Lawmakers Talk Poverty with Religious Leaders

The congressional 'Out-of-Poverty' caucus met with a group of religious leaders yesterday to discuss how the faith community can help stem poverty. A roundtable of the participants share insights from the meeting and how they believe the religious community can help reduce poverty.

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CHERYL CORLEY, host:

I'm Cheryl Corley, in for Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. Still to come, the Barbershop guys and your comments and emails, but first it's time for our weekly Faith Matters conversation. Members of the congressional Out of Poverty caucus met with a group of religious leaders yesterday. They discussed how the faith community can help resolve issues stemming both from long term poverty and from temporary economic distress at a time when the government is struggling to aid those who are hard hit by the recession. What can the religious community do? Well, joining us are three conference participants. Reverend Kip Banks from the Progressive National Baptist Convention, Imam Malik Mujahid President of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, and Alexia Kelley, Executive Director for Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. Welcome to the show. Thank you all for coming in.

Imam MALIK MUJAHID (President, Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago): Thanks for having us.

Reverend KIP BANKS (Progressive National Baptist Convention): Thanks for having us.

Ms. ALEXIA KELLEY (Executive Director, Catholics and Alliance for the Common Good): Thanks for having us.

CORLEY: Alexia, let's begin with you. Tell me about the goals of this conference and why it's happening now?

Ms. KELLEY: The working group, as I understand it, put it together to bring multiple faith traditions to talk about what kinds of solutions their communities and their institutions work on and what members of Congress can learn from faith communities moving forward with appropriate, just, policies to address poverty in this country.

CORLEY: Now, Reverend Banks, we all know that separation of church and state is a national principle. There are of course many instances when we've seen religious leaders address social concerns. But how do you respond to someone who believes that social issues are primarily something that the government should address and not a religious organization?

Rev. BANKS: America has a long history of cooperation between churches and government and the bottom line is that, especially in urban America, the churches are on the front lines. I, as the Pastor of a local church in Washington D.C., see daily persons coming in wanting money to pay for gas, wanting clothes, wanting food and so the churches are at a unique vantage point to be in partnership with the government, with the goal of aiding the least of our citizens. And the numbers are growing.

CORLEY: Imam Malik, does a minority faith or community have a really unique obligation to really reach out and help people who may not trust the government?

Imam MUJAHID: Poverty and hunger is not an issue of faith. It is a moral issue and all faith traditions are well equipped because of their contact with the masses on a daily basis. And because they are citizens and they are concerned about the public policy.

CORLEY: So, obviously, you really want to meet with these folks in the congressional caucus to talk where money from the government should go to address these issues?

Mr. MUJAHID: Well, I definitely think so, because poverty we are feeling right here in the United States. But just imagine today 30,000 people will die in the world, and that is two per minute because of hunger and hunger related issues. So America, as the leading nation of our civilization, has a responsibility towards the world. And that's how it will reassert the model positioning of America on these streets of the global village.

CORLEY: But does a need for faith based solutions to poverty represent a failure of the government in any way to resolve some of the pressing social issues that we see? Imam?

Mr. MUJAHID: I would say if we look at the face of poverty, which we saw during the crisis of Katrina, we noticed that faith communities were far swift in mobilizing their people and diligences and being on the spot and providing help. So it is important that not only faith communities, Muslim communities, and other faith groups, all work together and not only preaching that more of us take responsibility towards our neighbors. Also connect our action, world is not isolated, world is not in the box of Islam, Muslim, and Catholic, and Baptist. World is interconnected, and so are the issues of poverty which we see in the grassroots, we see in the downtown Chicago where I am from, and we see in Washington D.C. But we also see where our money is going. If our money will continuously be wasted in programs which do not make us popular in the world, or at home, and instead of that we take some of that money and we divert towards the solution of poverty.

CORLEY: Reverend, let me ask you to jump in here. Do you think that the government's priorities are off? Or bringing faith based groups in, does that shows some kind of failure on the part of government?

Rev. BANKS: I concur that, absolutely, there is a need for a reprioritization of policies in Washington. This week marks the 45th anniversary of Dr. Kings' letter from the Birmingham jail and in that letter, he argued, very eloquently, for the interrelatedness of the world. And talked about how American foreign policy affects the poor in urban Chicago and urban Washington D.C. That was 45 years ago and his words are prophetic and they speak to us today.

Today we are spending billions, upon billions, in a war in Iraq where too many people are dying senselessly, but yet our young people are dying senselessly right here, in Washington D.C. There is a need for the Congress to invest in our national security right here, in urban America. To spend on Head Start, to help with housing, with health care, and that's what we are urging the Congress. Because certainly poverty is a moral issue, and we want to be the moral voice of the nation saying that we have to help those in our nation.

CORLEY: If you are just tuning in, you are listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm Cheryl Corley and I am speaking to Imam Malik Mujahid, Alexia Kelley, and Reverend Kip Banks about the faith community's response to poverty. Alexia, you look like you wanted to jump in there?

