Religious leaders fight poverty with faith at State House vigil

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PROVIDENCE — Members of Rhode Island’s religious congregations gathered at the State House on Wednesday, January 3, for the 10th Fighting Poverty with Faith Vigil organized by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. The annual event brings together clergy and faith leaders from many denominations to advocate on behalf of the poor and pray for elected leaders upon the start of the legislative session.

The many colors of clerical dress demonstrated the diversity of the assembly as faith leaders marched from Gloria Dei Lutheran Church on Hayes Street and proceeded to a prayer rally in the State House rotunda. Maxine Richman, a member of the organization’s steering committee and representative of the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island, welcomed those gathered with an assessment of the conditions facing poor families in the state.

Richman noted that, “12.8 percent of Rhode Islanders and 17 percent of our children – that’s over 35,000 children – are still living in poverty.”

“As people of faith and as anti-poverty advocates, we find those numbers simply unacceptable,” she said.

Since 2008, the Interfaith Coalition has elevated the issue of poverty in Rhode Island, calling for legislative measures that would ensure equal opportunities in education, employment, housing and nutrition to all individuals and families. This year, the coalition’s advocacy initiatives include enacting legislation to prohibit housing discrimination, expanding access to quality childcare for low-income families, enabling undocumented residents to obtain driver’s licenses and monitoring federal actions regarding the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid.

Rev. Nikita McCalister, associate executive minister for administration for the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island and senior pastor at Bethany Baptist Church, Pawtucket, offered the keynote address. In a speech that drew enthusiastic response, she called on those gathered to express their love for their community through action and reaffirmed the role of religious faith in shaping American democracy.

“Today I request that we examine our hearts, our prejudices, our stereotypes, our presuppositions and assumptions [and] that we be willing to undergo the necessary treatment to restore health and heal the wounds of our democracy,” she said.

The event drew appearances from several of Rhode Island’s elected officials, including Governor Gina Raimondo and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. More than 60 clergy participated in the reading of names and invoking of blessings upon elected officials, beginning with President Donald Trump and continuing to local legislators and municipal leaders.

Among those participating in the vigil were many representatives of Catholic organizations, including pastors, retired clergy, religious sisters and laypeople. Father Matthew Glover, pastor at Saints Rose and Clement Parish, Warwick, said the coalition’s goals fit well with his parish’s recent efforts to provide more outreach to the local community.

“We have to go beyond charity with justice, and I think this kind of demonstration today helps us get out of our comfort zone,” he said.

Dana Brown, a parishioner at Christ the King Church, Kingston, and member of the coalition’s steering committee, said she first became involved with the organization when a former coordinator offered a presentation to her parish’s Peace and Justice Committee.

“I think that organizing faith groups for poverty is very important,” she said. “One thing that surprised me is I didn’t realize how expensive it was to be poor.”

Brown told Rhode Island Catholic that while she supports all of the coalition’s legislative initiatives, she is especially passionate about efforts to expand access to early childhood education.

“I like the early childhood education because I feel like if we can give poor kids and rich kids an equivalent start that would level the playing field, and it is not level right now.”

Many participants expressed optimism for the upcoming legislative session, especially after a key issue at last year’s vigil, free RIPTA bus passes for low-income elderly and disabled riders, was restored last summer following months of advocacy by the coalition and other organizations. However, Father John Kiley, ecumenical officer for the Diocese of Providence, indicated state leaders still have a long way to go in ensuring the rights of the poor.

“I’m here hoping against hope that our legislators pay more attention,” he said. “All people have a big part to play.”