"Vote Out Poverty! Vote Out Poverty!" shouted the diverse group of clergy and faith leaders as they marched in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, at our ecumenical public witness event last October. That was the last time I saw Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) in person; she stood on the podium in the crisp October sunshine waiting for the crowd to arrive.
We had invited several elected officials to the Vote Out Poverty event to join with people of faith from across the country to renew God's vision for relational and economic justice, and to prioritize poverty in our public policy. Most of those officials deferred, claiming other commitments and the like. But not Stephanie (who preferred to be called by her first name). True to her character, and to her commitment to the poor and disenfranchised, that day she became the first elected officeholder in the nation to sign the Vote Out Poverty pledge, committing to develop plans to cut the number of Americans living in poverty by half over the next 10 years, and to help end extreme global poverty by achieving the Millennium Development Goals.
Stephanie was used to firsts, most importantly serving as the first African-American woman elected to represent Ohio in Congress. She was in her fifth term as the representative of the 11th Congressional District, which includes most of the east side of Cleveland. Stephanie was a revered public figure in Ohio, and two years ago she was re-elected to Congress with 83 percent of the vote.
Stephanie was at her best that brilliant Sunday afternoon last October. She was exuberant and full of life as she spoke to the gathered crowd, which included Jim Wallis and many Cleveland pastors and congregations, calling us all to higher purpose and common ground.
So, we were all shocked last week when Stephanie died suddenly at age 58 from a ruptured brain aneurysm while driving in Cleveland. Here in Ohio, we will honor Stephanie's life and work at her memorial service Saturday. She leaves her son, Mervyn Jr., her husband of 27 years, Mervyn, and many of her relatives. But it is in her compassionate life -- and her core commitment to the least of these -- that she is best remembered.
This past Tuesday evening at the Democratic National Convention, Ohio Governor Ted Strickland led the crowd in "a moment of celebration for everything she's given us." Later, Stephanie's "sister" Hillary Clinton honored Stephanie with glowing remarks on prime-time television. But here in Ohio, we know that Stephanie wouldn't have missed this convention for anything -- so we trust that she was there in spirit, lifting up, as she always had, those who needed her most. She will be deeply missed.
Rev. Virginia Lohmann Bauman is the Ohio field director for Sojourners