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Sounding Board - Letters to the Editor and Newsletter Excerpts

Cuts now hitting the most vulnerable people lead to calls for compassion and justice

Over the last two years, budget cuts at the state level have eroded our social safety net. Now, Governor Christine Gregoire has called a special session to deal with further shortfalls in the state budget. State agencies have been advised to prepare for additional cuts of up to 10 percent. The cuts are likely to fall hardest on social services, health care, education and corrections.

Those of us who work with the poor, the elderly, the disabled and the sick know that further cuts to our most vulnerable will create suffering of a magnitude that we, as Americans, are not prepared to see.

In a Dec. 15, 2010 press release, the governor said, “For the functions that government no longer will be able to provide, we must turn to neighbors, private charities, faith-based organizations and other local programs. Our communities, more than ever, will be asked to step up.”

She reaffirmed that appeal in a press conference in late October.

Perhaps this comment is made in desperation. Perhaps the governor believes that we have that capacity. Either way, as the leader of a faith community, I invite the governor to spend a day with me. If she did, she’d understand that churches and nonprofits have already stepped up, even as their resources have shrunk.

At Holy Trinity Episcopal’s weekly meal for those in need—HT Dinner Table—we used to serve 60 to 80 people each Wednesday night in our parish hall. Empty seats at the tables allowed volunteers to sit and eat with our guests. Last week, it was standing room only, and guests spilled out of the hall and into the courtyard. Lately, we have been at capacity at the beginning of the month and in overflow by the third Wednesday of the month—an increase of about 40 percent.

Every month is getting more challenging. Our next step is to create a second dining room in the church nave, a move which will require more volunteers, more flatware, more dinnerware and more food. Once the church is full—and based on the current trend, we believe it will be—we will be forced to turn people away.

If the governor visited the HT Dinner Table, she would see another sign of the ever-widening economic gap—the “new poor.” They are turning up at Holy Trinity, bewildered by their tumble out of the middle class and ill-equipped to survive in poverty. Most are new to the neighborhood and to the “system.” Right now, we can give them a meal, a kind word and a referral. It’s harder to provide them hope.

Other churches and organizations are similarly overwhelmed by current need. Our Place Ministries, West Central’s center for emergency services, has been running out of food on a regular basis. In the hygiene room, they distribute toilet paper, shampoo and feminine hygiene products with great care so that they don’t run out. They are always in need of blankets and sleeping bags to offer at least some protection from the oncoming winter.

There remains only one more way that faith communities and nonprofits can step up. We can match the hand of compassion with a hand of justice. We can stand a little taller and step a little closer to the leaders whose decisions are decimating those we love and serve. We can organize ourselves, our boards, our congregations and our “clients” to cry out for justice. I say “organize” because the only way we’ll be heard above all the political noise is if we cry out together, at the same moment, in the same direction.

The special session begins on Nov. 28. We need to be clear that further cuts will leave more people without food, shelter and health care. As a result, people will die. We need to urge all people of faith to call and write their legislators and the governor and demand another way.

A number of pastors and interested others are working together to strengthen our hands of compassion and justice. Anyone feeling called to care for the lost and the least and to require more from our leaders, may email me at trinitykris@gmail.com.

The Rev. Kris Christensen
Holy Trinity Episcopal Church

Faith-based social justice work is vital for congregations

In the last few months, two paragraphs from two different pieces have really stuck with me. The first is from a report from Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research titled, “The Compassionate Congregation”:

“Congregations working for social justice with a broad array of social outreach ministries are more likely to express that their congregations are vital and alive. A strong, positive correlation exists between having a wide breadth of social ministries and having a high vitality congregation. Almost 90 percent of those with a high level of justice programs are vital, compared to only 46 percent who have little involvement in justice issues. Almost 80 percent of those congregations with a great deal of involvement in outreach show high vitality, compared with 56 percent of those with low involvement and 46 percent of those with limited.”

This paragraph is an amazing affirmation for many churches and a challenge for others. In the last year, some have tried to suggest any faith-based social justice work is an expression of something in opposition to a faithful life.

Many of us may have heard—from some we know and love in our churches—the fear that, if we become involved in social justice work, our church-life will fall apart.

There are even wagging fingers of some who suggest the church or a pastor has no right to speak up on issues of injustice, inequality and violence. This piece suggests social justice work isn’t simply important but is a vital part of a church’s health.

The second paragraph is from an article by Joshua Goldstein in Foreign Policy Magazine titled, “Think Again: War;”

“…the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years, based on data by researchers Bethany Lacina and Nils Petter Gleditsch of the Peace Research Institute of Oslo. Worldwide, deaths caused directly by war-related violence in the new century have averaged about 55,000 per year, just over half of what they were in the 1990s (100,000 a year), a third of what they were during the Cold War (180,000 a year from 1950 to 1989), and a hundredth of what they were in World War II. If you factor in the growing global population, which has nearly quadrupled in the last century, the decrease is even sharper. Far from being an age of killer anarchy, the 20 years since the Cold War ended have been an era of rapid progress toward peace.”

This article ends with these words:

“Similarly rapid shifts in norms preceded the ends of slavery and colonialism, two other scourges that were once also considered permanent features of civilization. So don’t be surprised if the end of war, too, becomes downright thinkable.”

While the first piece names some logical reasons for churches to be involved in social justice work, this article names the moral imperative.

There have been many days I have gone home under a cloud of futility, convinced that working for a better world was a quixotic, useless, hopeless effort. This article has turned that on its head.

I’m more excited and willing to do this work, now, than I have been for a long time.

It ends up that it was never naïve to believe things could get better. It was naïve to believe those who said “things couldn’t get better.”

If churches don’t continue to be part of this good work, we are not just abandoning a “program,” we are denying God’s redemptive presence among us and God’s call to us to be part of that movement.

The church being involved in the work of social justice is no small, easily dismissed thing. It is this faithful work that means life for the church and hope for the world.

The Rev. Mike Denton
Pacific Northwest United Church of Christ conference minister