or he will be believed and that there are resources to help her or him.  This gives the victim HOPE.

Most importantly, the faith community can respond with wisdom, compassion and resources to families in domestic abuse situations.  This may sound like a straightforward fix, and yet it may take generations to heal the wounds and trauma of abuse. Even still, by addressing domestic violence openly, by providing a safe space and support to families before they break apart in crisis and become homeless, and by supporting those survivors who have lost their homes with counseling and financial support, the church can go a long way to help heal the problem of homelessness.

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Walking In Their Footsteps: A poverty simulation’s call to solidarity


Two participants assess their family’s resources and try to plan next steps. When pushed into “survival mode”, people living in poverty often experience a toxic stress that can lead to poor decision-making,

Participating in a Poverty Simulation Workshop can be emotionally draining and surprisingly stressful. Living a simulated month in poverty means experiencing the feelings of inadequacy and anxiety that come from not being able to provide for your family, secure necessary resources and services, or cope with and plan for life’s challenges. Justin Almeida, a student in the chaplaincy track of the School of Theology & Ministry’s M.Div program, recently encountered some of these troubling feelings and experiences from “the other side of the table” as a volunteer in a poverty workshop for JustFaith graduates. He reflects on the experience below.

SU’s Faith & Family Homelessness Project team has to date facilitated or helped facilitate 8 Poverty Simulation Workshops with such various partners as the Muslim Association of Puget Sound, Tacoma Housing Authority, Puyallup Church of the Nazarene, and many more. (For more information about what the workshop consists of, read the “About” section at the end of this post.)

Just-Faith-Poverty-Workshop---Bank and Supermarket

Waiting in line… People in poverty often spend a good portion of their time shuttling from agency to agency, trying to get services and resources that may or may not be available.

By Justin Almeida

I’ve never personally experienced poverty. It’s an obstacle that inherently separates me from people living on the margins. I’d like to think I’m in solidarity with the poor because of the way I vote, the money I donate and the time I volunteer. I’ve built houses in Mexico, volunteered at food banks, and even served two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Romania. I’ve spoken with people living with dirt floors and tin roofs and have shared meals with families with no running water or electricity. I even work at a peace and justice non-profit organization. But I’ve never lived on the margins.

Eviction notice - poverty simulation

Some families are evicted from their homes over the course of the simulation.

Which is why participation in the poverty simulation offered by Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry made a difference. It brought me one step closer to personally understanding the stigma, barriers, and hurdles people on the margins face on a daily basis just to have access to food, shelter and healthcare. I was reminded that our “welfare” system is a punitive one, punishing people for needing help.

I played a small part; a day care provider. However, I was forced to turn people away because of overcrowding, funding, and health issues. Participants needed a safe place for their children in order to go to work and pay their bills. I wasn’t able to help everybody, even though I wanted to. I watched as participants became increasingly frustrated with their experience. In the end, everyone had a small glimpse into what daily life is like for our brothers and sisters without food, shelter or resources.

Justin Almeida, who played the role of a childcare provider, shares reflections on his experience with the rest of the participants at the JustFaith Poverty Immersion Workshop

Justin Almeida, who played the role of a childcare provider, shares reflections on his experience with the rest of the participants at the JustFaith Poverty Immersion Workshop

Afterwards, we unpacked the experience. There were plenty of opinions on how to “fix” the welfare system. Two comments stood out. One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need. As much as possible, we should eliminate the piles of paperwork, agency signatures, hoops and rules we make people go through. Sure, some people might take advantage of the system, but how many more people would be helped and brought back into self-sufficiency.

These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.

All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I’m grateful for having been able to participate in the poverty simulation. It reminded me yet again of the humanity of the poor, allowing me, if only for a brief moment, to walk in their footsteps. That is where solidarity begins.

Justin AlmeidaJustin Almeida is a Unitarian Universalist graduate student studying chaplaincy at Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry. He is the Operations Manager for the Intercommunity Peace & Justice Center (, a Seattle-based human and environmental rights non-profit. In his spare time, you can find him blogging about faith, spirituality, peace & justice, and life in Seattle at


Families wait in line for services at the JustFaith Poverty Simulation.

