From the Worldwide Faith News archives

Rally in Washington presses issue of debt cancellation

Date 18 Apr 2000 15:39:20


Rally in Washington presses issue of debt cancellation for the
world's poorest countries

by Sherri A. Watkins

     (ENS) With the sounding of a shofar, a ram's-horn trumpet
dating to biblical times, an estimated 5,000 activists  from
across the country proclaimed Jubilee at an April 9 rally in
Washington, D.C., demanding cancellation of nearly a billion
dollars in debt--money owed the United States by the world's most
impoverished nations.

     Participants arriving at the rally site on the National Mall were
greeted by an unusual April sight--grass and trees
 bearing a half-inch or so of spring snow.  By the rally's beginning,
sun beaming from a nearly cloudless sky had melted the snow,
although strong winds and a persistent chill probably contributed
to a lower-than-anticipated turnout.

     Many banners and flags testified to the variety of groups
that sent representatives to the gathering, such as Associon
Perdanos Unidos, Women's International League for Peace and
Freedom, Franciscans for Debt Cancellation, United Auto Workers,
and a number of churches, including the Episcopal Church.
Adding to the color were pre-printed and hand-lettered signs
 exhorting the U.S. to "Cancel the Debt Now!"

     Following nearly four hours of inspirational speakers and
performers including Trevor Ngwane of Jubilee 2000/South
Africa; Archbishop Oscar Rodriguez, Roman Catholic archbishop
of Honduras; and John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, the
crowd marched from the National Mall to the Capitol, where
they formed a human chain around the building, symbolizing
the chains of debt to be broken during this Jubilee year of 2000.

A worldwide movement

     Jubilee 2000/USA is part of a worldwide movement to end
crushing debt, inspired by the biblical vision (Leviticus 25:8-55)
in which debts were to be canceled during every 50th year.
  As Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold has said of Jubilee, "The
essence of Jubilee is related to suspending patterns--patterns
of work, patterns of domination, patterns of acquisition.
It recognizes the need for things to rest, to restore 'right
relationships,' and recover equilibrium in the world."

     Last June, the G7, major creditor countries, reached
agreement--proposed by the U.S.--on a sweeping plan to
relieve the debt owed by 33 impoverished countries. The
World Bank and the International Monetary Fund also
have adopted a new, expanded system for providing relief.

     Legislation currently working its way through Congress calls
 for the U.S. to write off the debt owed to it by the world's
poorest countries, whose education, health and overall
development remain mired in poverty as the countries struggle
to pay back loans made to them. The legislation also
demands that the U.S. contribute to canceling debts to multilateral
institutions such as the World Bank and use its influence in other
 ways to bring about debt cancellation. Countries receiving debt
relief would have to draw up poverty-reduction plans and
protect human rights for their citizens.

     "It's a hard issue to explain to people," David Wacaster,
public policy network coordinator for the Episcopal Church
said of the debt cancellation issue, "but you can tell that
when the light bulb goes off, it really goes off and people become
quite passionate about the struggle." He said he was glad rally
 organizers had focused on the Capitol: "With the International
Monetary Fund and World Bank already on board, Congress
people are the ones who really need to hear this message."

     Episcopalians who converged on the capital from across the
nation reflect a growing awareness of the devastating effects of this
inescapable debt. Stefani Schatz of the Diocese of Los Angeles,
a second-year student at Episcopal Divinity School, said she believes
the church should be involved in politics and expressed a commitment
to using her ministry to bring justice issues into the church. "Politicians
are affected when people mobilize, and today is a pretty powerful
message if each activist represents 10 people who don't call or
write to make their voices heard."

     The Rev. Matthew Calkins from Connecticut said he was trying to
encourage awareness of how this relatively small act of debt cancellation
can have a huge impact: "As we bring back from rallies how the
Episcopal Church and others are taking action, it encourages people
to act locally and globally," he said.

     A group from the Diocese of Massachusetts brought
petitions they planned to deliver to Congress during lobbying
efforts the next day.  The Rev. Beulah Koulourias of Fall River
and the retired Rev. Homer McCue, co-chairs of their diocese's
Jubilee 2000 Task Force, have held forums around the diocese,
organized local ecumenical efforts, and preached debt
cancellation as a gospel imperative.

Lobby Day

     On April 10, an estimated 600 to 700 activists were
greeted by U.S. Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) when they converged
on Capitol Hill once again.  Following a briefing on the current
status of debt cancellation legislation, activists engaged in role-
playing exercises in preparation for making personal visits to
their representatives' offices.  Tom Hart, director of the
Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations, described
the opportunity for face-to-face contact with their representatives
as the most important part of the two-day gathering.

     Hart said the beauty of the debt-cancellation issue is that
people are drawn to it for various reasons, from a union
/labor rights perspective, for religious reasons, or from a
commitment to social justice. "The moral underpinning is a
powerful motivator for members of Congress, resulting in
broad-spectrum support, from liberals to conservatives," he said.

     Lobby Day was possible largely due to support from the
Lutheran Church of the Reformation on Capitol Hill, which
provided a place for activists to gather and store their
belongings, and also provided hospitality throughout the day.

     In both 1997 and 1999, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in
America (ELCA) addressed the issue of debt cancellation in its
Churchwide Assembly, establishing it as a priority among
advocacy issues.  Mark Brown, assistant director for interfaith
affairs and human rights in the Lutheran Office for Governmental
Affairs, has been part of the effort to raise awareness among ELCA
membership by sending out education packets and legislative

     "The whole concept of God's call to Jubilee, new beginnings,
restored relationships, and economic justice reached so many
people," he said, adding that, while he is confident Congress will
appropriate a substantial sum for debt relief this year, the message
that needs to get out to people is that similar efforts must be mounted
again in years to come.

--Sherri A. Watkins is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.

For more information contact:
Episcopal News Service
Kathryn McCormick

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