Remarks by Rev. Michael Livingston at Circle of Protection press conference

Circle of Protection leaders share about poverty and the election at the National Press Club in Washington, DC before they release videos made by both presidential candidates that explained, from a faith perspective, what they would do to form a circle of protection around people living in poverty.

Remarks by Rev. Michael Livingston at Circle of Protection press conference upon release of videos made by the presidential candidates explaining how they will form a circle of protection around the most vulnerable.

September 12, 2012 – National Press Club

By the end of July, over 1 billion dollars had been raised, and most of it spent, by the presidential candidates, their respective parties, and just one primary Super Pac supporting each candidate.  Fifty-five days from the election that number is much higher.  Over a billion dollars!  And our candidates have not been talking about helping the people of our nation, over 12 million of them children, living in the most desperate conditions.

Since the recession began in 2007 two congressional districts in the entire nation have seen poverty decrease significantly.  In 388 congressional districts poverty has deepened.  Our congress, our candidates are not talking about this.  It doesn’t seem to matter.  Shame on us.

Children and families living in poverty don’t have a Super PAC representing their interests, buying commercial airtime, making back room deals to improve their lot.  Well, their interests are our interests.

People of faith in our congregations can’t compete with the shadowy contributions of millionaires hiding behind bad campaign laws. We can and do stand with people living in poverty and lift our voices on their behalf.  And today we are asking the 350,000 congregations we represent in the U.S. to make hunger and poverty a core issue when they go to the polls in November.

Rev. Michael Livingston, former president, National Council of Churches and Director of National Public Policy, Interfaith Worker Justice

Poverty and the Election: Listen in on What Some NCC Leaders are Saying

Kathryn M. Lohre,  President, National Council of Churches

Jesus worked and lived with people on the margins of society, and our call as a church is to continue that ministry. We are called as God’s church to build a kingdom of God where all are fed and community shares with each other. God’s church is at work bringing offerings of food to share with hungry people, sheltering those without homes in our fellowship halls, and creating support networks like job clubs and employment ministries. Yet, that is not enough. We must also create a society that provides for those in need. Senior religious leaders from the National Council of Churches joined with other religious leaders through the Circle of Protection, calling on our presidential candidates to address poverty. In response, Presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle have articulated how they plan to exercise their leadership in order to alleviate poverty. We, as the church, join them and encourage the nation as a whole to make eradicating poverty a national priority.

The Rt. Rev. Reginald T. Jackson, Bishop 

Office of Ecumenical and Urban Affairs, African Methodist Episcopal Church

We must not be misled into believing that the recession is the primary cause of increased poverty in America, for while poverty has increased during the recession, poverty was also increasing before the recession. A decade before the recession, while the nation’s economy was booming, poverty was on the rise. The gap between the middle class and the poor was widening and more and more people and families were falling out of the middle class. This is especially true among African Americans and other minorities.

The people of God, regardless of political party or affiliation, must raise our voices and call upon our political leaders to face and address the issue of poverty, and do it now. Leadership demands it, and the hurt and suffering of the poor, especially children, requires it.

Dr. Sharon E. Watkins

General Minister and President, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in the United States and Canada

The Biblical vision of wholeness (shalom) includes a world in which there is enough for everyone. As people of faith who are committed to this vision of wholeness, the members of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are deeply concerned about the poverty that currently plagues so many of God’s children. We therefore support all efforts to end this poverty, from the courageous compassion of our local, regional and general ministries to the public policies that affect all of us. We are pleased that the Presidential candidates from both major parties are giving time and attention to the issue of poverty, and we look forward to hearing more from them about their specific plans to address this problem.

Nathan Hosler
Advocacy and Peace Witness Ministries, Church of the Brethren

The Church of the Brethren has firmly believed that as followers of Jesus we are called to serve one another in the way that Jesus demonstrated by washing his disciples’ feet. We urge all leaders to support programs that care for persons in poverty. We recognize that as individuals and families are assisted they will not only lead healthier lives but will be able to assist others in need.

 Dr. Carroll A. Baltimore, Sr., President

Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc.

The Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc. (PNBC) is the denominational home of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.” Organized in 1961, the PNBC has a rich and lavish history of championing the cause of social justice issues and public policies for the voiceless and the most vulnerable of our global society.

The scriptures tell us that the poor will always be with us. But, we are not to neglect caring for the poor. The measure of our society and humankind in particular, is how we address the least of these. People who are destitute have no lobbyists or any media machine to advocate for them. That is why the Christian faith community is called upon to constantly bring this issue to our politicians. This is the first step to feeling the discomfort that is necessary to make a change. We must lift the veil of denial and neglect that keeps our nation from confronting poverty.

In this election year, the PNBC calls on our politicians and elected officials from the local and federal government entities to break the silence in dealing with issues of poverty. We can do better as a nation. It is unjust and immoral to constantly ignore the issues of poverty and push the least of these aside as if they do not exist. We must make the issue of eradicating poverty a top political and social agenda in this decade.

Rev. Geoffrey A. Black
General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ

Our faith calls us to place the poor and most marginalized in our communities at the forefront of concern.  Those who struggle economically in our society, the most vulnerable  — children living in poverty, people living with chronic health issues, seniors, women trying to escape violence in their homes – do not have a voice at the policy-making table or a hand in influencing political campaigns. The United Church of Christ has a long history of actively serving the needs of vulnerable populations in our communities and advocating for systemic solutions that lift people out of poverty and uphold the common good. We urge all people to let your voices be heard through your vote. As our faith teachings remind us, nations are judged by how they treat the poorest and most vulnerable people.  Our faith calls us to consider how our choices this election affect the “least of these.”

Rev. Michael Livingston

Former President, National Council of Churches

National Public Policy Director, Interfaith Worker Justice

“Since the current recession began in 2007, only two congressional districts in the entire nation have seen poverty decrease significantly. In 388 districts, poverty has deepened. We cannot fix a problem we don’t acknowledge exists. There is precious little conversation about the millions of Americans living in poverty and the swelling numbers of children and families falling into poverty. Our presidential candidates can lead the way in a broader and deeper wrestling with our moral obligation to care for the poor. These videos are a good start on a much needed, much avoided national conversation. Next, let’s get to work repairing our safety net, putting people to work in good jobs and caring for the most vulnerable among us.”

 

A Labor Day Sermon by Rev. Michael Livingston: Best Seat in the House

Best Seat in the HouseRev. Michael Livingston

James 2:1-10, 14-17

Rev. Michael Livingston; Director of Public Policy, Interfaith Worker Justice

Delivered at the United Methodist Chapel at 100 Maryland Ave NE Washington, DC on September 5, 2012

I’ve got a new friend.  Her name is Vernell Livingston.  I met her last October at the fall mobilization for Fighting Poverty with Faith.  It’s an interfaith effort to eliminate poverty as soon as possible—to engage people of faith across the religious spectrum in understanding the dimensions of the problem and more importantly—doing something about it.  There is always a “Take action” component:  You know, like the text—“Faith without action is nothing.”   The focus of the mobilization was on hunger and we decided to issue a Food Stamp Challenge, to people of faith across, the congress, to religious leaders.  The center of the event was an experience shopping at the Capitol Hill Safeway grocery store.

We invited members of Congress, religious leaders, and a White House representative to shop with food stamp recipients in the District of Columbia on the $31.50 for a week of groceries provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—that’s what we call food stamps now. So, I met Vernell. We talked first about the coincidence of having the same last name and tried to figure out if we were related but her North Carolina clan didn’t seem to have any connection to my Louisiana/Texas bunch.  It was instructive watching her make decisions about what to buy based on what she had already and calculating what she’d need for other necessities during the month.  That’s no longer my reality.

I got in touch with her after the event wanting to write an article about her, telling her story.  So we talked by phone and we met and I got to know her better and I learned about her life.  Vernell was one of the oldest of 12 children in South Carolina.  What were you doing at 12?  I was playing little league baseball and learning the Clarinet; I was in the Boy Scouts and praying the Lakers would one day beat the Celtics and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West would win an NBA championship.  Vernell was picking cotton and tobacco alongside her father in sweltering heat.  After he suffered a debilitating stroke, Vernell’s fate was sealed.  She never went back to school and spent what would have been her junior and senior high years in those fields inhaling the deadly fumes of tobacco plants and pesticides sprayed with farmworkers in the fields.  She’s not much older than I am.