About the Poverty Immersion Workshop

The Poverty Simulation (or Poverty Immersion Workshop) developed by Missouri’sAssociation for Community Action, typically involves up to 88 participants who assume the roles of 26 different families facing poverty, and 20 volunteer “staffers” who fill the roles of community agencies and organizations who serve them (e.g. bank, DSHS, supermarket, pawnshop, police officer, homeless shelter, etc.) The families represent a variety of experience: some are newly unemployed or recently deserted by the “breadwinner,” others are homeless, recipients of TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families),  senior citizens receiving Disability or Retirement, or grandparents raising their grandchildren. The task of the “families” is to provide for basic necessities and shelter during the course of four 15-minute “weeks.” Throughout the simulation and during a post-simulation reflection and group-share, participants and volunteers are called on to examine their preconceptions and understanding of poverty in America and then reflect on how their experience during the simulation has impacted their views and future actions.

If you’re interested in hosting or participating in a Poverty Immersion Workshop, Contact Us for more information!

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Want to end homelessness? Then we need to address domestic violence.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, Founder, FaithTrust Institute

Sometimes the reasons for homelessness and poverty are obvious:  a lost job, a bankruptcy, a foreclosure, a death in the family. But more often than we’d like to admit, the cause is violence in the family. Domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault can force women and children (primarily, but not exclusively) out of a home and into a precarious, uncertain future.  The majority of homeless youth fled physical and sexual abuse at home. Over 90% of homeless women have experienced severe physical abuse in their lives; 63% have been victims of intimate partner abuse as an adult.

Families now make up a THIRD of the homeless population; a typical homeless family in a shelter is a woman with two children. Throughout our history, FaithTrust Institute has sought to address the complex dynamics of domestic and sexual violence, particularly the faith and cultural aspects of abuse. The psychological impacts of witnessing and experiencing violence have lifelong effects.  The isolation of domestic violence leaves many women without a stable, independent source of income or credit history. It can also destroy social networks and support systems. Without the means to rent an apartment and no close relationships, a woman and her children who are fleeing – sometimes for their lives – have nowhere to go.

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Women of faith experience domestic violence within the context of their belief system; religion and religious teachings will be either a resource or a roadblock.  Especially at a time of crisis, a woman needs to know that her faith community values her wellbeing.  I believe that we as helpers should never put a woman in the position of having to choose between safety and the support of her faith community. She needs both. And it’s up to us to provide that.

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Faith in Action at All Saints Parish

A shout out to our partner parish in Puyallup, All Saints, whose advocacy and work with homeless families was just recognized in an article in Northwest Catholic last week! Read the full article below to learn more about how the parishioners are putting their faith into action. (And look for a word from School of Theology & Ministry Dean Mark Markuly!)

Helping homeless families

Puyallup parish works through interfaith project at Seattle University to fight homelessness

By Kim Haub

All Saints Puyallup parishioners at Olympia capitol
Members of Puyallup’s All Saints Parish traveled to Catholic Advocacy Day in Olympia, where they asked legislators to streamline assistance programs and reduce the waiting time for homeless families to receive aid. Photo: Courtesy All Saints Parish

For All Saints parishioner Veronica Kaipainen, helping the homeless is a family affair.

The Kaipainens participate in Faith and Family Homelessness Project events at the Puyallup parish, where they learn ways to help and advocate for the estimated 319 homeless families in their community.

“I am drawn to the idea of faith in action,” said Kaipainen, a public school counselor. “This really seemed to be an activity that I could apply to my professional life as well as my spiritual life.”

All Saints is one of 14 Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations — and the only Catholic one — participating in Seattle University’s Faith and Family Homelessness Project. All Saints received nearly $10,000 in grant money through the program, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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Welcome Sheila Houston! An interview with FFH’s newest team member

Meet Sheila Houston, the newest member of the Faith & Family Homelessness team! Sheila is a Seattle native and lifelong advocate for vulnerable women and children. In the video below, Sheila speaks to what brought her to STM and FFH, how she has experienced domestic violence and homelessness in her own life, and what she and other faith leaders can do to educate and engage their communities around social justice issues like family homelessness. We’re thrilled to have Sheila on board!

Sheila’s Story:

Sheila was born and raised in Seattle, Washington, part of a large family with eight sisters and five brothers. In our interview, she shared some of her own struggle as a young mother living in poverty with an abusive spouse. While with her first husband, she experienced homelessness twice. The first time, she ended up on the streets and in a shelter with her young son to escape her husband’s violence. She described her experience in this way: “It’s not that [my parents] wouldn’t have helped me, but I didn’t want to tell because, you know, you have shame. And so, I ended up finding myself on the streets – my son and I. And I can remember just being in the shelter at that time. . . it really was a lonely place, and it was really hard because I just didn’t know what to do – I was already wounded, I already felt lonely, and now I had my son, and I just didn’t know where to go.”

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