Christian leaders urge focus on poor in Obama stimulus package

WASHINGTON – Nine Christian leaders said the transition team of President-elect Barack Obama listened attentively to their urging that the needs of the poor be included in a planned economic stimulus package once Obama assumes the presidency.

They said they were challenged by a transition-team official to have the members of their respective denominations demand help for the poor in the stimulus package.

“We hope and believe overcoming poverty, which diminishes the lives and dignity of so many of our children, is a central and urgent priority for common and persistent action for all of us,” said Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory of Atlanta, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

He spoke during a Jan. 15 press conference sponsored by Christian Churches Together following the transition-team meeting.

“Perhaps the most important word in Catholic teaching and in overcoming poverty is ‘and,’ ” Archbishop Gregory said.

Overcoming poverty, he added, will require, among other things:

– “More personal responsibility from parents in raising children and more public responsibility from government to help them escape poverty.”

– “More bipartisan cooperation and less ideological posturing in the national debate over how to reduce poverty in our nation.”

– “Decent jobs at decent wages for those who can work and a decent safety net for those who can’t work, can’t find work or aren’t paid livable wages.”

The nine Christian leaders at the press conference said they offered no specific policy prescriptions to the Obama transition team.

The Rev. Sharon Watkins, general minister and president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), said afterward that specifics were not offered in order to maintain consensus among the various members of Christian Churches Together, which encompasses Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, African-American Protestant, evangelical and Pentecostal denominations.

“We believe that renewed commitment to overcome poverty is central to the mission of the church and essential to our unity in Christ,” reads one portion of Christian Churches Together’s statement on poverty. The organization’s four objectives to reduce poverty are to strengthen families and communities, reduce child poverty, strengthen the educational system, and “make work work” by “guaranteeing that full-time work offers a realistic escape from poverty and access to good health care.”

While much talk regarding the stimulus package’s components has been aimed at the middle class, the poor need its benefits as well, said the Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners. “We do care about the middle class,” he said. “But it is our task to make sure the poor, who are close to the heart of God, are not left out during this economic crisis.”

Rev. Wallis said America’s churches may have to gird for a “poverty emergency” if the U.S. economy continues to falter, potentially swelling the ranks of the nation’s poor from the current 37.2 million to 45 million at a time when denominations and individual congregations are themselves feeling the effects of a recession that has already lasted more than a year.

Similar hopes for reducing American poverty were expressed in 2001 when George W. Bush assumed the presidency, said the Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, general secretary of the Reformed Church in America and one of those invited by Bush to suggest themes to use in his first inaugural speech. “Eight years have passed,” the minister added, and “in the United States 4 million more people have fallen into poverty.”

In past years, Pentecostals and evangelicals might not have seen the need to care for the poor, said Bishop James D. Leggett, presiding bishop of the International Pentecostal Holiness Church. But “the Lord demands” it, he noted, adding “there is a growing sense among evangelical Protestants to pay attention to the needs of the poor.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.