ELCA NEWS SERVICE
March 10, 2006
ELCA Bishops Continue Emphasis on Addressing Poverty 06-036-JB
LAKE GENEVA, Wis. (ELCA) -- The Conference of Bishops of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) continued discussions it began last fall on addressing poverty issues in the public square. The bishops heard from a law professor, a well-known national advocate for people living in poverty and hunger, and from ELCA public policy staff.
The ELCA Conference of Bishops is an advisory body of the church, consisting of the ELCA's 65 synod bishops, presiding bishop and secretary. It met here March 2-7.
The conference planned initially to meet this month in the New Orleans area, spending part of its time helping to rehabilitate homes and neighborhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina, but the conference was unable to secure accommodations there because most space is still occupied by recovery workers and people left homeless by the storm. The conference may meet in the Gulf Coast region next year.
Dr. Susan Pace Hamill, professor of law, University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, spoke about public policies and public spending policies she believes hurt people who can least afford their basic needs. Her remarks challenged the behavior of political leaders and challenged the church to become active in public policy.
"The church has a moral responsibility to speak to public policy issues because it can," Hamill said. "If the church turns its back on public policy, the church is not doing what it is called to do."
Last fall, the 65 ELCA synod bishops plus the presiding bishop signed a letter delivered to members of the U.S. Congress, questioning proposed cuts in social programs -- programs that benefited people living in poverty and hunger -- and urged members of Congress to vote against the legislation. Proposed cuts to the federal Food Stamp program were restored, but cuts in other programs were eventually adopted by razor-thin margins by the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
Hamill said she was pleased to learn of the ELCA bishops' efforts. "The church must speak. It must not sit quietly by if (lawmakers) are going to balance the budget on the backs of the poor."
Several times during her remarks Hamill reminded the bishops of the biblical mandate: "To whom much is given, much is required." She argued that as income and wealth climb for an individual the proportional tax burden must also increase.
"We were created of equal worth but we were not created of equal substance," she said, adding that some people can do more than others, and some can and should pay more tax than others.
Hamill questioned the tax
policies of the Bush administration, saying that it has endorsed proposals to cut taxes for wealthy people while increasing the proportionate share of taxes on the middle class. She also noted that in some states, such as Alabama, where issues like abortion seem to dominate political debate, state lawmakers adopt budgets that do little to meet the basic needs of its most needy people. People of faith must question such policies, particularly because a significant percentage of U.S. citizens claim to be religious people, she said.
"We have perverted faith into 'low sacrifice' so that it's comfortable for us," she said. "We need to take life seriously in the 'high sacrifice' realm of tax policy, and we're not."
Hamill concluded her presentation by adding that the way in which the federal government and some state governments treat "the least of these" is "nothing to be proud of."
Bread for the World leader addresses conference members
The conference also heard from an ELCA pastor who is a nationally known advocate for people who live in poverty and hunger, the Rev. David H. Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, Washington, D.C. Bread is a nationwide Christian citizens movement that works through advocacy with government leaders, for justice for the world's people who are living with hunger.
Beckmann thanked the ELCA and the bishops for their leadership, noting that nearly one-sixth of Bread for the World's 55,000 members are ELCA members. Bread has some 50 partner church-related organizations, Beckmann said.
"The ELCA is one of the healthiest large churches in America," Beckmann said. "One of the reasons why is that you are indeed engaged on poverty and hunger issues."
Beckmann said he is optimistic about the impact of poverty and hunger advocacy efforts. "God is moving in the history of our time to liberate millions of people from hunger, poverty and disease," he said, noting that the number of people living with hunger worldwide had declined from two-fifths of the population in 1975 to one-sixth today.
The Bush administration has adopted favorable spending on poverty-focused programs globally, and its trade and agricultural policies have been favorable for reducing hunger and poverty elsewhere, Beckmann said. Domestically poverty has increased in each of the past five years, and Beckmann said deep cuts in social programs have not helped.
Help in reducing poverty and hunger worldwide has come from an unlikely source -- celebrities such as Bono, the Irish rock star from the group U-2, and Bill and Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation, Beckmann said.
"God has sent us a prophet that wears sunglasses," he said of Bono, adding that the singer's high-profile appearances on behalf of the impoverished and people living with hunger have been a "powerful help."
"Bono and the Gates' are making a difference in the world about hunger and poverty. Who would have guessed that God would have sent rock stars and the megarich on these issues? These are gifts from God," Beckmann said.
In addition new churches, church-related groups and members of conservative Protestant churches are becoming more active in addressing poverty and hunger concerns, he said.
Beckmann urged the bishops to keep up their emphasis on reducing poverty and hunger. "If we're part of trying to reduce poverty, we're going to have a lot more credibility when we say that God loves all people," he said.
He urged the bishops to encourage ELCA members to:
+ get involved in Bread for the World's annual letter- writing campaign to members of Congress, urging the lawmakers to fund programs adequately and reduce hunger and poverty
+ support proposed "hunger-free communities" legislation in Congress
+ promote organizations that work on behalf of people who live in poverty and with hunger.
ELCA public policy staff thanks bishops for budget work
The Conference of Bishops also heard from ELCA public policy staff who work on the church's behalf in the ELCA Washington, D.C., office, and some staff who work in state public policy offices. They reviewed the strategy to address the federal budget reconciliation that motivated the bishops' letter to members of Congress last fall.
The ELCA Washington office has moved from monitoring and reporting on federal legislation to direct engagement in the issues, said Karen Vagley, director. To do that, she told the bishops the church needs strong "grass roots," and highly effective "grass tops," or leaders of the church.
She thanked the bishops for urging members of Congress publicly to vote against the 2006 federal budget that cut social programs heavily.
"At that moment this church, for the first time anyone could recall, stepped into the public square and knew it could make a difference," Vagley said. "We didn't win it all, but we made a strong impact."
As Congress begins work on a federal budget for fiscal year 2007, Vagley said she expects "massive cuts" to be proposed in programs that serve impoverished people.
Through the efforts of the ELCA and other religious groups, some 200,000 phone calls were made by people to members of Congress on the budget reconciliation issue, said Andrew Genszler, director, domestic issues, ELCA Washington office.
Genszler told the bishops he understands that lobbying and advocacy may make them uneasy.
"This is a ministry of the church. This is a calling of the church. (The Washington office) is strictly a bipartisan and a nonpartisan office," that works with both Republicans and Democrats, he said. ---
Information about the ELCA's advocacy program is at http://www.ELCA.org/advocacy/ on the Web.
Information about Bread for the World is at http://www.bread.org on the Web.
For information contact:
John Brooks, Director (773) 380-2958 or email@example.com http://www.elca.org/news ELCA News Blog: http://www.elca.org/news/blog