(RNS) — Faith leaders from a wide range of traditions, including those whose houses of worship have been attacked, were at the White House Monday (July 11) as members of Congress and other gun control advocates gathered for a White House celebration of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, signed into law June 25.
Pastor Mike McBride, the leader of Live Free USA, who has long sought political support to especially help the nation’s urban centers, hailed the signing as an opportunity to address gun violence deaths that do not always make national headlines.
“It’s been a very difficult task to get the death of Black men in this country, much less the death of any Black folks, to receive national attention and intervention,” said McBride. “Even among Democrats — Democrats have not been the most political champions for this work. So it’s taken us 10 years to get to $250 million committed in a bipartisan way.”
On hand were Rabbi Jonathan Perlman and others who endured a mass shooting in 2018 at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother was among the nine African American worshippers killed during the 2015 shooting at Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina.
“That was beautiful — to see all these heroic people, survivors that have been working for change,” said Shane Claiborne, co-founder of the group Red Letter Christians and leader of an effort that melts down guns into garden tools in observance of the biblical call to turn “swords into plowshares.”
But Claiborne added that he understood that the bipartisan legislation “is the most substantial gun reform bill that we’ve seen in 30 years. But what we also heard is how dysfunctional our political process is — because there’s so much more that’s needed.”
“We need a ban on assault rifles,” he added.
The legislation includes a variety of interventions into gun purchasing, including expansion of background checks for people younger than 21, $250 million for community-based violence prevention initiatives and $500 million to increase the number of mental health staffers in school districts.
President Joe Biden, in remarks from the White House’s South Lawn, decried the violence that has turned houses of worship, schools, nightclubs and stores into places of death.
“Neighborhoods and streets have been turned into killing fields as well,” said the president. “Will we match thoughts and prayers with action? I say yes. And that’s what we’re doing here today.”
Claiborne said he presented a Christian cross made from a melted-down gun barrel to second gentleman Douglas Emhoff, as well as to a friend of President Biden.
McBride said his efforts with faith leaders on this issue date back to a 2013 meeting at the Obama White House, when Biden was vice president.
“In 2013, we asked for $300 million, and we were told no,” he recalled. “And so some 10 years later, we’ve gotten close to that original ask.”
He said the programs for which groups like the Fund Peace Foundation seek support are “targeted for Black and brown communities that are dealing with the highest rates of gun violence,” including from gangs and intimate partners.
Other faith groups have responded to the passage of the legislation with statements of support.
“The investments in mental health services and reasonable measures to regulate guns included in this bill are positive initial steps towards confronting a culture of violence,” said Archbishop Paul S. Coakley of Oklahoma City, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
“We are heartened that after almost three decades of gridlock, Congress has finally taken bipartisan action to address America’s gun violence epidemic and end violent crime,” said Melanie Roth Gorelick, senior vice president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “This is a huge victory, but we cannot allow this to be the end.”
While calling himself grateful for this historic development, McBride said he and his partners will be pushing for far more support.
“This will be a failure if this is the only thing they do for the next few years,” he said.
Biden seemed to agree that further action was needed.
“We have so much more work to do,” he concluded. “May God bless all of us with the strength to finish the work left undone, and on behalf of the lives we’ve lost and the lives we can save, may God bless you all.”
(RNS) — At the Seven Loaves Food Pantry at St. Andrew’s United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas, volunteers have been serving 800 to 1,200 families a week since the COVID-19 pandemic began — about four times the weekly traffic in 2019.
At the ICNA Relief Food Pantry in Raytown, Missouri, just east of Kansas City, 100 new families have registered to receive the Muslim-led organization’s services in just the past month.
“We are busier than ever right now,” said Shannon Cameron, executive director of the Aurora Area Interfaith Food Pantry in Aurora, Illinois, where, after a slight dip around tax return season, between 30 and 60 new families are registering every week.
The inflation that has loomed over the economy and restricted many Americans’ purchasing power of late has doubly affected low-income people who already struggle to get by. A recent survey by the anti-hunger organization Feeding America has shown that increased demand has affected nearly 80% of U.S. food banks, as higher prices cause more families to seek assistance.
