Rhode Island budget crisis

Church leaders respond to Governor’s call for community assistance

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PROVIDENCE – Leaders of the state’s churches and faith communities have responded to Gov. Donald L. Carcieri’s recent call to increase community assistance in response to the looming budget crisis by telling the governor that while they are willing to work with state officials, there is just so much that they can do. The leaders have emphasized while both the religious sector and government share many values, each has different responsibilities.

“Though our particular responsibilities are different, I know that we share a common commitment to promote the common good and help the less fortunate,” said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in a press release issued in response to the governor’s statement.

“At the same time, calling upon the faith-based community to do more to help with the budget crisis raises serious questions,” the bishop continued. “The Church, like the state, has many demands on its services while operating with limited sources of revenue.”

Bishop Tobin noted that the interfaith religious community in Rhode Island already provides substantial programs for individuals in need, and in doing so, saves the state a substantial amount of money each year that would be otherwise be allocated for human services.

“But the faith based community has limited and completely voluntary sources of income,” Bishop Tobin wrote. “Many religious communities are already stretched to their limits as they attempt to minister to their members and reach out to the broader community.”

The bishop emphasized that as government officials work to achieve a balanced budget, which he said is a “necessary goal, it is imperative that the weal, the poor and the needy not be left behind.

“As Pope Benedict XVI has reminded us, ‘the just ordering of society and the state is a central responsibility of politics…. (As St. Augustine once said), a state that is not governed according to justice would be just a bunch of thieves’…. Justice is both the aim and the intrinsic criterion of all politics.” (Deus Caritas Est. No. 28)

Bishop Tobin encouraged state leaders, including the Governor, leaders of the General Assembly, union and business officials, representatives of academic institutions and nonprofit organizations, and representatives of Rhode Island’s religious community, to form a coalition that will address the budget concerns in a constructive and compassionate manner.

“The Catholic Diocese of Providence is willing to part of such a coalition if so invited,” said Bishop Tobin.

The Rev. Dr. Donald C. Anderson, Executive Minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches said that he interpreted the Governor’s comments as “not a criticism, but a call to action.”

The minister added that he had spoken to Gov. Carcieri after the charge to the state’s religious community was issued, and that the governor is “deeply appreciative” for all that churches and faith communities do in Rhode Island on behalf of its citizens.

Rev. Anderson said the Governor’s call can also be seen as an invitation to revive faithcommunities and get young members actively involved in churches and in the community.

“We need to capture the passion and imagination of our young people,” the minister added

“We need to let God’s spirit move us outside the box to find new ways to find answers to problems,” Rev. Anderson noted.

He said that while the religious community is active in reaching out to people in need of help, there are some services and programs, such as providing health coverage to children from low-income families that can only be provided by the government.

“We need to be actively reminding state leaders that there are things that only the state can do,” Rev. Anderson stated. “They need to be faithful to that call as well.”

He said that religious and faith communities, however, should be involved in discussion at the State House, and “add a moral dimension and guidance” to debates on important issues. “We need to be an active force in creating positive public policy,” the minister emphasized.

Rev. Anderson said that Bishop Tobin’s idea to form a coalition was a “great idea” and pledged his full support of the proposal.

Rabbi Alan Flam, Senior Fellow at the Swearer Center for Public Service at Brown University and President of the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis noted that he was speaking for himself as he had not yet discussed the governor’s statement with members of the state’s Jewish community.

“I was surprised by the recent comments by Governor Carcieri concerning the need for religious communities to step up to the plate in this difficult financial time for the state and to assume some of the functions that government is not choosing to fund,” Rabbi Flam wrote in an e-mail response to interview questions.

“I do agree with the Governor that religious communities do have a significant role in caring for people, and I know that our churches, mosques and synagogues are deeply engaged in that work already.

“Can we do more? – certainly, but it must be work that is aligned with our resources,” Rabbi Flam wrote. “To lay off skilled workers and then expect religious communities to pick up the slack is irresponsible, if not impossible. Would any public official suggest we lay off engineers from the DOT and expect members of churches to assume that responsibility?

“The poor are not mere abstractions or statistics,” he continued. “They are real people and include working families, single parents with children, the elderly and new immigrants. They are members of our churches, mosques and synagogues – sisters and brothers to us all. The hardships they face are, more often than not, a result of complex societal forces. Elected officials must reject the temptation to blame the poor for their plight. We must insist that any call for personal responsibility must be balanced by an equally strong call for social responsibility.

“Effective government enables citizens to work together across class, race, ethnic and religious affiliations toward the common good,” Rabbi Flam emphasized. “As a religious leader, it is my job and the job of my community to hold government accountable to these ideals.

“How can religious communities join together to work for economic opportunity and equity for all of our neighbors?” he asked. “Can we convince our elected officials, labor leaders, and advocates that budgets are moral documents?”

Bishop Geralyn Wolf of the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island reported in an e-mail that several Episcopalian churches are actively ministering to those less fortunate. She noted that Grace Episcopal Church on Matthewson St., Providence, has a night shelter, and that 20 churches or missions in Rhode Island have food pantries or kitchens that provide meals. The bishop said that most of the deacons of the Episcopal Church work in the non-profit sector that works to help those in need.

This year, the Episcopal Charities of Rhode Island distributed approximately $500,000 to 114 agencies in the state.

There was no comment from the Governor’s office as of presstime.