The Common Good

Christian Activists Pressure Washington to Cut Poverty in Half

Date: April 29, 2009

WASHINGTON – Hundreds of Christians walked the halls of Senate and House buildings on Tuesday to place pressure on political leaders and push through doors that they hope will lead to a reduction in domestic poverty.

After hours of training, strategizing and praying, the activists set out for more than 80 congressional visits hoping to make new allies and influence legislation that would help millions of Americans come out of poverty and gain access to education and healthcare.

Kristin Shiffer, 26, from Rochester, N.Y., was one of many young participants sharing her concerns with senators.

"They were very responsive to the things we had to say," she commented during a congressional rally later that day. "We went with staff from Sen. (Chuck) Schumer and Sen. (Kirsten) Gillibrand. We talked about how the budget is a moral document and we mentioned that we are all registered voters and we support that in order for healthcare to become universal for all that we're willing to raise our taxes, we're willing to pay as long as we know that it's going to a just cause."

Shiffer has traveled to poor areas and seen firsthand the bleak circumstances of the hungry and sick. Now lobbying in Washington this week during Sojourners' Mobilization to End Poverty conference, she said she believes that through her faith, she can make a difference.

The Christian activists specifically asked members of Congress to support the "Half-in-Ten" resolution which commits to cutting domestic poverty in half by 2020; to fully fund President Obama's foreign affairs budget request in order to fight poverty around the world; and to support the passage of healthcare reform.

"Decisions that are made in this town, in this city impact the poor and we must seek to influence those decisions," said Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, at the rally.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who authored the Half-in-Ten resolution, told rally participants, "You really are the people's lobbyists. It's absolutely critical that we come together to begin the work of ending poverty in America."

"This is not an urban issue, it's not a rural issue, it's not a Democratic issue, it's not a Republican issue, it's not an Independent issue, it's not a Green issue. It's a moral issue," she asserted.

Although intended to be a broad effort across faith and party lines, rally speakers and participants were predominantly Democrats who support the $3.5 trillion budget that is currently being voted on.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who also made an appearance at the rally, deemed the budget – which passed the House Wednesday with no Republican support – a "values-based budget."

The rally was part of a larger movement called the Mobilization to End Poverty, which is being led by Sojourners founder the Rev. Jim Wallis, a well-known progressive Christian leader. Organizers of this week's poverty conference in Washington say it is the first major movement of the religious left under the new Obama administration.

Despite the label, political and religious leaders supporting the mobilization agreed that they have to bring everyone together to see gains in the battle to reduce poverty.

"The one thing that you are advocating for, that we are advocating for is the concept that solving these problems is going to take everybody," said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) at Tuesday's rally, adding that he and many members of Congress welcome the political pressure from the people in the faith community.

Tunnicliffe of the WEA noted that the movement is not about supporting a party but about supporting good policy. And while they are engaging political structure, they're doing so out of a theological framework, he added.

"The work that is being done every single day at a grassroots level is impacted by circumstances that they have no control over – by policies and structures that impact their every single day," he said. "So not only must we work at the grassroots level, but we must work at this level."