PROVIDENCE — The Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition held its 11th annual conference on May 8 at Rhode Island College, calling on local faith leaders to listen to those in need and push for state legislation to ban housing discrimination, raise the minimum wage and boost childcare benefits.
The conference drew representatives from several local parishes, including St. Michael the Archangel in Providence and Holy Family in Pawtucket.
The keynote speaker was the Rev. Aundreia Alexander, who is the associate general secretary for Action and Advocacy for the National Council of Churches. Alexander’s address focused on civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer’s faith and approach to poverty.
“This kind of work is one that is a combination of both policy, practical solutions, strategic partnerships — and that strategic partnership for people of faith includes the partnership and the relationship with God, but also persistence,” Alexander said in an interview.
She said Hamer, who was born in 1917 and was from Mississippi, lived in conditions of poverty so extreme that they were akin to modern-day slavery. But, just like the slaves of past generations, Hamer found hope and faith that “infused her life.”
Hamer shows how faith can be a source of strength in one’s own struggle with poverty. She also followed the example of Christ in helping others with their struggles, according to Alexander. “Jesus asks people all the time, ‘What do you want? What do you need?’ He listened to people. He spent time in the midst of the communities of people who were most marginalized?” Alexander said.
Rabbi Jeffrey Goldwasser of Temple Sinai in Cranston delivered the response to the keynote. “We are not just here to understand the challenges and to look to solutions from above. We are here not just to cry. We are here to do something,” Goldwasser said.
The conference focused on three areas of action: housing discrimination, fair wages and child care. After the keynote event, attendees broke out into workshops on each issue, focusing on how to take the message to state lawmakers.
Nondas Hurst Voll, a parishioner at St. Michael the Archangel Parish, led the workshop on housing discrimination. She told the Rhode Island Catholic that all three issues impact members of her parish, which is in a predominantly low-income minority neighborhood on the South Side of Providence.
Voll plans to take information gleaned from the conference back to her parishioners, hoping to galvanize them into action.
“It affects most of my parishioners,” said Father Robert Perron, the pastor of St. Michael’s. “Housing and fair wages … they’re all connected for us.”
He said the parish serves as an “interface” between parishioners who are facing discrimination and those in positions of power to change that.
“When people do come they’re having the experience of being discriminated against,” Father Perron said. “And a lot of times they have no idea of how to approach that. And we become that middle ground as a parish that takes what people are asking from us and then looks at the structures and the possibilities that are there and we try to interface those two things. We become almost like translators.”
Perron said the Interfaith Coalition’s work lines up with Catholic social teaching on the rights of the poor to food, housing and safety, which imposes a responsibility for the rest of society to ensure the provision of those needs.
One of the key lessons of Hamer’s life is that “poverty is personal,” Alexander said.
Ultimately, that personal approach starts with seeing Christ in others.
“He came down to be one of us and therefore the dignity of every human being is at first sight the Incarnation,” Father Perron said. “Because Christ became a human being, every person has a dignity far beyond what we might see.”