In only its second week in session, Congress is already confronted with difficult decisions that impact the lives of millions of people — some of whom are the most vulnerable in our society.
The Senate is faced with finding a solution that would extend the unemployment insurance to help a struggling workforce. One of the solutions, proposed by Senator Ayotte (R-NH), would penalize U.S. citizen children who are part of already struggling immigrant households living in poverty. While it’s important that Congress finds a resolution to the unemployment insurance conundrum, they should not do so by shifting the harm from one group to the next.
Rep. Frank Wolf, one of the loudest and most persistent voices in Congress for the right of people around the globe to practice their religions freely, will not seek an 18th term.
“As a follower of Jesus, I am called to work for justice and reconciliation, and to be an advocate for those who cannot speak for themselves,” Wolf, a Presbyterian, said in a statement Tuesday.
The Republican from Northern Virginia, who will turn 75 in January, said he will work on human rights, religious freedom, and other social issues in his retirement.
In his first Advent address, Pope Francis directed Christians to be guided by the “Magnificat,” Mary’s song of praise for the coming Christ child. She proclaims that God has “lifted up the lowly and filled the hungry with good things” (Luke 1:52-53). This past Tuesday, Pope Francis heeded his own exhortation by releasing a video message calling for an end to hunger as part of a worldwide “wave of prayer.”
Hundreds of Christian organizations across the globe participated in the “wave of prayer,” which was organized by Caritas International, a confederation of Catholic charities in the Vatican.
“We are in front of a global scandal of around 1 billion people who still suffer from hunger today,” Pope Francis said in his message. “We cannot look the other way.” The wave began at noon on the Pacific island of Samoa and proceeded west with people of faith from each subsequent time zone participating at noon their time.
Saying an opening prayer at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service on Wednesday, in Washington, D.C. was both an honor and a blessing for me. The theme of the homily, by my good friend Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, was “it ain’t over until God says it’s done.”
I sat there listening to those words from an African American gospel hymn in the midst of my own circumstance of being on the ninth day of a water-only fast for comprehensive immigration reform. In my weakened condition, I was grateful that I had done the opening prayer and wouldn’t have to do the closing prayer! But fasting focuses you and it made me consider how Nelson Mandela would feel about a broken immigration system that is shattering the lives of 11 million immigrants, separating parents from children, and undermining the best values of our nation.
In our nightly meeting at what is now a packed fasting tent, I could imagine Nelson Mandela there with us, telling us to never give up until we win this victory for so many vulnerable people reminding us, "it ain’t over until God says it’s done." Or, as he would tell cynical pundits and politicians, “it is always impossible until it is done.” Today, following a procession from the Capitol which will now include many members of Congress, we will go to that tent and proclaim that immigration reform is not over, and we won’t give up until it’s done.
After a decades-long standoff, Iran and the West (plus China and Russia) have signed an interim agreement to halt Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for modest sanctions relief. While some are calling it a historic breakthrough along the lines of Nixon’s visit to China, the U.S. media has been mostly skeptical. And in a rare display of bipartisanship, Congress is already looking for ways to derail the deal by passing legislation to impose new sanctions on Iran and tie the President’s hands for future negotiations. Despite the fact that President Obama has successfully passed tougher sanctions on Iran than any previous administration, the U.S. media in lockstep with Congress continue to thumb their noses at anything that resembles diplomacy when it comes to Iran. And while other U.S. allies in the region — primarily the Gulf States led by Saudi Arabia — have expressed their concerns over this deal, few Americans care about what the Saudis think. As representatives of the American people, what Congress really cares about is what Israel thinks.
That’s where things get dicey.
I live in community. What constitutes living in community means different things depending on whom you're talking to. To my 80-year-old grandmother it means that I have joined a cult. In reality, I live with my 10 fellow interns.
Together, we are all learning what it means to live and function as a cohort, how to pour the love of Christ into one another, and how to borrow strength from friends when we need it most. This includes sharing a home, sharing a budget, and sharing the last bit of ice cream that is left in the freezer.
A few nights ago during dinner sharp demands bounced from person to person. Many of our simple requests were stated as demands. Of course, when feeding 10 hungry people there is understandably a bit of an urgency to get food. But, there were no pleases and very few thank-yous.
By official estimates, 26,000 people are sexually assaulted in the U.S. military each year. That comes out to 71 people every day. It’s an epidemic that’s been widely reported in the news.
As if that weren’t bad enough, most of the assaults go unreported – only 11 percent of assault victims ended up filing reports last year (3,374). Studies show that those who do not report the assault cite fears of retaliation and a concern that nothing will be done.
Leaders in Congress are trying to change that this week with the Military Justice Improvement Act.
Right now, if a woman is sexually assaulted in the military, her case is evaluated by a commanding officer. This officer decides whether to bring the case to trial. Once it has been tried, the same commanding officer is responsible for enforcing the consequences. That’s called “convening authority.”
“Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” (Luke 3:11)
Many of us are blessed enough to not know what it is like to be hungry, to regularly miss meals, or to consume a diet void of essential nutrients for a healthy life. But now, millions of our brothers and sisters here in the United States may, sadly, be facing these situations because of a reduction in their food stamp benefits.
Starting Friday, all households receiving food stamp benefits will see their food budgets shrink as a temporary increase expires. A family of four could lose up to $36 a month in food stamps (also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP).
Watching the dysfunction in Washington over the past two weeks has been painful. Our leaders have grown too comfortable with pushing the limits, and we let a few dozen of our own representatives — the people elected to promote the common good, or “general welfare,” as the Constitution calls for— hold the nation's economy hostage for the sake of their political self-interest.
But after the storm comes the promise — the hope of lessons learned and new ways forward together. A few key groups of people have renewed my faith that this is possible.
When I began to read, I started by going through the Psalms. An elderly gentleman paused to listen, and then requested if I could read aloud his favorite, Psalm 91. As I read it, he also began to softly quote the verses by heart, praising God and saying “hallelujah” before thanking me and walking on.
Later, a local pastor from the District Church in Colombia Heights came to read. We met a couple visiting from Louisiana. The wife was a furloughed federal employee with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It was interesting to hear her point of view working first-hand with immigrants in a deportation capacity. She said as a Christian, it is sometimes very difficult to find a balance between desiring to deport violent criminals, and also wanting to keep hardworking, law-abiding immigrant families together. She and her husband thanked all who were participating in the Faithful Filibuster for keeping Christ present during the government shutdown.
As the next speaker from Salvation Army was reading, several teens participating in a rally at the Supreme Court came to ask about what we were doing. After explaining the filibuster’s mission, a young boy thanked us, shook hands, and said “God bless you.”
During a sunrise vigil at the U.S. Capitol this morning, three senators unexpectedly joined us. They were all women, all Republican and, it turns out, all Catholic. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are part of a new 14-senator bipartisan, women-led group engaged in their own kind of vigil: trying to end the government shutdown and prevent the nation from going into debt default.
A chuckling comment from a male colleague in the Senate perhaps expresses a hope in the midst of this incredibly dangerous political crisis: “The women are taking over.” This morning, the senators walked over to thank us for praying for them and the government at this critical moment and told us how much they felt the need for our prayers right now. The looks on their faces showed us the seriousness of their plea for prayers.
People of faith are instructed to pray for their political leaders, and their need has never been more evident in this completely dysfunctional Capitol City. For the seventh day now, faith leaders, pastors, young people, and passersby lifted up prayers for the common good across from the Capitol. Until this morning, there was no response from our elected officials or the national media pundits.
But the #FaithfulFilibuster has taken off across the country through word of mouth and social media — our prayers are trending.
People around the country have taken notice of the #FaithfulFilibuster and want to lend their voices. From Pastor Sarah Trone Garriot in Des Moines, Iowa: "Since we couldn't be in Washington to join you, a few of us pastors got together and visited our Iowa Representative's office."
After reading through select Bible verses, the group read the following statement:
To the Honorable Representative Tom Latham:
We believe that the recent government shutdown is not just a failure of the process of governance. This shutdown is born of the failure to follow Jesus’ commandment to “love our neighbor.” (Luke 10:25-37)
We have witnessed hard hearts as our elected representatives squander their time and energy to attack one another and create failure.
We have witnessed our elected representatives acting without mercy when it comes the poor, the vulnerable, the sick, and the stranger.
As Americans, we are at our best when we come together to work for the common good. This shutdown, and the divisive behavior that gave birth to it, is an insult to our nation. We can do better.
[contined at the jump]
I couldn’t believe what I heard. On my television screen a member of Congress quoted the Bible in defense of cutting SNAP benefits. He stated in his testimony, “Scripture says if you don’t work you don’t eat.” The only Scripture that came to my mind as I looked on in sadness was “Jesus wept.”
You see, I had just come from the food pantry my church has operated for more than 20 years. With the economic downturn, our pantry volume has steadily increased from 15 to an average of 40-50 families each day we are open. These families are able to shop with us one time in 30 days, and we attempt to provide three meals a day, for three days, for each member of the household. Our clients are beautiful people who are struggling. Each and every day we hear statements such as, “I never thought I would have to come to a food pantry to feed my family,” or “We just can’t make it to the end of the month.” Our clients come from all walks of life and have one thing in common: they’re struggling.
So, as I listened to the congressman use Scripture to marginalize the very people I care for every day, I felt I needed to do something. I could no longer be silent as the Bible was being used to hurt vulnerable people. I had to speak, and I remembered the Faithful Filibuster. I sent a tweet to Jim Wallis asking if they needed support or extra voices, and he replied that in fact they did. This was a Friday afternoon at 4 p.m., my daughter and I were on the road from Ohio to Washington, D.C., the next morning at 5:30.
