A Binding Concern for the Poor

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By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 4, 2008

Nearly 2,000 members of 40 houses of worship in Northern Virginia are expected at a public meeting tomorrow in Dumfries to launch an interfaith organization that will seek commitments from public officials to do more to help the poor in the area.

The organization, Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement, or VOICE, is asking local, state and federal officials to increase funding for affordable housing and health care and to ease the backlog of U.S. citizen applications in Northern Virginia.

With a collective membership of 120,000 people, the congregations making up VOICE could prove to be a potent political force in Northern Virginia. Until now, interfaith efforts there have not been as influential or as diverse as in Maryland or the District.

"I haven't ever seen any organization with the potential of VOICE in terms of actually promoting justice in the area," said the Rev. Gerry Creedon, pastor of St. Charles Borromeo Catholic Church in Arlington County, who expects to bring about 100 members of his congregation to the gathering.

But the group's list of funding priorities has received a mixed reaction from public officials faced with looming budget deficits.

"I think we're more than fulfilling the goals that they're trying to pursue," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. "We had these goals long before the group even got formed, and so we are happy to have them on the scene as allies for what we're already doing."

Corey A. Stewart (R), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, rejected the group's demand that the county spend upward of $20 million on building and preserving affordable housing.

"I'm not going to commit to that -- absolutely not," said Stewart, who nonetheless expects to attend the meeting Sunday. "Instead of focusing on the funding, we have to focus on what the problem is -- which is a surplus of housing on the market" from the epidemic of home foreclosures that have hit Prince William, he said.

Organizers of VOICE said they aren't deterred.

"It's quite obvious that, given our current economic posture, trying to go out with new housing and new construction is not going to wash," said the Rev. Clyde W. Ellis, pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Woodbridge. "But that doesn't mean we have to lose sight of our goal. . . . We're coming back. And when we come back, we want to make sure that we're very sensitive to those priorities of affordable housing."

Northern Virginia clergy launched an effort to put together an interfaith organization in 2005 after watching the success of similar groups elsewhere in the Washington area, including the Washington Interfaith Network and Action in Montgomery, both of which played key roles in winning millions for neighborhood investment and affordable housing.

"As along as we're isolated -- congregation or church or faith community -- we face our own issues without realizing that they're much more universal," said the Rev. Horace "Tuck" Grinnell, pastor of St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Falls Church and one of the founding clergy members.

VOICE received advice and initial funding from the Industrial Areas Foundation, a Chicago organization that builds activist coalitions from voluntary organizations such as religious congregations, labor unions and immigrant groups. IAF helped found the Washington Interfaith Network and Action in Montgomery.

Clergy and members of Christian, Jewish and Muslim congregations in Northern Virginia spent three years networking and sorting through issues they believed most affected low- and middle-income residents. They ultimately focused on immigration, affordable housing and health care and then developed goals within those areas, which they presented to city, county and state leaders and members of Northern Virginia's congressional delegation in a dozen recent meetings.

Public officials who attend tomorrow's event will be asked to commit to working with the group on its goals, the leaders said. Among the leaders expected to attend are former governor Mark Warner (D), who is running for U.S. Senate, state Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille and Arlington Board Chairman J. Walter Tejada.

"From the elected officials' side," Grinnell said, "they're going to see the birth of an interfaith organization as a huge ally for them if they do the right thing or a huge obstacle if they do the wrong thing."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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