By Mary Stadnyk | News Editor
Prominent New Jersey religious leaders are calling upon their congregations to use their most powerful weapon to combat hunger and poverty throughout their state – the weapon of faith.
During an interfaith forum held Nov. 30 in the New Jersey State House Annex, representatives from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu faith traditions announced that they have joined forces in addressing the widespread domestic poverty that exists in New Jersey by participating in the “Fighting Poverty with Faith” campaign.
“Fighting Poverty with Faith” was launched in September, 2008, and is a nationwide effort co-sponsored by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Catholic Charities USA and the National Council of Churches. “Fighting Poverty with Faith” is endorsed by more than 50 national faith-based organizations and focuses attention on the causes of poverty, highlights strategies to reduce poverty and aggressively seeks new economic opportunities for the nation’s most vulnerable. “Fighting Poverty with Faith” encourages local communities to plan community-wide, preferably interfaith, events and actions that will both educate the community and elected officials about the issues of hunger and advocate for the protection of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) from funding cuts and structural changes.
Many Faiths, One Spirit
In keeping with the spirit of the interfaith gathering, the Nov. 30 Trenton forum opened with a prayer led by the Rev. Darrell L. Armstrong, pastor of Shiloh Baptist Church, Trenton, and closed with a prayer offered by Father Thomas Mullelly, diocesan vicar for clergy personnel and consecrated life. Father Mullelly represented Bishop David M. O’Connell, C.M., who was in Rome for an ad limina visit.
The focus of the forum addressed the growing problem of hunger in New Jersey, in which statistics reported that in 2009, more than 799,000 New Jersey residents had incomes lower than the official poverty rate.
Testimonies on the issues of hunger were also presented by the religious leaders from the NJ State Association of Jewish Federations, New Jersey Catholic Conference and Lutheran Office of Governmental Ministry NJ who pledged the support of their respective faith communities toward the campaign.
Representing the Catholic contingent was Deacon Patrick Brannigan, executive director of the NJCC, along with staff members from Trenton diocesan agencies, Catholic Charities and Mount Carmel Guild, an inner-city Trenton ministry that provides services to people in need through its Emergency Assistance and Home Health Nursing programs. Catholic Charities from the Metuchen Diocese is also participating in the Fighting Poverty with Faith campaign.
In his opening remarks, Deacon Brannigan made reference to the New Jersey bishops’ Statement on Poverty which was introduced Nov. 21 and signed by the 15 bishops representing the state’s five arch/dioceses and two eparchies.
Quoting from the statement, Deacon Brannigan said: “As people of faith, we cannot ignore those in need whether they be children who go to bed hungry, parents who are jobless, families who are homeless, the sick who suffer without medical care or the elderly who live in infested or unsafe housing.”
“As people of faith, we must come together to take action to help our neighbors in need. We have no excuse; we cannot fail to act on behalf of the poor – even during the current difficult economic times. We all have an obligation to assist the poor – let us not be wanting in that obligation,” said Deacon Brannigan.
Dr. M. Ali Chaudry, president of the Islamic Society of Basking Ridge, read several verses from the Qur’an that emphasized the call to feed the hungry, and show compassion for the neighbor and less fortunate.
“While feeding the hungry and giving charity to the indigent is a religious duty to every Muslim, one needs to go beyond the handouts if we are to alleviate or end poverty,” said Dr. Chaudry. “The economic principles underlying Islamic teachings emphasize that each and every person should have an opportunity to earn a living in an open and equitable society in which wealth is not concentrated in a few hands and that the means of production is accessible to all.”
Adele LaTourette, director of the NJ Anti-Hunger Coalition, referred to the nearly 800,000 New Jersey residents who currently live in poverty and have to rely on SNAP to purchase nutritious food to help feed their families.
She noted that SNAP provides $1.43 per person/per day/per meal, and that the number of folks relying on SNAP in the state doubled in the last four years. Between 2009 and 2011, there was an increase of 92,113 people in need of SNAP.
“People who rely on SNAP to eat do so in order that they don’t have to choose between paying a rent or mortgage or a medical bill or a utility bill,” said LaTourette. “These people are threatened with losing some of this very small benefit amount on which they rely and which they so desperately need.”
LaTourette noted that while there are multiple debates under discussion in Washington with regard to government-funded assistance for the poor, the question of how SNAP will be impacted remains unclear.
“We are in the midst of one of the worst economic periods of our time,” LaTourette said, and although “participation in the (SNAP) program is growing by leaps and bounds, some of our nation’s leaders are willing to cut that $1.43 benefit that more and more of their constituents have to rely on.”
Emphasizing the importance of the “Fighting Poverty with Faith” initiative, LaTourette pointed out that while various agencies like soup kitchens and food banks are diligent about helping to feed people who struggle, whether it’s on a daily, weekly or monthly basis, these agencies do not have the means for being the only source where people can seek assistance.
As a result, she said, the burden of assisting people in need becomes one that needs to be carried “as a society” – a partnership between people of faith, members of the not-for-profit community, public industry and state and local governments.
Speaking from Experience
Traci Hendricks, volunteer coordinator of the Community FoodBank of NJ, shared her compelling story of “food insecurity,” which refers to the availability of food and one’s access to it. Hendricks told of when she had to rely on welfare assistance and food stamps during the six years she was not able to work because she had to stay at home to care for her two young sons. Once the boys were of school age, she was able to obtain full-time employment.
“Welfare served its purpose…it was my safety net,” she said, “and for that I’m very grateful.”
The Rev. Lisanne Finston gave a presentation on the work of Elijah’s Promise, a New Brunswick-based agency that operates under the premise that alleviating food insecurity requires more than just offering meals. Besides providing nutritious meals, Elijah’s Promise, where Finston serves as executive director, collaborates with other agencies to offer clients additional services including social services, health screenings, as well as training in culinary arts and catering skills. Finston has expanded the soup kitchen into a café and catering business that feeds hundreds of families each day with healthy, locally grown fare and she has also launched a culinary school that has trained hundreds in cooking and catering skills.
Elijah’s Promise focuses not just on hunger, but the whole person, she said.
At its founding, Elijah’s Promise was based in St. John Parish, New Brunswick, and is a ministry that continues to receive a great deal of support from Catholic parishes in the Metuchen Diocese.
Deacon Brannigan cited a number of steps that he anticipates that the New Jersey Fighting for Poverty with Faith representatives will take to address hunger issues: sharing information among the groups concerning what is happening at all levels – federal, state, local and non-profit and encouraging participation in a “Fighting Poverty with Faith” postcard campaign, which was created by Catholic Charities of the Trenton Diocese and encourages all people to contact their elected officials voicing concerns regarding funding for critical food programs. The postcard campaign specifically urges government officials to reject all proposals for cuts and/or caps to all proposals for cuts and/or caps to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, The Emergency Food Assistance Program, Commodity Supplemental Food Program and other federally funded nutrition programs. The campaign also calls for the reauthorization of the Farm Bill in 2012 as an opportunity to strengthen SNAP by increasing benefits that are in line with the real cost of food. The minimum amount of benefits should be increased to $25.
A final step that Deacon Brannigan noted was providing educational outreach to faith communities that urge “everyone to join in the effort to reduce poverty by 50 percent.”
“We must not balance the federal budget by cuts to food and other programs that are the key safety net for the poor,” said Deacon Brannigan.[[In-content Ad]]