- Faculty & Staff
Public policy advocate Marissa Harris ’08 fights for health care reform in Harrisburg
She supports new LTSP public leadership initiative
As Marissa Harris (MDiv, LTSP 2008) goes about her advocacy developer work in Pennsylvania's capital city of Harrisburg, PA, and across the state, the need for health care reform is near the top of her list.
In engaging that priority, Harris vividly recalls the faces of the desperately ill children and those of family members she met while experiencing clinical pastoral education fieldwork several years ago at a children's hospital in Indianapolis.
"I could tell right away when I went into a hospital room of a sick child whether the family involved had health insurance," she recalls. "If they had health care coverage, their thoughts were totally focused on the needs and care of the child. If they didn't, they had a lot of other concerns - how to pay their bills and maintain their households in the face of unimaginable costs." In the latter cases, Harris says, she would spend time with the families trying to ease their sense of guilt. "I would tell them they are right to be concerned about maintaining their homes, and they don't need to feel badly about that. I would tell them that household concerns are vital for caring for a child."
Harris, a native of Roanoke, VA, works for Lutheran Advocacy Ministry of Pennsylvania (LAMPa). She advocates with the commonwealth's public policy office about issues like health care reform, and she's excited that this time presents a "golden opportunity to fix the health care system, probably not for everyone but for the majority of people." She notes that the health care crisis genuinely impacts "people in the pew" because 25 percent of individuals in the US have been uninsured at some point in recent months, and of those who are employed, they frequently work for businesses unable to provide health coverage for their employees. Harris sees her key role with LAMPa as working with congregations, empowering Lutherans and others to become part of a network to "lobby" to their state legislators about critical issues of the day.
It is contemporary church leaders with the mind and heart of a Marissa Harris that LTSP has had in mind in developing a new Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) concentration in public leadership. Hopefully when accredited, the certificate will become the seminary's new degree program - the Master of Arts in Public Leadership (MAPL).
"Our primary mission will always be to prepare leaders equipped to communicate the gospel in the world. Up until now, that has meant training Pastors, Associates in Ministry, Deaconesses, and Diaconal Ministers." explains LTSP Admissions Director the Rev. Louise Johnson, who's been an advocate with others like LTSP Professor Jon Pahl for developing the concept leading toward the MAPL. "We have a lot of young leaders in the church today concerned about how the church takes shape in the world. We also have a network of 350 social ministry organizations who need theologically trained leadership to enhance their missions. And we want to support them in their critical work."
As for Harris, she is a lifelong Lutheran whose father has served as a pastor of the church. Her home congregation is St. John Lutheran Church in Roanoke, and she earned a bachelor's degree in history and political science from Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, VA. Her mother has been a career public school teacher, a career path Harris thought about for a time. Her mother discouraged her from becoming a teacher "because of the bureaucracy involved," Harris recalls. "Then too, pastors do a lot of teaching."
"My discernment journey began pretty early," Harris remembers. "When I was in 8th and 9th grades, both my pastors thought I had a potential for leadership in the church. I was active in confirmation class, and I really took it seriously. I wanted to know why I believe what I believe."
While at Virginia Tech, Harris caught a sense of the wider church from campus pastors Bill King and Joanna Stallings. She eventually became immersed in the national Lutheran Student Movement initiative, sitting on its national council, and there she met other students with concerns like hers.
As she completed her college work, Harris thought over her options, such as participating in the Lutheran Volunteer Corps, but decided on seminary. She chose LTSP as a school with strong academics and community involvements, and for a change she didn't want to attend school close to home. "I really liked the whole feel of LTSP's campus," she says.
Some of her favorite seminary memories include her involvement in global trips, such as one led to El Salvador by the Rev. Dr. John Hoffmeyer, professor of Systematic Theology at the seminary.
"The trip to El Salvador was life-changing for me in a way that is difficult to articulate," Harris says. "I appreciate the attention we gave to listening - hearing the stories of the people we met," she recalls. "We learned what life was like for them, how their faith enables them to live. We were really humbled by that experience, because it seemed the people we met had more hope and joy than people you often meet in the US. We went there thinking these people in El Salvador need help, but the trip turned out to be a real gift for us, because the people we met in El Salvador understand things about life in a way that is different and sometimes better than the perspective we came there with."
For Harris, her advocacy work has been faith-changing so far. "I remember all the time that this work is God's and not mine," she says. "We have a small staff at LAMPa, and we need to be strategic. Sometimes I think the stars are aligned, and I could not possibly have planned for things to work out as they do, and then I think it is really God at work." There are also weeks when she realizes matters are simply beyond her control. She was influenced toward her career direction in part by a seminary field work experience doing similar work at the Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry in New Jersey under the supervision of LTSP alum the Rev. Bruce Davidson. "I loved it," she says of the experience, and so when a LAMPa opportunity arose before her seminary graduation, Harris received a lot of support to pursue it, and things worked out.
The perilous state of the economy has proved to be frustrating for the advocacy process, Harris says. "It is on everyone's mind," she indicates. In matters like health reform, the economy has crimped the commonwealth's budget severely, limiting the original vision for the number of people who may be helped in a given situation. "You can ask yourself, is it worth supporting an initiative when it feels more like a sellout than a victory? But I think we have to remember that it is not always the measure of the victory that counts. We are expressing a concern for the most vulnerable. We have a message to proclaim in the midst of taking stances that may sometimes be unrealistic, and we need to hold true to the values of our prophetic voice."
"I think the vision for a Master of Arts in Public Leadership at the seminary is a wonderful idea," Harris says. "It won't fit everyone thinking of seminary, but it meets a need, and I think I probably might have taken advantage of it had it been available when I was attending LTSP.
"The church definitely has a role to play in public life," she says. "In my experience, people of faith are genuinely respected when they sit as part of a diverse group of leaders around the table. It is normal for people of faith to be at those places with all kinds of people from all walks of life." One of the greatest surprises of her work has been "how well-received people of faith are at the public policy table. There is a far greater warmth and respect than I had anticipated." In that kind of arena, Harris says the public spirit she learned at the seminary has served her well.
Sometimes when she visits congregations, Harris will encounter parishioners who resist the idea of the church's being vocal in public life. "I point out to them the church has an excellent history to draw upon in this regard," she says. She talks about the history of the ELCA's social statements and the degree to which the development of those statements involves deliberate and inclusive study across the church. "I talk about how it is impossible to be a person of faith and not have opinions, and sometimes you just need to walk people through that. In terms of the U.S. Constitution, you need sometimes to help people cross the imagined church/state divide. It is not as thick a wall as it is often made out to be."
Marissa Harris is the subject of the cover photo of the spring 2009 issue of the seminary's magazine, PS. The spring issue also has stories on the new LTSP concentration in public leadership and about another LTSP graduate who has taken a public leadership role as part of his ministry.
in the photo: Marissa Harris in front of the Pennsylvania Capitol, Harrisburg, PA
Marissa Harris talks about her work in Advocacy for the church
Marissa Harris talks about how her experience at LTSP prepared her for advocacy work