And while President Joe Biden recently signed the Keep Kids Fed Act, extending free meal programs for schoolchildren, many stopgaps funded during the pandemic have ended or are only available in some states.
“For the households that were already food insecure in 2020, nearly half of those reported using a food pantry,” said Jordan Teague, interim director for policy analysis and coalition building at Bread for the World. “Now, more people are facing the crisis. We’re all sort of feeling that pinch, and government programs are coming to an end.”
Since the 1980s, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has donated surplus commodities it buys to stabilize farm prices to the Charitable Food Assistance System, a network of food banks. For four years, the Trump administration bolstered the program to offset the cost of its tariff increases, raising the share of the USDA’s contributions to as much as 15% of some food banks’ supplies. Those resources, too, have now tailed off.
“We saw a real increase even before the pandemic hit in those USDA commodities and, obviously, during the pandemic, USDA made more commodities available as well,” said Celia Cole, CEO of Feeding Texas, a faith-based food security organization based in Austin. “Now, without them, we’re seeing a drop-off.”
Food banks are looking more than ever to make up the gaps with private monetary donations, and government financial assistance. “For every dollar donated to a food bank, we can stretch it to four meals,” said Cole. “We encourage people to be educated with their elected officials in support of hunger-fighting programs like SNAP and the Child Nutrition Programs.”
Historically high gas prices have added further strain on local food pantries, causing delays in the transport of food from farm to market, and from market to food banks.
“We own a fleet of semis,” said Mike Hoffman, inventory and logistics director at Midwest Food Bank, a Christian charity that supplies more than 2,000 churches, nonprofits and community centers across the country. “Fuel prices have taken a toll. We’ve gone through our entire year’s fuel budget in the first five months.”
The same supply chain problems, including a lack of available truck drivers, that have beset the economy apply to fighting hunger as well. Barbara Wojtklewicz, part of the leadership team that runs the food pantry at Christ Church in Plymouth, Massachusetts, said staff at the Greater Boston Food Bank, a regional network of 600 food distributors, have reported driver shortages recently.
“There is ample food to distribute,” Wojtklewicz told Religion News Service, “but they’ve had to limit … distribution to different food pantries.”
Maj. Deb Coolidge at the Salvation Army’s food distribution center in Plymouth has had trouble sourcing fresh food. “Less salad mix and cucumber — oranges and apples,” Coolidge said. “Those have not been on the list for the last couple of months.”
At ICNA Relief in Missouri, Ferdous Hossain, associate operations coordinator, has likewise found it increasingly difficult to provide fresh produce to the 300 families who rely on the pantry for food assistance each month. Local agencies, farms and food banks that ICNA collaborates with are also feeling the produce pinch.
To live up to her center’s unofficial motto — “Fresh produce. Fresh fruit. Anything and everything that is fresh” — Hossain has been buying produce at the grocery store, a last resort because of higher prices.
Donors are also stepping up, thinking creatively to help fill the gaps. Wojtklewicz said that the Christ Church pantry in Plymouth received 100 gift cards to local grocery stores along with its shipment from the Greater Boston Food Bank.
As economists prepare Americans for a possible recession, Beth Zarate, president and CEO of Catholic Charities West Virginia, expressed “anxiety” about the rural residents in her state and their ability to stay ahead of increased gas prices and food costs. At 15.1%, West Virginia has the highest percentage of households facing hunger, according to a 2020 USDA study.
Zarate is counting on West Virginians to come to their neighbors’ aid. “West Virginia is unique because we come out at the bottom of every chart in terms of chronic health issues, hunger and poverty,” Zarate said. “But we also have people who are good to each other.”
“People are generous,” said Darra Slagle, director of Rose’s Bounty, a food pantry operating out of Stratford Street United Church in Boston, “and when they are made aware of the need, are able to help. I encourage people to give to their local food pantries. They could use money to get the things that they need.”
