Faith leaders call for social justice at eighth annual Interfaith Poverty Conference

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PROVIDENCE — Faith representatives, advocacy organizations and outreach workers gathered at Rhode Island College on May 11 for the eighth annual Interfaith Poverty Conference hosted by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty. “Tikkun olam,” a Hebrew term meaning “repair the world,” provided the theme for the day and referred to the organization’s mission of repairing the systems that allow poverty to exist in the state.

“We are together, fighting poverty with faith,” said keynote speaker Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism. Rabbi Pesner spoke about the interconnectedness of religion, civil rights and social justice in the United States, and the need for a deep religious faith in our response to social concerns.

“We are commanded to love the other,” he said. “When one-fifth of children in Rhode Island, one-fifth of children in America, are living in poverty, it isn’t enough to feel empathy for that child. We must love that child.”

Rabbi Pesner also emphasized the importance of forming a political coalition for achieving mutual goals in state government.

“The only group that can build the kind of power that will overcome the narrow interests of lobbyists is the organized faith community,” he said. “You have laid the foundation to build a powerful and effective movement for justice here.”

In addition to representatives of religious and nonprofit organizations, the conference was attended by several local mayors. Mayor Scott Avedisian of Warwick, Mayor James Diossa of Central Falls and Mayor Jorge Elorza of Providence shared their strategies for addressing poverty at the local level during a panel on repairing community.

“I understand as a faith community we have a higher calling and a spiritual calling, but we also have a civic and a social calling,” said Elorza in response to a question about the role of faith in addressing community issues.

Avedisian emphasized the importance of forming relationships between community organizations and individuals in order to move forward with solutions for local issues.

“I see building relationships as the best way for getting people to get along,” he said.

In addition to pre-arranged questions from the panel moderator, audience members also had the opportunity to pose questions to the mayors. One woman shared her frustrations with the lack of affordable housing available in the state.

“I’ve been homeless since I was 13 years old,” she said. “I’m 48 years old. I deserve a chance. Nobody listens to you when you’re homeless.”

Other panels took place concurrently and covered topics such as racial and ethnic economic disparity and legislative policy. Kathy McKeon, supervisor of the Office of Community Services and Catholic Charities for the Diocese of Providence, participated in a panel on elderly support services.

“The panel spoke about what is helpful now for seniors in the community, such as visiting programs, home delivered meals, senior centers and ways to keep folks active and socializing,” she said.

In addition to McKeon, several members of parishes and religious communities participated in the conference. Nondas Hurst Voll, a member of the steering committee at the Church of St. Michael the Archangel, Providence, said the conference was a way of working toward peace and social justice.

“We’re going to be thinking about mercy and care for people in need,” she said.

Elizabeth Reardon, a member of the peace and justice committee at Christ the King Parish, Kingston, said that she found the conference inspiring but wished more Catholics were aware of the opportunities for social advocacy in the state.

“I think most people find advocacy very difficult,” she said. “It’s hard to see progress. It takes years and years. More of us need to stand up.”

Reardon emphasized the need for structural as opposed to short-term change as a path toward a more peaceful society. She said Catholics need to work together in order to see progress.

“It’s hard, we all feel like we’re just one little voice and it doesn’t make a difference, but it will if we all get together,” she said.