We arrived in D.C. at 1:45 just in time to change and walk to the small pulpit labeled #FaithfulFillibuster for our 2:30 time slot. As I stepped onto the grass and began to read, the long hours of the trip began to fade away as the words of the Gospel began to cross my lips. I remember feeling that I would have driven a thousand miles to be able to proclaim the good news of the message of Christ and to speak the Word out loud in a way that comforted God’s people. I would have kept on reading until I couldn’t do it anymore, true filibuster style, all the while looking at the Capitol building with all her power. Our Christian story is one of liberation, new life, abundance, and mercy. It is a story that brings good news to the poor, and I will tell it until I no longer have breath.
Setting an away email with no date of return was almost as odd as leaving work and not and knowing when I’d be back. This unexpected time off gave me the opportunity to do everything on my to-do list and spend ridiculous amounts of time at the dog park. Naturally, it also gave me time to catch up on reading and visiting with other furloughed friends. But this past Wednesday I was beginning to feel a bit hopeless about the whole situation.
Scrolling through Facebook I noticed Sojourners updates on its #FaithfulFilibuster and it truly made me ashamed of my hopelessness. I was ashamed because I forgot who was in charge. I was ashamed because I forgot where my hope lies. And I was ashamed because I was so wrapped up in my own struggles of furlough I forgot about the families that were already struggling and now also dealing with a loss of paychecks.
On Thursday I saw another update from Sojourners, and despite the rain, I felt compelled to go check it out. I expected to do nothing but observe and admire faith leaders stepping out to reclaim hope and speak for the millions of silenced voices in this country. However, when I arrived, something different happened. I was asked if I wanted to participate, handed a Bible, and stepped to the podium to read.
It’s time to end this shutdown. I’m standing in full view of the Capitol Building with a group of clergy and faith leaders who are here to offer a “Faithful Filibuster” of the government shutdown – and we’re going to keep talking until things change.
We know that this shutdown disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our society. So our words will not be wasted diatribes or placements of blame. Rather, we will use God’s own words – reading the more than 2,000 Bible verses that speak to God’s justice for the poor and vulnerable – until this shutdown ends.
And while we recite the verses to bear witness for those suffering, we want to make sure that every single member of Congress can read them too. It is our goal to send each member a copy of the Poverty and Justice Bible, which highlights each of those 2,000 verses. Our elected officials need this reminder now more than ever.
It’s a rough month to be a Washingtonian.
My morning bike ride past the Capitol Building is leaving me less with the sense of inspiration I used to feel at being so close to the heart of democracy, and more with a creeping sense of disgust. Sometimes it’s tough to live in a city whose very name is a synonym for Congress. “Washington” recently decided to cut off all funding for national parks, health research, and, oh yeah, programs that serve poor Americans.
Thanks to Congress, poor women might not get help from the Women, Infants and Children program to feed their babies. Head Start preschool programs have been canceled, leaving parents unable to work. People who need the SNAP program to feed their families could be left with nowhere to turn, while sick and elderly people who get regular visits from Meals on Wheels volunteers are worried about where their food will come from over the coming weeks.
There are about 40 members of an extremist ideological minority who are ruining the reputation of the place I live and work, and taking the poor down along with them.
As the government shutdown enters its second week, some religious groups are starting to feel the pinch, and they’re also finding ways to reach out.
More than 90 Catholic, evangelical, and Protestant leaders have signed a statement rebuking “pro-life” lawmakers for the shutdown, saying they are “appalled that elected officials are pursuing an extreme ideological agenda at the expense of the working poor and vulnerable families” who won’t receive government benefits.
Starting Wednesday, evangelical, Catholic, and mainline Protestant leaders will hold a daily “Faithful Filibuster” on Capitol Hill with Bible verses on the poor “to remind Congress that its dysfunction hurts struggling families and low-income people.”
One of the most depressing things I heard on the first day of the government shutdown was that it was a record fundraising day for both parties. Washington, D.C., is no longer about governing; it is just about winning and losing. But the people who will lose the most during a government shutdown — and then an impending United States government default on paying its debts — are those who live day to day on their wages, those at the lower end of the nation’s economy, and the poorest and most vulnerable who are always hurt the most in a crisis like this. And what happens to those people is the focus of the faith community; that is our job in politics — to talk about what happens to them. Faith leaders have been meeting to discuss what we must do in response to this political crisis brought on by absolute political dysfunction
The government shutdown seems to have gotten the attention of the nation. And if this ends in a default on our debt, the potentially catastrophic crashing of the economy will certainly wake us up. The only positive I see in this crisis is that the right issues — the moral issues — might finally get our attention.