Ms. KELLEY: Just yes, on that question of, kind of, government or faith based communities, I wanted to just affirm that it's certainly in many of our traditions and in the Catholic tradition, it's not an either, or. That it's both faith-based communities working in partnership with positive and just government programs and good social policy. And there is a wonderful campaign to reduce poverty. The goal is to reduce poverty in the United States by 50 percent by the year 2020. We need a strong social safety net and that certainly has been eroded over the years. We need an expanded food stamp, we need to create more living waged jobs, and then we need a strong partnership with our faith communities and government to bring this change about. And I think the faith communities can create the political will, too, that can help bring about these changes and can help reduce poverty and achieve this goal of the 50 percent reduction by 2020.

CORLEY: Well, when you were laying out what the conference was about, you talked about how each focused on a different facet of poverty and I know, Alexia, your group focus for the conference was health care. And I know that non Catholics may worry that your organization could bring certain values to health care issues that not all Americans embrace, particularly I'm thinking about reproductive rights. And I was wondering how your organization addresses that concern? Or if you think it should even be a concern when you talk about?

Ms. KELLEY: The focus is on making sure that the poor and all Americans have access to health care.

CORLEY: So, does that mean you steer away from the controversial kinds of things that are happening in health care?

Ms. KELLEY: Well, we work more broadly on communicating, promoting awareness of that Catholic social teaching, and the principle of the common good that's at the center of that tradition. You know many of the groups that do advocacy, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Catholic Health Association. They work more on the details of making sure there are conscious clause exceptions in Catholic hospitals and issues like that, that one might consider more delicate.

CORLEY: All right. Imam Malik, your concern was climate change and how that affects food availability. I know that recently the Vatican has made climate change a pressing issue on its agenda. Has there been a similar trend within Islam?

Mr. MUJAHID: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is extremely important to note that poverty is not independent of the climate changes. Both are quite connected. In Africa, for example, only four percent of the crop land is irrigated. The rest of it is dependent on weather, weather patterns, rain, too much rain, absence of rain. And people in the world is spending, Africa for example, 80 percent of all their earning, goes to buy groceries. And just contrast that with our home here. Fifteen percent of the groceries we buy in America, by an average, 40 percent of all food in America is wasted.

CORLEY: All right. Well I want to ask you, Reverend Banks, as I understand it, you discussed urban violence and youth unemployment. And there are many people who believe that, again these are largely economic and policy problems, and perhaps the church really can't fix them? So, what role do you believe the church has?

Rev. BANKS: Clearly, the effort to educate and to help urban youth is multi-faceted. And certainly the church has, as a role to play, and one area is in character education. That young African-American men are in crisis, when you look at education. Only eight percent of young black men have graduated from college. Young black men represent over 40 percent of the prison population and so clearly there is a need for character education. And our churches are working to get the character education part together. We are also doing what we can do to provide jobs in terms of working in partnership with local governments. And even churches themselves are employing young men, but we have many challenges, for example...

CORLEY: I guess one of them would be making sure that the young men come to church to get that help?

Rev. BANKS: That's a challenge, but as well, for example, what so many young men in prison - when they come out of prison, assuring that there are jobs that they can get, having a criminal record and so we have a commission where we are working to ensure that persons coming out of prison are - that they are able to get jobs.

CORLEY: You know, during this presidential year, we've heard a lot about faith throughout the campaign and even during- with the current administration as well. And looking towards the November elections, I was wondering if you thought that the presidential candidates have been demonstrating or should demonstrate that they're open to faith0based approaches to poverty? Why don't we start with you, Imam?

Imam MUJAHID: I feel faith-based approaches to poverty is one of the solutions. Public policy, faith groups, educational systems, civil society, all of these should work in partnership. Because the challenge in which we are facing of climate change, as well as its impact on poverty are tremendous changes. So I'm looking for leadership from McCain as well as Obama, and I would like to see that as a part of the first debate between them.

CORLEY: All right. Alexia Kelley, your thoughts on that?

Ms. KELLEY: Yes, well, one in four voters - American voters are Catholic. So we focus on really encouraging and empowering catholic voters to bring these concerns around poverty and common good and issues of healthcare and climate change that relate to poverty to both candidates in the presidential race and at all levels and to ask these hard questions about how will you address poverty through policy and in supporting the faith community. I think the important challenge is for all voters, faith voters and voters of conscience, to bring these issues and ask the hard questions of the candidates.

CORLEY: And Reverend, your thoughts on this?

Rev. BANKS: Certainly. We encourage both of the candidates to pay attention to what the church has to say concerning poverty. And clearly, there is a distinct role for the faith community, but there is also a distinct role for the government. Dr. King, again, was the moral voice of our nation. And that's what our churches are today. A moral voice crying to the fellow governments saying that we have a responsibility to take care of the least of our citizens.

Yes it is the church's role, but the church is not able to spend a trillion dollars. There are certain things that are solely in the purview of the federal government and the church's role is to be a prophetic voice saying to the government that we, one of the richest nations on the face of the planet, have a responsibility to care for the poor both domestically, and as well, abroad.

CORLEY: Reverend Kip Banks represents the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Imam Malik Mujahid is the president of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. And Alexia Kelley is from Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good. They all joined us here in our Washington D.C. studio. Thank you so much.

Imam MUJAHID: Well, thank you.

Ms. KELLY: Thank you.

Rev. BANKS: Thank you.

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