Interfaith leaders urge protection of federal poverty assistance
Written by Wire Reports July 15, 2011
The Rev. Maria Castellanos, UCC policy advocate for domestic issues, and the Rev. Paul Sherry, former UCC president, at an interfaith national budget prayer vigil in Washington, D.C. (photo Jessie Palatucci)
Representing a growing movement of Americans concerned that the Administration and Congress are enacting a budget deal that will place an undue burden on the poor "while shielding the wealthiest from any additional sacrifice," leaders representing the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths today launched a new campaign to encourage policymakers to maintain a robust U.S. commitment to domestic and international poverty programs.
Inspired by a common spiritual conviction that God has called on all Americans to protect the vulnerable and promote the dignity of all individuals living in society, the interfaith coalition is aiming to protect those struggling to overcome poverty in the U.S. and abroad and to exclude programs that protect people in poverty from the budget deficit debates.
More than 25 heads of communion and national religious organizations, including UCC General Minister and President the Rev. Geoffrey A. Black, are spearheading an 18-month faith-based public policy campaign to urge Congress and the Administration to exempt programs that assist at-risk families and children in the U.S. and abroad from budget cuts. The campaign will consist of high-level meetings with policymakers, a Washington fly-in of religious leaders and daily prayer vigils among other actions.
The daily prayer vigils are being held on the front lawn of the United Methodist Building (100 Maryland Avenue, NE, Washington, DC) near the U.S. Capitol Building where the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries Washington office is housed. Led by a different religious organization each day at 12:30 p.m. EDT, the prayer vigils will continue throughout the White House led budget negotiations.
To kick-off the campaign, the religious leaders sent urgent letters this week to President Obama, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) stating that "People who are served by government program – those who are poor, sick, and hungry, older adults, children, and people with disabilities – should not bear the brunt of the budget-cutting burden."
The religious leaders wrote, "We share our grave concern and dismay that the ongoing conversations and negotiations regarding our nation's budget may yield an outcome that places individuals and families struggling with poverty at risk of even further hardship while shielding the wealthiest in our nation from any additional sacrifice."
In addition, the religious leaders, writing as the heads of numerous U.S.-based religious institutions and faith-based organizations that have worked for decades in conjunction with federal programs to combat domestic and foreign poverty, made it clear that religious groups would be unable to make up the difference in funding if the government further cuts or eliminates programs for society's most vulnerable populations. The interfaith leaders warn that without a sustained federal commitment to federal- and state-run assistance programs, religious organizations and Houses of Worship while doing their best to help, cannot be the sole support for the country's most vulnerable in their most pressing times of need.
In letters to President Obama and Congress, the leaders further explained that "Houses of worship and communities of faith cannot meet the current need, much less the increased hardship that would result from severe cuts in federal, and consequently, state programs. We need the public-private partnership that has for decades enabled us as a nation to respond to desperate need, both human and environmental."
The campaign was announced today via a teleconference featuring the Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin, President, National Council of Churches and Executive Director, Minnesota Council of Churches; the Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); Rabbi Steve Gutow, President, Jewish Council for Public Affairs; the Rev. John L. McCullough, Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service; Sister Mary Hughes, OP, President, Leadership Conference of Women Religious; Dr. Sayyid M. Syeed, National Director, Office for Interfaith & Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America; and the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church USA.
During the briefing, Syeed, the National Director for the Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances at the Islamic Society of North America, spoke first about our responsibility to stand up for those who cannot speak for themselves. He said, "It is our religious duty as part of the faith communities to convey our concerns about the problems of the budget cuts that will directly impact low income individuals and the dispossessed. We are asking for a budget that should be just and equitable. It is our Islamic duty because this is one of the pillars of Islam."
Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, added, "To hurt the poor by trying to balance the budget or lessen the debt is a little bit ridiculous." He went on to say, "We were known by our founders as a city on a hill with a light of justice that emanated forth and we cannot and we must not be any less than who we are."
Parsons, the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church USA, was very poignant in his warning that cuts to domestic and international poverty programs would have a devastating impact not only on individuals and families facing economic hardship, but houses of worship across the country that have worked in conjunction with federal- and state-led economic assistance programs for decades.
Parsons said, "Churches alone cannot fill in the gap if the government's social safety net is taken away. While doing their best to help, there's not enough capacity in all those churches to meet the gap that would happen to if the government was to abandon tradition and, the fundamental role of providing a basic floor to give people the basic human needs of food, shelter, and health care."
Sister Mary Hughes OP, President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious noted that "Because of the lag in current funding, homelessness is up 15 percent in my state. There are usually one or more children involved in each [homeless] family. There are faces associated with budget numbers."
Chemberlin, President, National Council of Churches, said "Extreme politicians are threatening to stop Medicare and Social Security payments, stop paying our men and women fighting overseas, plunge even more Americans into unemployment, and completely abandon the poor, only so that they can maintain a few tax loopholes for the richest Americans."
The interfaith coalition's campaign was summed up by McCullough, the Executive Director and CEO, Church World Service. He said, "While we don't know what may be the final outcome of the budget discussions between the President and Congress, proposed cuts by Members of the House of Representatives to humanitarian and development programs are drastic, irresponsible, and fail to recognize the detrimental life and death consequences to vulnerable people recovering from disasters and living in poverty worldwide."