As a young woman she was sent to Washington DC to keep the children of an aunt while the aunt worked and she soon began domestic work in DC homes and that led finally to work as a maid in the motel industry in for most of her life.  Disability following hip replacement surgery ended her days on her knees cleaning bathtubs and toilets and dusting under beds in motels and she lives today in government subsidized housing on $885 a month Social Security.  Earlier this year her nearly $200 a month SNAP benefits were cut, without explanation, to $31.  She’s still trying to understand what has happened.

What has happened?  It is a good question for all of us.  We listen to lie upon lie from candidates running for every political office and that has become normal discourse barely commented upon by mainstream media and fodder for ridicule on cable stations that reach a few million people a night.  Our great (?) nation has the most unequal income distribution among all major industrialized nations on the planet.  In the last 40 years our economy doubled in size and yet the average income for 90% of us fell by 6% while annual income of the top 1/100th of 1% grew by nearly $20 million.  We’re talking about 16,000 households here.    Vernell’s isn’t one of them.

What has happened here?  Forty-nine million Americans living in poverty; 12 million of them are children.  There are only two congressional districts in the entire nation that have had a statistically significant decrease in poverty since the recession began in 2007.  145 have stayed the same 388 have seen a significant increase in people living in poverty since 2007.  And we keep electing people to congress who don’t work to lift people out of poverty.  Dr. William Barber is the President of the NAACP in North Carolina.  A friend sent me a video of his remarks from their recently concluded annual gathering.  He put words in the mouths of political candidates today:  “Elect me and I’ll take your health care, I’ll take your voting rights, I’ll take your social security, I’ll re-segregate your schools, I’ll ignore your poverty”—and he said, “…they still get votes.”

What has happened?  Workers are fighting to bargain collectively, to be paid fairly, to afford health care, to send their children to college and hope they graduate without crushing debt, to expect that they will be able to afford to live comfortably in the last years of life. Labor Day is a hollow shell, just another not so long weekend in a hard year. President Eisenhower said in 1956 that the right of workers to organize would be a permanent part of the platform of his administration and that anyone who opposed it would be, his word, “stupid.”  Times change.

This text from James has been the occasion for the ages old debate—what is more important, faith or works?  There is no choice here and I think James makes that clear.  This is not just about remembering the poor in our prayers, not about having our consciences pricked or raising the level of our awareness.  This goes beyond sending money to organizations that serve the needs of the poor.  It is more than sophisticated political advocacy on Capitol Hill of the kind we are engaged in here.  It includes but is deeper than addressing the root causes of poverty, the structural impediments to a fundamentally just society that is vigilant in its opposition to racism and effectively guards against the unfettered greed that so infests our system, turning corporations into people and money into speech while grinding real people into dust.

All of this is essential; we had better attend to it, but not at the expense of missing the deeper truth.  Wherever we are on the spectrum of human life, whatever our age, level of education, whatever our status, class, place of work, sexual orientation, age, race, color, or creed; if we don’t have a job or a safe place to sleep, if we’re the elite of elites or the last among the lost, whether we’ve inherited riches or are rich in our humanity alone– We are all one people; all in this together.  No one is better than any other, more worthy, closer to wherever heaven might be.  James reminds us that building relationships of mutuality and respect, that treating people—whether rich or poor is the measure of our grasp of the divine among us: the image of God on every face.

So James says “If Donald Trump comes in your church and a poor person in dirty clothes comes in and you seat the Donald and make the poor person stand—your mind is poisoned with sin and the whole weight of moral law falls on your head.”  We know that in early Christianity in Syria, this teaching took root. If a poor person showed up, and no seats were available in the congregation, the bishop had to give up his seat.

We are living in a nation at a time when the wealthy get all the good seats:  Jack Nicholson on the floor at the Laker games, the Royal Box at Wimbledon, the legacy admissions at top colleges…and on and on and on.  James says:  Vernell gets the best seat in house, and doesn’t she deserve it?  Amen.

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