Signs, symbols abound at interfaith call for bold U.S. social programs

A toy sloth. A ram’s horn. A knitted rose. A shirt from the U.S. border. And lots of handmade signs.

People of varied faiths brought those symbols and more to an outdoor rally and prayer vigil in Cleveland Oct. 28. They gathered with other concerned citizens at a busy downtown intersection to speak out for the Build Back Better Better Act (H.R. 5376) that Congress has been wrangling over for months.

The Rev. Brooks Berndt (left) and two members of Amistad Chapel UCC — Charlene Higginbotham and Mendle Adams — display signs to passing motorists in Cleveland on Oct. 28, 2021. Photos by Hans Holznagel

The United Church of Christ’s national ministries hosted the event at the foot of a 31-story office tower housing federal agencies. U.S. Sen. Rob Portman has his local office there. A dozen religious and secular organizations endorsed the witness.

Portman himself, who has repeatedly spoken out against the bill and the tax increases that would help fund it, was in Washington, D.C., that day. As of Nov. 1, Congress was still negotiating over the latest version of the bill, proposed by President Biden.

‘Bold action now’

The 30-or-so people who turned out on a Thursday for the lunch-hour event said Build Back Better would make for a better society.

“This is one of the most transformative pieces of legislation our nation has considered in recent times to further justice and the common good,” said the Rev. Brooks Berndt, UCC minister for environmental justice. “This bill is about cutting child poverty, extending Medicaid coverage to dental, vision, and hearing, providing free community college, creating clean energy, removing barriers to social programs for formerly incarcerated persons, building a broad path to citizenship, and much more.

Interfaith demonstrators gather in a park across from Cleveland’s federal building.

“When it comes to matters as serious as the climate crisis, we need to invest in bold action now, so we do not pay a far greater price later.”

Those messages were visible from the start of the event in Cleveland’s Willard Park, across from the federal building. Demonstrators held handwritten signs saying things like:

  • “Invest in kids, not weapons and wars”
  • “Yes to child tax credit”
  • “Build better for people: dental, vision, hearing; planet: clean energy”
  • “Free community college — reentry program”
  • “Invest in people, not corporations”

‘Pay their fair share’

The messages also rang out over a portable sound system at the corner of East Ninth Street and Lakeside Avenue.

One speaker was Jonathan “Two Braids” Harris, an organizer with the Northeast Ohio Coalition for the Homeless. “If we can be here in the midst of all these beautiful buildings, in one of the greatest cities in the greatest country in the world, why can’t we feed the hungry and house the homeless?” he asked.

Hoped-for funding for the prevention of gun violence brought UCC member Judy Majcen (left) to the event.

Another was Sandra Ellington, a City of Cleveland janitor who is active in the Service Employees International Union. She listed reasons to support Build Back Better. Among them: “This is legislation that could cut child poverty in half.” “I am an essential worker,” she said. “I’ve done it for 20 years. I do it with pride and dignity. This country is built by everybody. Corporations need to pay their fair share.”

Among the local UCC’ers in the crowd was Judy Majcen, who belongs to Federated Church in suburban Chagrin Falls and to the Ohio chapter of the anti-gun-violence organization Moms Demand Action. She said she believes the economic uplift provided by Build Back Better — and the support it could provide organizations working with young people — will help reduce urban gun violence. Her sign read: “Keep families and children safe from gun violence: funds for prevention now.”

Children, immigration

The event moved across Lakeside Avenue to the sidewalk directly in front of the federal building to close with prayer. There, faith leaders presented symbolic objects they had brought.

A toy sloth, which Berndt had borrowed from his daughter, Kylie, symbolized society’s need to care for children.

The Rev. Brooke Baker speaks during the Oct. 28 prayer vigil.

The Rev. Brooke Baker, senior minister of Church of the Redeemer, UCC, Westlake, Ohio, brought a T-shirt from a border-justice organization in Arizona. It reminded her of Ana, a young adult in the U.S. under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. “DACA was not repealed, but neither do we have a pathway to citizenship for Ana or people like her,” Baker said. “I am here today because Build Back Better would create a pathway for citizenship for Ana.”

Immigration — and belief systems that make some Americans fear it — were also on the mind of Chrissy Stonebraker-Martínez. They are co-director of Cleveland’s Interreligious Task Force on Central America. They brought a knitted rose in memory of elders such as their grandmother, but also to symbolize a belief in community and communal action against forces of white supremacy. “Slavery and colonization never ended,” they said. “They just took different shapes.”

Ram’s horn sounds alarm

Rabbi Enid Lader of Cleveland’s Beth Israel — The West Temple sounded the ceremonial shofar. “Since biblical times, the sounding of the ram’s horn has been used to bring people together and to sound an alarm,” she said. “It is a call to each and every one of us to wake up and take action.

“Today we call for transformative climate investments in the emerging federal legislation of the Build Back Better Reconciliation Bill, and we pray that Senator Portman will join with all our elected officials to get this done.” And she named more of the “positive effects” the bill could have on a society in need.

In a prayer circle beside the federal building, Rabbi Enid Lader of Cleveland sounds the shofar.

“We all need to come together to summon our greatest strengths in order to confront the challenges we face. In the end, we are one,” Lader said. “Not just the Jewish people, the Christian people, the Muslim people, the Buddhist people, the Hindu people — and on and on — but all people. One people and one country. We pray that our elected officials will be blessed with renewed wisdom to commit to building a hope-filled future for all of us.”

“Guide our elected officials to be committed to caring for their neighbors, ignoring the pleas of the privileged who fear they will lose something when the least of yours receive care,” added Baker in her prayer. “Give us the strength to continue to show up and use our voices to ensure that all of your beloved and your beloved earth receive care. We pray this with the assurance of your abiding love. Amen.”

Categories: United Church of Christ News

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