Faith-based activists who believe that ideas for eliminating poverty should be getting more attention in this year's presidential campaign will hold a three-day conference in Washington starting tomorrow.
Between 300 and 400 clergy and lay people from across the country are expected to attend "Pentecost 2004, A Call to Unity: Making Poverty a Religious and Electoral Issue," according to Call to Renewal, the conference's sponsor.
"The poor are kind of missing in action in this campaign so far," said the Rev. Jim Wallis, who heads Call to Renewal, a national network of churches and faith-based groups concerned about poverty. "The Republicans are taking care of their more wealthy constituents. The Democrats want to be the champion of the middle class, and so nobody prioritizes the needs of poor families."
In an invitation to conference participants, who will gather at the Washington Plaza Hotel in Northwest, Wallis wrote that poverty is as much a religious issue as gay marriage and abortion.
"One of every six children still poor in wealthy America is a religious issue," he wrote. "The number of poor families now rising the last two years is a religious issue. One billion people living on less than $1 per day around the world is a religious issue."
President Bush declined an invitation to address the activists but asked Alphonso Jackson, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, to come in his stead, according to Helena R. Henderson, spokeswoman for Call to Renewal. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) will address attendees on behalf of Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.
Journalist and author Bill Moyers will give the keynote speech at a luncheon Monday. Later that day, the Rev. James A. Forbes Jr., pastor of Riverside Church in New York, will give the sermon at an 8 p.m. worship service at Washington National Cathedral. Episcopal Bishop of Washington John Bryson Chane and Wallis will officiate.
The conference also will include workshops on how to nurture youth leadership and challenge political candidates to offer concrete, poverty-fighting strategies. Registration for the event, which is open to the general public, costs $55 for one day and $140 for the entire conference.
Wallis said there is a growing interest in combating poverty among religious groups. This year, in a national poll of 1,000 people of diverse faith backgrounds, 78 percent said they would rather hear a presidential candidate's plan for fighting poverty than his position on gay marriage. The poll was commissioned by the Alliance to End Hunger and Call to Renewal and was conducted by Tom Freedman, Bill Knapp and Jim McLaughlin. McLaughlin is a Republican pollster, and Freedman is a leading Democratic consultant.
"Hunger and poverty are on the rise in our country, and this poll confirms that voters want to hear more from political leaders about real solutions to these serious problems," said the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World and a member of the Alliance to End Hunger.
Another sign of concern that social justice issues are being overlooked was the full-page ad Monday in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. The ad, placed by the Quixote Center of Brentwood, an organization of liberal Catholics, listed 15 areas deserving more attention from political candidates, including health care, civil liberties, the environment, poverty and peace in the Middle East. It carried 1,300 signatures, including the signatures of people representing 36 Catholic organizations.
"Insisting that abortion is the only issue we care about is fundamentally a distortion of Catholicism," said Rea Howarth, co-director of the center.