Faith leaders fear for poor in U.S. shutdown

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A group of U.S. faith leaders warned today that the impending shutdown of the U.S. government has “enormous implications,” both at home and abroad, for the poor and those trying to fill in the gaps to support them.

Or, as the Rev. John McCullough, a United Methodist pastor and president of Church World Service, a humanitarian agency, bluntly put it, the “inability” of the U.S. House of Representatives to compromise on a federal budget “is literally taking food away from the mouths of hungry children.”

He was part of a telephone news conference of faith leaders hosted by Bread for the World and moderated by the Rev. David Beckmann, Bread’s president.

The bill to fund the government for the next fiscal year has been stalled over amendments related to the Patient Protection and Affordable Health Care Act, commonly referred to as Obamacare. Unless Congress can agree on a spending bill,the government will begin to shut down at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 1.

In a vote this afternoon, the Senate rejected the House’s spending legislation, which included a one-year delay for the Affordable Health Care Act.

A letter signed by 33 faith leaders, including Bishop Peter Weaver, executive secretary of the United Methodist Council of Bishops, urged members of Congress to keep the government open.

“Our democracy rests on principles of reason, compromise, and a commitment to the common good,” the letter said. “To hold our governance processes and financial credibility hostage to narrow priorities is not only dangerous to the nation’s near term financial being, it threatens the very foundations of our democratic process and our capacity to live united.

“We ask that congressional leadership of both parties stand strong in opposing efforts to allow the will of the few to threaten the common good.”

Increase in food charity

Since the financial crisis of 2008, Beckmann said, there has been a substantial increase in the services provided by churches, temples and mosques to the poor. Food charity offered through faith groups totals about $5 billion a year.

The House vote Sept. 19 to cut $4 billion annually from food stamps would mean that these congregations “would have to double” their food commitments for the next decade, Beckmann said.

“Shutting down the government is much, much bigger than that,” he added. “There will be a lot of poor people and middle income people who are suddenly cut off from various forms of assistance.”

While congregations of all faith traditions continue to respond to the needs of the poor, “the other side of that is the reality that many of our congregations are aging,” McCullough noted.  “As they are aging, many of those folks themselves are feeling more and more vulnerable.”

A shutdown also would have a global impact, McCullough said.

“Internationally, the U.S. government will not be able to make any new contributions to agencies that deliver food aid and other services to poor and hungry people around the world, nor respond to new humanitarian emergencies,” he explained. “Over time, hungry people relying on U.S. aid will not receive food and children will not receive inoculations against disease.”

Although international humanitarian aid comprises less than one percent of the U.S. budget, it already has been cut by 20 percent since 2010 and some House members want to cut another 20 percent, McCullough added.

Budget is a theological issue

The Rev. Jim Wallis, an evangelical Christian and the chief executive of Sojourners, believes the Congressional stalemate is a theological issue, not a political one.

“Most Republicans believe in government even if it is limited or smaller. They also believe in governing,” he said, adding that an extreme minority with a view of the government “that is unbiblical” is holding the government hostage.

“The Bible says the government should help poor people,” Wallis added. “Their hostility toward government also translates into a hostility toward poor people.”

The Roman Catholic social tradition expects government leaders to be “mindful of the poor,” said Sister Simone Campbell SSS, executive director, NETWORK, a national Catholic social justice lobby.

The incapacity of Congress to reach agreement on the budget “is not a faithful response to the needs of our time,” she said.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, pointed out that the damage to the poor and the middle class has a spiraling effect beyond the shutdown itself.

“These political debates are causing uncertainty that is damaging the economy,” he said, explaining that “hundreds of thousands of jobs” have been lost because of that uncertainty. “On all counts, this is an alarming trend.”

The failure of Congress to act even has global implications in Muslim societies where “the extremists already are using the same argument, it (democracy) is not workable,” said Sayyid Syeed, national director, Office for Interfaith and Community Alliances, Islamic Society of North America. “This has to be avoided, through dialogue and understanding.”

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at and contact her at (646) 369-3759 or[email protected].

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