Roman Catholic Bishop Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston called for listening sessions throughout the state of West Virginia. He then drafted a moving pastoral letter on child poverty “Setting Children Free: Loosening the Bonds of Child Poverty in West Virginia.” Along with that pastoral letter, he promised $100,000 in matching grants to support parishes and schools in fighting child poverty. Most recently, he has become a leading voice in the call for Medicaid expansion in the state.
Meanwhile, United Methodist Bishop Sandra L. Steiner Ball also made a call to action to emphasize child poverty in church on February 24th, 2013. As a result, many churches talked about child poverty during their services, and Dunbar United Methodist Church even made and played this educational video. She also urged them to go to the West Virginia Capitol on February 26th asking for change along with the West Virginia Council of Churches and the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. She has followed up, emphasizing the importance on continuing to seek justice and working to end poverty in this opinion piece.
John Unger, West Virginia Senate Majority Leader, a member of the National Council of Churches Pastors Ending Poverty network, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, often visits schools and asks: “What would be one thing you would change in the school if you could?’ ” Unger said. Students suggested they create an extra lunch period. Unger why they would want an extra lunch. A boy spoke up. “He said, ‘That way I can eat an extra lunch before I go home so I won’t have to eat mommy and daddy’s food, so they’ll have enough for my brother,’ ” Unger remembered. This moved Senator Unger to call for a committee on child poverty in the WV State Senate. His proposal was accepted and the committee has has already successfully passed legislation through the West Virginia Senate to establish a “Feed to Achieve” school breakfast program.
The West Virginia Council of Churches is actively working with the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition to do the hard work of mobilizing a large base of people that will push to make a difference. Director of the West Virginia Council of Churches Rev. Jeff Allen explained, “I think that this is our generations’ unfinished agenda. While it might seem outrageous to attempt to cut child poverty in half in ten years, I can think of nothing more outrageous than to do nothing and to leave a third of West Virginia’s children in poverty.” Rev. Allen previously worked for the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition, but the leadership of the West Virginia Council of Churches on child poverty goes way back. In fact, just last week, the immediate past Director of the West Virginia Council Rev. Dennis Sparks published a powerful op ed in the Charleston Gazette condemning politicians in Washington, DC for ignoring the suffering of those in poverty: “There is real hardship in our nation, of a type and intensity that elite Washington participants in the never-ending budget drama never consider and probably can’t imagine. Those politicians attending fundraisers in Capitol Hill townhouses tonight, discussing over cocktails and hors d’oeuvres how to solve our budget dilemma by cutting kids from Head Start, or making Medicaid less accessible, or eliminating job training, must never have seen want in a child’s eyes, or desperation on a senior’s face, or the grim determination of the long-term unemployed.”
West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition has helped foster much activity in faith communities through a widespread listening campaign. Much of their organizing and direction to end child poverty came from community conversations. Director Steve Smith explained their methods and plans: “We just completed 47 community meetings around the state asking ‘What does child poverty look like here?’ That’s given us a platform of 10 issues we want concrete progress on. We’re building a voice of West Virginia’s kids and families for West Virginia’s kids and families. There’s a tendency to think advocates are fighting for those who can’t fight for themselves, caring for someone else’s kids. While we need advocates of all stripes, one of the reasons we aren’t making more progress is because there are not enough people in leadership positions who are directly affected by child poverty.” To learn more about the work of the Healthy Kids and Families coalition, email Steve Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org