Jennifer is the founding CEO of Faith in Public Life. Before leading FPL Jennifer spent ten years working in the field of international human rights representing the Presbyterian Church (USA) at the United Nations and is an ordained minister.
In an opening salvo of the coming values debate over inequality, Sen. Marco Rubio made waves this week by with a much-anticipated speech inaccurately declaring the War on Poverty a failure and blaming “big government” for the growth of poverty and inequality.
His remarks painted a compassionate veneer on the failed conservative agenda of undermining the federal government’s support for struggling Americans, and inaccurately denied that anti-poverty policies lift millions of Americans out of poverty every year.
And just two days ago, Rubio voted against extending unemployment benefits for 1.3 million Americans — at a time when there are three job-seekers for every one job opening. He’s also spoken out against minimum wage increases, which will come up for a Senate vote soon. Compassionate rhetoric doesn’t mean a thing if you turn your back on your neighbor when she’s been laid off or can’t feed her children.
Faith leaders can shape the coming debate over poverty and inequality. When Paul Ryan said in 2012 that his plan to slash basic safety net protections for the poorest Americans was consistent with his Catholic faith, it was nuns and theologians who called him on it. In 2014, we won’t let politicians get away with talking the talk about compassion while voting for cruel and immoral policies.
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Many faith leaders of my generation were inspired to dedicate ourselves to seeking social justice because of Nelson Mandela. The struggle he led for equality in South Africa not only ended a brutally oppressive and racist regime, but also empowered people around the globe to spark movements for justice and reconciliation in their own nations. We owe Mandela a great debt.
Mandela wasn’t just a global icon, he was a community organizer. The anti-apartheid movement succeeded not only because of his personal leadership, but also because he was part of a mass movement for equality.
This lesson holds true today. A day after President Obama quoted Pope Francis in a landmark speech declaring our nation’s staggering economic inequality the central challenge of our time, fast-food workers in more than 100 U.S. cities mounted a strike for living wages.
I’m humbled by the courage of these workers – modern-day Davids — risking their jobs by standing up to wealthy corporations that dole out millions to CEOs but pay their employees so poorly that many must turn to public assistance to feed their families. This is a sinful system that not only forces millions of families into hardship, but also cost taxpayers $3.8 billion every year.
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Many tears were shed on the National Mall on Tuesday morning when leaders of the Fast for Families who had gone without food for 22 days broke their fast before an audience of faith leaders, Members of Congress, and leaders of the immigration reform movement. Witnessing the commitment and sacrifice of these physically weakened but spiritually powerful leaders was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had in a long time. I’m especially proud that my colleagues at FPL have played a key role in planning and carrying out the Fast For Families from the beginning.
And the movement continues. After the outgoing fasters received a blessing from Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, seven more people — including five faith leaders — began their own long-term fasts in the same tent where it all started on November 12th. It’s a sign that our resolve for immigration reform that protects families and builds a path to citizenship is stronger than ever. As my friend Rev. Gabriel Salguero told the crowd, we’re going to win because our cause is just.
At the same time, thousands took part in solidarity fasts across the country, including students on 15 Catholic college campuses organized by Faith in Public Life. If Speaker Boehner had hoped the faith community’s groundswell for citizenship was a last gasp, he was sorely mistaken.
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Yesterday Pope Francis issued a devastating moral critique of our economic system, saying in part:
Just as the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say “thou shalt not” to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills. How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points? This is a case of exclusion. Can we continue to stand by when food is thrown away while people are starving? This is a case of inequality. Today everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.
This inequality is alive and well in our own backyard. For example, Walmart — the nation’s largest employer — pays their American workers an average wage low enough to qualify for SNAP benefits for a family of three. Employees at a Walmart in Ohio even collected holiday food donations for the store’s own poverty-wage employees this month. Meanwhile their shelves are stocked with products manufactured in life-threatening conditions by workers trapped in abject poverty, and the company founder’s family is the richest in the world.
Walmart is by no means alone. Squeezing the vast multitude of workers while racking up huge profits and doling out staggering salaries to a tiny corporate elite is a feature, not a bug, of the entire economic order. Human beings are treated as if they exist to serve the system, rather than vice versa. It’s a crisis of values.
There are hopeful signs that alleviating the suffering is becoming a higher priority in Washington. For example, the Senate will vote next month on raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. Don’t get me wrong – this is just one step towards a pro-familiy economy that truly values the dignity of work.
And in a sorely needed break from the bipartisan obsession with fiscal austerity that has gripped Washington in recent years, Sen. Elizabeth Warren recently took to the Senate floor to call for expanding Social Security benefits instead of cutting them like leaders of both parties proposed earlier this year. At a time when one-third of Americans near retirement age have no retirement savings to fall back on, Warren is 100% right about the need to change the debate instead of succumbing to false choices. As Francis argued yesterday, it’s a matter of life and death that demands our concern and action.
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While House Republican leaders continue dragging their feet and making excuses for blocking a vote for immigration reform, more than 1,000 people are deported every day and millions live in fear that they’ll be next. The time has come for dramatic action to awaken consciences on Capitol Hill.
This week faith and immigrant leaders began the Fast For Families, A Call for Immigration Reform & Citizenship just yards away from the U.S. Capitol on the national Mall. Clergy and activists will abstain from food and pray continually to move the hearts of lawmakers. This is an incredible display of commitment. Some participants will fast for several days, and others are pledging to fast until their bodies can no longer go on.
At the kick off event yesterday, I heard participants invoke not only Scripture, but also Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez – all of whom fasted as part of their historic struggles against oppression. Those who casually dismiss immigration reform’s chances fail to recognize the profound moral stakes we face at this moment. We refuse to let opportunistic politicians stand idly by while immigrant families are shattered.
Tonight I’ll be joining Rev. William Barber II, the leader of the Moral Mondays movement, for a prayer service with the fasters and 60 young immigrant families.
If you’re in DC, please join us at 5:00 PM at the corner of 3rd St and Jefferson Ave, SW. Even if you can’t make it, you can still support this movement by signing up for a one-day solidarity fast, visiting the tents in DC, or simply spreading the word in your community. Visit www.fast4families.org to learn more.
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