North Park University Community Joins in 'Human Circle of Protection'

Human Circle of Protection Prayer
North Park University students join in the North Park Justice League event Nov. 16 to support a local food pantry, and call attention to potential federal food aid cuts.

Students, faculty, staff pray at local food pantry, call attention to potential aid cuts

CHICAGO (November 17, 2011) – More than 170 people – many from the North Park University community – joined local residents Nov. 16 at a nearby food pantry to pray and urge the U.S. Congress to maintain federal funding for nutrition programs that provide food to people in need. The Rev. Jim Wallis, president and chief executive officer of Sojourners, Washington, D.C., and an influential U.S. religious leader, joined the gathering organized by the North Park Justice League.

North Park University students, faculty and staff walked to the North Park Friendship Center following the university's regular weekly chapel service and formed a "Human Circle of Protection." They prayed for the center, its constituents and members of the congressional "Supercommittee," charged with trimming $1.5 trillion from the federal budget by Nov. 23, part of the debt-ceiling legislation adopted earlier this year. If committee members can't agree, the debt-ceiling legislation will automatically trigger $1.2 trillion in spending reductions. The human circle action here was one of several promoted by Sojourners throughout the country Nov. 16.  The circles are intended to raise public attention to people living in poverty, and how potential federal aid cuts could affect them.

"I think North Park is very symbolic and significant because here is an evangelical, Christian institution that cares about this issue," Wallis said in an interview. "I didn't expect nearly 200 people. This may be one of the largest circles that we have nationwide. But these students believe that their faith requires them to be here. They are not standing here as Democrats or Republicans or for a candidate or a party – they're standing here for the ones Jesus called, 'the least of these.' That's why they're here – it's a matter of faith."

The human circle action references "A Circle of Protection," a national movement initiated this year by more than 60 U.S. religious leaders and faith-based organizations. The movement calls on Congress and the Obama administration "to give moral priority to programs that protect the life and dignity of poor and vulnerable people in these difficult times."

"It's a very hopeful thing to me that the next generation still senses the call of the gospel to reach the poor and the hungry and the hurting – that's a very hopeful thing to me," said Joanne R. Ekberg, executive director, North Park Friendship Center. "It always helps when people come together and realize they share a commitment to the poor, and they share a commitment to the gospel, and how those things intersect."

Jim Wallis, Sojourners Inc., and Stefan Fritz, North Park Theological Seminary student The Rev. Jim Wallis, left, Sojourners Inc., Washington, D.C., and Stefan Fritz, North Park Theological Seminary student and Justice League leader, spoke to the crowd that gathered at the Friendship Center.

The Friendship Center was started in 1970 by North Park Covenant Church, a congregation of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), Chicago, the denomination which founded North Park University. Today, five Chicago-area ECC congregations, other groups and individuals support it. The center's food pantry serves 450 families each month, and it also provides donated clothing, household goods, and other services, said Ekberg. It is one of 650 pantries, soup kitchens and shelters in Cook County supplied by the Greater Chicago Food Depository, which serves the needs of more than 140,000 people in Cook County each week. Significant cuts in federal nutrition programs could affect tens of thousands of people in the Chicago area who depend on the programs for food assistance, Ekberg said.

The center also maintains a close relationship with North Park University, Ekberg said. Students volunteer at the center, usually in conjunction with University classes that have a service component, she said. Students contributed canned goods to the center in conjunction with the human circle action.

Stefan Fritz, a North Park Theological Seminary student and North Park Justice League leader, said the Human Circle was intended to call on elected leaders to protect the center's mission and similar programs throughout the country. Nearly 20 percent of Chicagoans are living in poverty, and unemployment here is more than 11 percent, he said. Fritz said showing support for the Friendship Center and programs like it is consistent with the University's emphases: Distinctively Christian, Intentionally Urban and Purposefully Multicultural.

"I hope that the students recognize the work that the North Park Justice League does, that Sojourners does, and the work being done in various ministries, and engage that," he said. "This is good work, this is what God is calling us to do, and we're not alone. The number of people here shows that people care about this. (If) we can get 170 people after a chapel service, imagine when there are actually thousands of people across the country, our city and our state participating together."

Prayers were led by Nilwona Nowlin, North Park Theological Seminary student; the Rev. Eric Palmquist, North Park Covenant Church; the Rev. Andrea Johnson, Winnetka (Ill.) Covenant Church; and the Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah, associate professor, North Park Theological Seminary. Speakers included Dr. Richard Twiss, Wiconi International, Vancouver, Wash., who preached at the chapel service.

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