Prominent US Christian leaders met yesterday with President Obama to highlight the struggles of millions of Americans seeking to put food on the table and to find jobs.
The delegation, which included the Rev Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCCUSA), thanked President Obama for passage of historic health reform legislation and 'robust' engagement with religious communities, while also pressing him to take a strong stance on behalf of families facing poverty and hunger.
“As the economic downturn has battered the middle class, it has been even more devastating to those already living on the economic margins of society,” said the Rev Peg Chemberlin, president of the National Council of Churches USA, which represents 45 million people and 100,000 congregations in the US. “Our denominations and organisations are on the front lines—providing meals, support, and assistance to those hit hard by the economic downturn—but we know that more needs to be done.”
The international humanitarian agency, Church World Service (CWS), which annually sponsors fundraising CROP Hunger Walks in 2,000 communities across the nation to assist local and global hunger programmes, urged the President to help implement domestic and international policies to make sure all families and children have access to nutritious, affordable food.
Church World Service executive director and CEO the Rev John McCullough said: “We are facing a severe global economic crisis, and the repercussions extend beyond the borders of our country. “As families in the US find their household budgets more and more strained, families in the developing world are hurting too. Today, we asked for the President’s leadership in crafting policies that ensure men, women and children have access to enough food and adequate nutrition for all, particularly children, as well as policies that support sustainable, diversified food production."
In addition to expressing concerns about increasing hunger and poverty in the United States and the relationship between poverty and education, McCullough said the group discussed a broad range of issues with President Obama, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the plight of Christians in the Middle East and relations between the US and Cuba.
Church World Service, along with the NCCUSA and other partners in the faith community, has advocated for more than five years for the lifting of travel restrictions that make national religious organisations like CWS, NCCUSA and their member denominations eligible for travel to Cuba no more than once per quarter.
The tightened restrictions are an outgrowth of the Bush administration interpretation and application of the US Code governing travel. Church leaders say the restrictions severely limit the opportunity for national church organisations - which represent thousands of local congregations throughout the US - to fulfill a vital part of their mission, that of supporting and accompanying their partner churches in Cuba. The administration is able to remove the restrictions on religious and other "people to people" travel without congressional approval.
The restrictions have been in place since 2005, during which time religious leaders have asserted that the American church's history of effective humanitarian and missionary activity in Cuba "transcends political ideologies.”
The President, McCullough said, "indicated an appreciation for the historic relationship" between the churches of Cuba and the United States and "seemed very receptive to deepening the dialogue" around the issue of religious travel to Cuba.
The group thanked the President for his leadership and urged him to prioritise a number of issues, including strengthening the fraying safety net, extending unemployment benefits as the economy continues to falter, and lifting people out of poverty with a focus on job creation for those in poverty, job training, and education.
McCullough, who described the President as "warm, gracious and receptive," said the group left the meeting pleased with the President's apparent "desire to work in partnership to find creative ways" to move forward on the issues discussed.
The delegation presented the President with a St John’s Bible, a framed sampler of statements commemorating 100 years of ecumenism, and a picture plaque commemorating President Obama’s and the government’s new "Feed the Future" initiative.
The delegation included Bishop Johncy Itty of Church World Service, Bishop Mark Hanson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America,Bishop John R. Bryant of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the Rev Sharon Watkins of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Bishop Thomas L. Hoyt, Jr. of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, Mr. Stanley J. Noffsinger of the Church of the Brethren, Archbishop Khajag S. Barsamian of the Armenian Church of America, Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of The Episcopal Church, Archbishop Demetrios of the Greek Orthodox Church of America, the Rev Gradye Parsons of the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Rev Dr Betsy Miller of the Moravian Church, Thomas Swain of the Religious Society of Friends, the Rev Wesley S. Granberg-Michaelson of the Reformed Church in America, Bishop Sharon Zimmerman Rader of the United Methodist Church, Metropolitan Jonah of the Orthodox Church in America, the Rev Geoffrey Black of the United Church of Christ, and Dr Walter L. Parrish III of the Progressive National Baptist Convention.