Seven Episcopal bishops -- all members of Bishops Working for a Just World -- traveled to Washington, D.C., October 15-18 to advocate for church policies on debt relief, the Farm Bill, and climate change.
The bishops placed strategic phone calls on climate change legislation and met with Members of Congress and senior staff to present the reasons for Episcopal Church concern on these key public policy issues.
Bishops Laura Ahrens of Connecticut, Barry L. Beisner of Northern California, Charles E. Bennison, Jr. of Pennsylvania, John Bryson Chane of Washington, James Curry of Connecticut, Jean Zache Duracin of Haiti, and William Persell of Chicago worked with the staff of the Office of Government Relations and Bonni McKinney of the Diocese of Connecticut to plan the trip.
Duracin and Curry spoke as part of an October 16 Jubilee USA prayer breakfast for Members of Congress and their staffs -- a celebration of the introduction of bipartisan House and Senate bills (H.R. 2634 and S. 2166) that would cancel the debt of approximately 67 impoverished countries. The Episcopal Church was instrumental in the first round of debt relief legislation that passed Congress in 2000. In addition, the church is supporting a separate bill covering further debt relief for Haiti (H. Res. 241), a proposal Duracin addressed in remarks that highlighted Haiti's status as the poorest country in the western hemisphere and one whose new, constitutional government can only make traction in fighting poverty and building stability if the country's staggering international debt is cancelled.
Many Episcopalians were inspired to advocacy during the Jubilee 2000 campaign in the late 1990s, a worldwide movement that led to the most significant cancellation of debts to poor countries to date. Duracin and Curry acknowledged that that debt cancellation helped bring clean water, vaccinations, primary education, and AIDS medication to millions of people in the developing world. Still, the bishops and other speakers noted, dozens of countries which have not yet qualified for debt relief need immediate 100% cancellation of their debts in order to meet the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015.
After a briefing by Tyler Edgar of the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Working Group, Chane, Curry and Ahrens contacted Senators Joe Lieberman (I-CT) and John Warner (R-VA) asking them to include those affected internationally in the climate change bill they were about to introduce. The legislation (S. 2191), America's Climate Security Act of 2007, now includes that provision, as the church emphasizes the need to protect God's creation and helps those who have the least resources to adapt to life and work style changes that may be necessary to fight global warming.
"After years of wrangling and inaction over serious climate change legislation, the 110th Congress has seen a number of very aggressive proposals," said John Johnson, domestic policy analyst in the Episcopal Church's Office of Government Relations. "Earlier this year, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori made clear in her testimony before the U.S. Senate that inaction on our part is the costliest course of action for communities living in poverty. Episcopal bishops are a powerful voice in ensuring that vulnerable communities in the United States and abroad are not left behind or shoulder a disproportionate burden as our nation begins to shift to a low-carbon economy."
During this 110th Congress, the Episcopal Church has been working with a coalition of communities of faith to see that the Farm Bill, now being reauthorized, serves farmers and their communities at home and abroad and provides for better stewardship of the land and the environment. The House-passed legislation made scant progress on important issues such as subsidies so all efforts are now concentrated on the Senate. Curry and Persell met with the Majority Leader of the Senate, Harry Reid (D-NV), to press for needed changes, and Persell met with farm state and Democratic Party leader, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), with the same message. Voting on the bill could begin in the Senate early next week.
"The bishops came to Washington at a very fortuitous time for advocacy on the Farm Bill, as the Senate prepares to begin final work on the bill this week," said Alexander Baumgarten, OGR's international policy analyst. "They were able to tell Senators that people of faith want Congress to restore fairness and opportunity for struggling farmers and their communities as the bedrock values upon which the farm bill is based. Not only would farm-bill reform revitalize struggling rural communities in the U.S., it would make enormous strides in helping poor countries achieve the MDGs."
On October 18, between visits with Members of Congress and staff, the bishops celebrated a Eucharist in thanksgiving for the life and ministry of the late Northern Michigan Bishop James Arthur Kelsey -- who died June 3, 2007 -- a founding member and enthusiastic supporter of the Bishops Working for a Just World.
The group is a network open to all bishops of the Episcopal Church who wish to engage "social injustices by supporting initiatives that provide equal opportunity to every human being."
Its mission statement says: "The reality is that the Episcopal Church is an international church. While we address issues in the domestic society of the United States we also have a global perspective because we are engaged with companion dioceses, mission projects, and all the wrenching problems and immense challenges God's children have in restoring healthy and hopeful relationship throughout the world."
In commenting on the trip, Maureen Shea, OGR director, said: "Members of Congress, their staff, and our allies, were grateful to our bishops for showing the church's commitment on urgent issues now before Congress. This trip is part of their advocacy for a "just and peaceful social order. Working on the Farm Bill, debt relief, and global warming affirms not only their passion for addressing these issues but also gives needed encouragement to Members of Congress, their staff, and our allies."