Hoffman at the Midwest Food Bank said prayer is another life raft for anti-hunger operations.
“We have a lot of prayer warriors,” he said. “The faith community is a huge part of what we do, (and) many churches pray for us. The Bible says, ‘The poor you’ll have with you always,’ so we know we have a job that needs to be done, and we’ll keep getting it done.”
WASHINGTON (RNS) — Immediately after President Joe Biden introduced Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court at a White House event on Friday (Feb. 25), the federal appeals court judge stepped up to the podium and appealed to the divine.
“I must begin these very brief remarks by thanking God for delivering me to this point in my professional journey,” she said. “My life has been blessed beyond measure, and I do know that one can only come this far by faith.”
Jackson’s words marked the beginning of what promises to be a historic confirmation process: If approved by the U.S. Senate, Jackson, 51, who currently serves on the D.C. Court of Appeals, would be the first Black woman to serve on the Supreme Court.
“If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed as the next associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, I can only hope that my life and career, my love of this country and the Constitution, and my commitment to upholding the rule of law and the sacred principles upon which this great nation was founded, will inspire future generations of Americans,” she said.
Biden noted the landmark nature of Jackson’s nomination during his introduction, making good on a campaign promise to push for a Black woman on the country’s highest court.
“For too long, our government, our courts, haven’t looked like America,” he said. “I believe it’s time that we have a court that reflects the full talents and greatness of our nation with a nominee of extraordinary qualifications. And that we inspire all young people to believe that they can one day serve their country at the highest level.”
While outlining Jackson’s professional credentials and personal story — such as her two Harvard degrees and family members in law enforcement — Biden argued that she “strives to be fair, to get it right, to do justice.”
If confirmed, Jackson would also be the first federal public defender on the Supreme Court and would bring the total number of women serving on the bench to four — the most in U.S. history.
Jackson did not mention a specific faith tradition in her remarks, so it was not immediately clear whether she would alter the religious makeup of the Supreme Court, which currently consists primarily of Catholic and Jewish justices (Justice Neil Gorsuch was raised Catholic but attended an Episcopal Church in Colorado).
Lawmakers and liberal religious organizations celebrated Jackson’s nomination.
“I applaud the historic nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court. Georgians want a nominee who is fair, qualified, and has a proven record of protecting Americans’ constitutional rights and freedoms. I look forward to reviewing this nomination,” Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock, himself a pastor, said in a statement.
Longtime racial justice activist the Rev. Al Sharpton, who runs the National Action Network, tweeted out a statement of support for Jackson, calling her “exceptionally well qualified” and possessing the “experience, character, integrity, and dedication to the Constitution and the rule of law to serve on the nation’s highest Court.”
The National Council of Jewish Women also praised Biden’s choice of Jackson.
“As the only national Jewish organization which actively vets and endorses federal judicial nominees, NCJW follows the guidance of our tradition which affirms the importance of having ethical, unbiased judges like Judge Jackson who will fight for justice for everyone each and every day,” the statement read. “Her keen intellect, integrity, background, and lived experience are what we need on the Court.”
Religion has been a point of interest in recent Supreme Court nomination battles, particularly the debate over Justice Amy Coney Barrett. When she was nominated by former President Donald Trump in 2020, many observers questioned whether her conservative brand of Catholic faith would influence how she approached issues such as abortion.
Although Jackson reportedly has not ruled on a case narrowly focused on abortion, her appointment nonetheless drew attention of groups concerned about the issue. Jeanne Mancini, president of March for Life Education and Defense Fund, an anti-abortion group, said in a statement she expects Jackson to be “a reliable vote for the far left and the Biden administration’s radical abortion agenda.”
Meanwhile, Jamie L. Manson, president of Catholics for Choice, which advocates for abortion rights, praised Jackson as a jurist with “a long and distinguished record of legal work and judicial decisions that protect and advance the constitutional rights of marginalized Americans, including women and pregnant people, immigrants, and people with disabilities.”
Manson also made mention of Jackson’s April 2021 Senate confirmation hearing to serve on the U.S. Court of Appeals. Manson said Jackson expressed “a clear and firm commitment to the principle that true religious liberty involves both freedom of and freedom from religion.”
During that hearing, Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley noted Jackson had served on the board of Montrose Christian School. The Maryland school, which has since been closed, operated under a statement of faith that declared “we should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death” and outlined a belief that marriage exists only between a man and a woman.
In responding to Hawley, who said he agreed with the statements, Jackson distanced herself from the school’s beliefs. She said she did not “necessarily agree with all of the statements,” and was not previously aware of their existence.
She went on to express support for religious liberty, describing it as a “foundational tenet of our entire government.”
In the past week, the Biden administration launched two programs that aim to get rapid covid tests into the hands of every American. But the design of both efforts disadvantages people who already face the greatest barriers to testing.
From the limit placed on test orders to the languages available on websites, the programs stand to leave out many people who don’t speak English or don’t have internet access, as well as those who live in multifamily households. All these barriers are more common for non-white Americans, who have also been hit hardest by covid. The White House told KHN it will address these problems but did not give specifics.
It launched a federally run website on Jan. 18 where people can order free tests sent directly to their homes. But there is a four-test limit per household. Many homes could quickly exceed their allotments — more than a third of Hispanic Americans plus about a quarter of Asian and Black Americans live in households with at least five residents, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by KFF. Only 17% of white Americans live in these larger groups.
“There are challenges that they have to work on for sure,” said Dr. Georges Benjamin, executive director of the American Public Health Association.
Also, as of Jan. 15, the federal government requires private insurers to reimburse consumers who purchase rapid tests.
When the federal website — with orders fulfilled and shipped through the United States Postal Service — went live this week, the first wave of sign-ups exposed serious issues.
Some people who live in multifamily residences, such as condos, dorms, and houses sectioned off into apartments, reported on social media that if one resident had already ordered tests to their address, the website didn’t allow for a second person to place an order.
“They’re going to have to figure out how to resolve it when you have multiple families living in the same dwelling and each member of the family needs at least one test. I don’t know the answer to that yet,” Benjamin said.
USPS spokesperson David Partenheimer said that while this seems to be a problem for only a small share of orders, people who encounter the issue should file a service request or contact the help desk at 1-800-ASK-USPS.
A White House official said 20% of shipments will be directed every day to people who live in vulnerable ZIP codes, as determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social vulnerability index, which identifies communities most in need of resources.
Another potential obstacle: Currently, only those with access to the internet can order the free rapid tests directly to their homes. Although some people can access the website on smartphones, the online-only access could still exclude millions of Americans: 27% of Native American households and 20% of Black households don’t have an internet subscription, according to a KHN analysis of Census Bureau data.
The federal website is currently available only in English, Spanish, and Chinese.
According to the White House, a phone line is also being launched to ease these types of issues. An aide said it is expected to be up and running by Jan. 21. But details are pending about the hours it will operate and whether translators will be available for people who don’t speak English.
However, the website is reaching one group left behind in the initial vaccine rollout: blind and low-vision Americans who use screen-reading technology. Jared Smith, associate director of WebAIM, a nonprofit web accessibility organization, said the federal site “is very accessible. I see only a very few minor nitpicky things I might tweak.”
The Biden administration emphasized that people have options beyond the rapid-testing website. There are free federal testing locations, for instance, as well as testing capacity at homeless shelters and other congregate settings.
Many Americans with private health plans could get help with the cost of tests from the Biden administration reimbursement directive. In the days since its unveiling, insurers said they have moved quickly to implement the federal requirements. But the new systems have proved difficult to navigate.
Consumers can obtain rapid tests — up to eight a month are covered — at retail stores and pharmacies. If the store is part of their health plan’s rapid-test network, the test is free. If not, they can buy it and seek reimbursement.
The program does not cover the 61 million beneficiaries who get health care through Medicare, or the estimated 31 million people who are uninsured. Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program are required to cover at-home rapid tests, but rules for those programs vary by state.
