The Church of the Brethren was represented at a meeting of the Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee by Annual Conference secretary James Beckwith. The Church of the Brethren was one of several faith groups invited to send representatives to the meeting on Jan. 29 at the United States Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., to speak with senators about legislative priorities.
An excerpt from Beckwith’s summary of the meeting
Fourteen representatives of faith groups were invited to speak with this Senate Committee about legislative priorities. Ten senators were present at some time during the meeting; there may have been more. The meeting was chaired by Senator Mark Begich. Majority Leader Senator Harry Reid was present and spoke at the outset.
I spoke briefly with Senator Cory Booker after the meeting, and I spoke with Senator Tim Kaine to let him know I appreciated his comments during the session. On my way out of the building I greeted the assistant to Senator Reid for faith concerns. Other senators I observed listening in for a length of time were Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Senator Chris Coons, Senator Mark Pryor, Assistant Majority Leader Senator Richard Durbin, Senator Amy Klobuchar, and Vice Chair of the Committee Senator Jeanne Shaheen. Some of them spoke interspersed with our presentations.
I spoke toward the end. By that time most of the points had been addressed, so I chose to reinforce them with anecdotal comments (see below).
Points raised by the faith representatives
The religious groups and faith-based organizations included Bread for the World, Interfaith Worker Justice, Sojourners, Sisters of Mercy, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Muslim Public Affairs Council, Episcopal Church, Church World Service, Presbyterian Church USA, Franciscan Action Network, National Council of Churches.
Points raised included:
-- the need to get increased minimum wage legislation passed, with the minimum wage increase characterized as a winning issue for politicians;
-- the importance of putting people into a position to take advantage of their opportunities, specifically mental health and family empowerment, with churches as safe places;
-- a new moment for working on poverty issues, with both political parties talking about it and with fresh energy from Pope Francis I on the topic;
-- disparity between the rich and the poor, and the need to deal with inequality issues;
-- the militarization of the budget, and great concern about the military increases in the federal budget;
-- immigration reform, the need to provide for immigrants, and how money influences the issue;
-- the need to work at housing affordability;
-- the need to fund schools and the direct link between education and overcoming poverty;
-- the need for food stamps and the SNAP program, with comments that middle class students and returned military personnel are now coming to food pantries and soup kitchens for help;
-- mosques and churches being the local first responders to poverty concerns, concern about how suspicion and threats to mosques stymie their role in providing for the people, and the connection between prejudice and safety for all religious groups and the work to overcome poverty;
-- a focus on economic security rather than on income equity, noting that we will be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable;
-- the need for economic security among gay people, who can lose their jobs simply upon being known as gay and have no recourse in many states;
-- reducing the time that people must spend in refugee camps;
-- violence as a critical part of poverty concerns, particularly gun violence, and the need for legislation to curb gun violence;
-- mass incarceration, which is being called the new Jim Crow problem; the need for support for the smarter sentencing act and the need to reintegrate prisoners into community life.
The Church of the Brethren witness
I introduced myself as a local church pastor as well as corporate secretary for the denomination, and said the Church of the Brethren is concerned about many of the topics that had been discussed. I commented about how we are in budget crunches as well and need to make moral decisions about how we will live within our means. We are concerned that during a budget crunch the government has increased spending for a militarized presence around the world at the expense of programs desperately needed for dealing with poverty in our communities.
I mentioned our “Going to the Garden” program and how we have worked at that in my neighborhood, doing our part but seeing very clearly that government efforts to end hunger are crucially needed. I shared specific concern about how the latest omnibus spending bill reversed some Pentagon spending cuts that the sequester had put in place, and how despite the winding down of overseas wars, spending in the Overseas Contingency Operations budget received a $5 billion increase.
“Increasing the amount of money spent to destroy life is dangerously reducing the amount of money available to improve lives around the world,” I said. “That needs to change.”
I noted that people fall into poverty when the breadwinners in their households are gunned down on the streets, identifying the work of local congregations with “Heeding God’s Call” action against gun violence, confronting gun shops that allow straw sales. I noted we need legislative action on this.
And I spoke about the people from Cambodia and Thailand in my congregation, some of whom still do not have proper documentation decades after being resettled in this country. The scriptural admonitions are so very clear, I said, that we are commanded to help the aliens who live among us to be able to provide for themselves and their families. We are concerned about immigration reform to deal with the problems of children being separated from their parents, the need for health care and education, and we hope that when Congress deals with immigration reform, it will work at overcoming modern-day slavery and human trafficking. A couple of senators wrote down a note in response to that comment.
I closed with an additional admonition from the scriptures: “May God grant you wisdom and courage to overcome evil with good.” Heads nodded around the table.
-- James Beckwith is secretary of the Church of the Brethren Annual Conference, and pastor of Annville (Pa.) Church of the Brethren.