A holy war on poverty

Faith groups rally for a rise in the minimum wage



God and politics both figured prominently in Pastor Peter Shober’s sermon at Missoula’s University Congregational Church Sunday, Sept. 17.

“As a church, we need to help those who bear the cross of economic injustice and poverty,” Shober said, after encouraging his congregation to attend an upcoming rally in support of the state’s minimum wage initiative. “It is one way that we can do whatever we can to walk the walk of faith.”

Numerous religious organizations in Missoula and a statewide faith-based minimum wage campaign are working to infuse the policy discussion about raising wages for Montana’s lowest-paid workers with a moral component.

In November, voters will weigh in on ballot initiative 151, which would raise the state-mandated minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 per hour and adjust it annually to provide for cost of living increases. Twenty-three states and the District of Columbia have already raised their minimum wages above the federal rate of $5.15, including 10 states that made the move this year. Six states, including Montana, will decide ballot measures on the issue this fall. The trend comes despite Congress’ July defeat of an increase in the federal rate, which was last raised in 1997, and in the face of mounting data demonstrating the shrinking buying power of the minimum wage and the widening gap between rich and poor.

“When you talk about politics, you’re talking about the relationship that people have with one another. I feel that we can’t separate what we do politically from our deepest core values,” says Jean Woessner, a UCC member and organizer of the recently formed Many Faiths, One Voice, a coalition of about a dozen Missoula faith organizations, including Christian, Jewish and Buddhist groups, that’s pursuing what they call “wage justice” locally. Besides an Oct. 7 Rally for the Raise event at Caras Park, the group has also planned a Sept. 28 sacred texts study to examine poverty and wage issues through the lens of religious teachings.

Beyond Missoula, a national coalition of more than 80 faith groups called Let Justice Roll has opened a Helena office and is campaigning for the wage increase at the state level. The Montana Human Rights Network (MHRN) also tuned into the religious aspects of the issue with its Sept. 7 report titled “No Really...What Would Jesus Do?” which frames the minimum wage debate within the larger context of poverty and wealth in America.

Christine Kaufmann, co-director of MHRN, says the incorporation of scripture into the report is a first for the network and an attempt to define the debate in moral terms.

“We were definitely trying to put the minimum wage where it belongs, as a moral issue in our culture,” she says. “It is immoral for the richest country in the world to pay below-poverty wages.”

After opening with a series of biblical quotes about caring for the poor, the report highlights the fact that a person working 40 hours a week for 52 weeks a year at minimum wage will earn only $10,712, or 69 percent of the income defined by the federal government as poverty level. A 2005 Congressional Research Service examination of the historical relationship between the minimum wage and poverty found the 2005 gap to be the largest in nearly 50 years. The MHRN report also looks at national trends toward wealth concentration and blames stagnant wages and tax policy for contributing to the massive gap between rich and poor, citing findings that the top one-tenth of 1 percent of U.S. income earners brought in more money than the 96 million poorest Americans combined in 2005.

Those numbers may be easy to glaze over until you think of them in terms of your hungry, overworked neighbor, which is where the question of raising the minimum wage hits home for Woessner. “I look at ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself’ and I can’t imagine living on $10,000 a year and raising three children,” she says.

While issues of poverty and the faithful’s obligation to improve their neighbors’ lot stretch back to antiquity, Shober says the church’s focus on baldly political issues is in some ways new. Although UCC has a long history of supporting progressive causes—its national parent United Church of Christ was the first to ordain female clergy—Shober sees the 2004 national election as a turning point.

“One of the realities of the election a couple of years ago was people began to understand that value discussions are important. I think a lot of groups are taking religious opinion more seriously, and not just that of conservative churches,” he says.

And besides the attention shift toward religious perspectives, Shober says, there’s more need these days, too.

“Things are getting worse for the poor, and increasing numbers are worried about democracy in America because of the huge chasm between the haves and the have nots,” he says.

Although a $1 increase certainly won’t resolve those inequities, it’s a move in the right direction, Shober says. The Montana Department of Labor estimates that about 25,000 Montanans would be directly impacted by the increase, and a ripple effect would likely affect more.

“Our job as people of faith is to do the work of justice and love, and this is part of that,” Shober says.

Many Faiths, One Voice sponsors a Sacred Texts Study on Thursday, Sept. 28, from 7 to 9 p.m. at University Congregational Church, and Rally for a Raise at Caras Park on Saturday, Oct. 7, from noon to 2 p.m.


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