“Standing here surrounded by more than 60 clergy persons reminds me that faith leaders participated in the ratification of the United States Constitution and the Virginia Declaration of Rights from the seventeenth century,” said Reverend Nikita McCalister, Senior Pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Pawtucket. “And now, we continue to affirm the separation of church and state while attesting to the power of faith to shape the contour and framework of our government, institutions, mores and values of our society. Yet, faith has eternal answers to the questions of our time. As chronicled in the Holy Writ through the prophet Micah 6:8: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
McCalister was speaking at the 10th annual Fighting Poverty with Faith Interfaith Vigil at the Rhode Island State House. The vigil, organized by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty and held at the very beginning of the General Assembly‘s legislative session, is a way for clergy in Rhode Island to inform state legislators and elected officials about faith-based legislative priorities and social justice concerns.
“Today we are celebrating our 10th vigil,” said Maxine Richman, a member of the Advisory Committee to the Coalition, as he event began. “Since our inception in 2008, the RI Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty has worked for bills and budgets that will achieve economic security for all Rhode Islanders. We are proud to have shared in that work over the years with so many of you. But sadly, we are not yet where we need to be: 12.8 percent of Rhode Islanders and 17 percent of our children are still living in poverty – that’s nearly one in five children. As people of faith and as anti-poverty advocates, we find those numbers simply unacceptable.”
The coalition maintains that every Rhode Islander should have:
- A decent, safe and affordable home
- Adequate food and nutrition
- Equal access to affordable and quality health care
- Equal and quality education for all children
- Decent work with adequate income
Speaking at the event were Governor Gina Raimondo and Senate President Dominick Ruggerio. Notable for his absence was Speaker of the House Nicholas Mattiello.
Richman welcomed thanked Raimondo for supporting several of the Interfaith Coalition’s key priorities, including championing raising the minimum wage, consistently supported early learning opportunities by increasing Rhode Island’s head start, free kindergarten and the childcare assistance program andsupported the restoration of the free bus pass program.
“On this ten-year anniversary of the Fighting Poverty with Faith Vigil, I am proud to join with my fellow elected officials to commit to leading with care, compassion and wisdom,” said Governor Raimondo. “We’ve made progress over the last decade, but we must do more to help our neighbors and reduce poverty across Rhode Island.”
“The Senate is grateful to the Interfaith Coalition for their work each year to focus our attention upon those Rhode Islanders most in need,” said Ruggerio. “For the tenth year, we begin the legislative session with this appropriate reminder that the decisions we make as policymakers can make a real difference for those struggling with income insecurity. Working together, we have been able to address important issues such as the restoration of free bus passes for low-income seniors and disabled individuals. I am hopeful that we will continue to make progress to break the cycle of poverty in 2018, through actions such as prohibiting income discrimination in housing.”
The Interfaith Coalition released its Advocacy Platform for the coming legislative session, which includes the following principles and policy initiatives:
1. Enact legislation that will prohibit housing discrimination based on a tenant’s lawful source of income.
2. Expand access to quality childcare and other early learning opportunities:
- Increase the eligibility limit for the Child Care assistance program to 200 percent of the federal poverty level from the current 180 percent
- Increase the rates the state pays child care providers
- Continued expansion of Pre-K and Head Start
3. Support safe roads by allowing qualified Rhode Islanders to obtain driver licenses regardless of their immigration status
4. Monitoring federal actions regarding the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicaid
“We gather here to wish the legislators a productive session,” concluded Richman. “We are also here to offer them our support with the understanding that alleviating poverty must be a top public policy priority. As they face the difficult decisions this legislative session will bring, we urge them to please take the voice of wisdom and compassion as their guide. All Rhode Islanders need and deserve a pathway out of poverty and a road to economic security.”
You can see video of the entire vigil here: