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NEWS STORY: Religious panel sounds `moral alarm’ on poverty

c. 1998 Religion News Service CARBONDALE, Ill. _ Members of an interfaith panel convened by former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon sounded”a moral alarm”over the millions of Americans who live in poverty, despite the nation’s current high-octane economy. Two days of roundtable discussions about poverty in America were conducted this week by the Public Policy Institute […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

CARBONDALE, Ill. _ Members of an interfaith panel convened by former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon sounded”a moral alarm”over the millions of Americans who live in poverty, despite the nation’s current high-octane economy.

Two days of roundtable discussions about poverty in America were conducted this week by the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, where Simon is director.

Seventeen religious leaders _ representing the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths _ gathered at a retreat site located at Giant City State Park near Carbondale and penned a six-page statement calling for religious and governmental leaders to address the problems of poverty in the nation’s cities and rural areas. “We gather to sound a moral alarm to respond to this crisis and avert future repercussions,”the leaders said in their statement, issued at the conclusion of the event Wednesday (March 25).”While our nation enjoys unprecedented prosperity, fully 21 percent of America’s children live in poverty. Even in these good economic times, the growing disparity between the rich and the poor is evidence that all is not well.” Eradicating poverty must become a top priority on the national agenda religious broadcaster Pat Robertson, chancellor of Regent University in Virginia Beach, Va., said at a news conference at which the statement was released.

He said the focus on poverty was vital”so that we don’t have two Americas _ but we have one America with a sharing in the riches and blessings of this nation.” Panel members compared their desire to confront poverty on moral grounds to the stance adopted by faith communities who fought racial injustice in the civil rights movement.”We come together rather in a confessional mode, admitting that we have not done enough and calling upon the leaders of this land to join with us in a rebirth of the spirit that led to that great quest for justice, that great quest for economic opportunity, because we need it again,”said the Rev. John Buehrens, national president of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association.

Several leaders said the Carbondale gathering itself was a historic one and the fruit of their labor _ the document _ was significant.”That statement was miraculously crafted and composed by all of us, and that deserves some consideration,”said Rabbi Jacob S. Rubenstein, president of the New York-based Rabbinical Council of America.

The sweeping discussion among the religious leaders took some of its cues from William Julius Wilson, a prominent social policy professor at Harvard University. On Tuesday, Wilson discussed the complexity of the poverty issue and the potential for worsened conditions when the economic recovery sours.

Wilson said after the session that he was encouraged to see the religious leaders’ interest in this looming economic problem, which is, he said,”an indication that faith community leaders are very, very concerned.” The statement attempts to bring attention to poverty on several fronts, including the various faith communities represented by conference attendees. The statement includes a number of questions designed to help religious people consider how well they are serving the poor.

The document also encourages congregations to provide both emergency and long-term assistance for the poor and”provide voices on behalf of the people who have no voice in the struggle for equal opportunity.” The panel also stressed the importance of congregations meeting the needs of the poor with sensitivity.”The poor know how to spot when they are a special project or a field trip for the day, when let’s say a safari to the ghetto or the barrio occurs,”observed Elder Jose V. Rojas, North American youth ministries director of the Seventh-day Adventists in Silver Spring, Md.

Imam W.D. Mohammed, spiritual head of the Muslim American Society, based in Chicago, and other leaders also mentioned the importance of spiritual groups promoting self-esteem among the poor.

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Theological or doctrinal issues did not fracture the sessions, leaders said.”None of those issues were raised in this meeting,”Robertson said.”It was complete harmony and unity in this group to say we are going to do something about poverty in this nation and we’re going to do something right now.” Simon said the meeting also gave the leaders an opportunity to interact with one another.”What was clear in the meeting … there was just a feeling of good will among the people. And even just having all those people get together and exchange ideas and get to know each other-it has to be a good thing,”he said after the news conference.

Orthodox Jewish, Sunni Muslim, Armenian Orthodox, Mormon, Unitarian Universalist, Southern Baptist, Christian Church, Episcopal, Presbyterian (U.S.A.), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Seventh-day Adventist, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Reformed Church in America, American Baptist were among the faith groups represented at the meeting.

The religious leaders intend to reconvene after the 1998 congressional elections. Simon said he would seek to invite more women and representatives from other religious traditions. Roman Catholic bishops had been invited but were unable to come because of scheduling conflicts, Simon said.

IR END HOWARD