And the steps involved are complicated.
First, consumers must figure out which retailers are partnering with their health plans and then pick up the tests at the pharmacy counter. As of Jan. 19, however, only a few insurance companies had set up that direct-purchase option — and nearly all the major participating pharmacies were sold out of eligible rapid tests.
Instead, Americans are left to track down and buy rapid tests on their own and then send receipts to their insurance providers.
Many of the country’s largest insurance companies provide paper forms that customers must print, fill out, and mail along with a receipt and copy of the box’s product code. Only a few, including UnitedHealthcare and Anthem, have online submission options. Highmark, one of the largest Blue Cross and Blue Shield affiliates, for instance, has 16-step instructions for its online submission process that involves printing out a PDF form, signing it, and scanning and uploading it to its portal.
Nearly 1 in 4 households don’t own a desktop or laptop computer, according to the Census Bureau. Half of U.S. households where no adults speak English don’t have computers.
A KHN reporter checked the websites of several top private insurers and didn’t find information from any of them on alternatives for customers who don’t have computers, don’t speak English, or are unable to access the forms due to disabilities.
UnitedHealthcare and CareFirst spokespeople said that members can call their customer service lines for help with translation or submitting receipts. Several other major insurance companies did not respond to questions.
Once people make it through the submission process, the waiting begins. A month or more after a claim is processed, most insurers send a check in the mail covering the costs.
And that leads to another wrinkle. Not everyone can easily deposit a check. About 1 in 7 Black and 1 in 8 Hispanic households don’t have checking or savings accounts, compared with 1 in 40 white households, according to a federal report. Disabled Americans are also especially likely to be “unbanked.” They would have to pay high fees at check-cashing shops to claim their money.
“It’s critically important that we are getting testing out, but there are limitations with this program,” said Dr. Utibe Essien, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “These challenges around getting tests to individuals with language barriers or who are homeless are sadly the same drivers of disparities that we see with other health conditions.”
KHN Midwest correspondent Lauren Weber contributed to this report.
(RNS) — The devastating COVID-19 health crisis has become an economic crisis for millions of people — but not for everyone. Last year, families across the United States struggled to put food on the table and balance the responsibilities of childcare and work (assuming they still had a job), but the wealthiest people in our country only got wealthier.
That wealth has not trickled down to families who are struggling to pay their rent, feed their children and create an economically secure quality of life.
The American Rescue Plan — the COVID-19 relief bill passed in March — expanded eligibility for two of the most vital anti-poverty programs we have. It made the Child Tax Credit fully refundable, fixing the gap that excluded families in poverty from receiving the same benefits as their higher-earning counterparts.
It also expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit for workers without children, young workers ages 19-24 and older workers over age 65.
Both adjustments put more money into the pockets of low-income people who were previously ineligible — many of them frontline workers in the pandemic. But these payments will expire on Dec. 31 if Congress does not extend them.
These tax credits work, and, not surprisingly, they are wildly popular. The Child Tax Credit provides a lifeline of economic support to families nationwide who need money to pay for daycare, groceries, utilities, rent, and health care bills that pile up nonstop. This is money being pumped back into local economies coast to coast right now, creating a virtuous economic cycle of helping people in need and local business.
Recently, I spoke with Barbie Izquierdo on the value of programs like these. An advocate and consultant who eloquently gives voice for food justice based on her personal experience, Barbie told me that despite all her work — sometimes full time, sometimes part time, often working more than one job — she “would still come home to an empty fridge.” Her story is shared by hundreds of thousands of families across our country.
To this day, the tax credits are one of the primary barriers keeping Barbie from falling back into poverty as she raises her 14- and 16-year-old children as a single mother. “(They) help you catch up and it alleviates some of the burden of being reminded that you’re poor. They’ve definitely helped me on many occasions,” she explained. “Who knows if I would be here today if I didn’t have that help?”
Since July, millions of families have been receiving Child Tax Credit checks each month. The latest government data indicates that these robust federal programs have put a dent in poverty, which has cascading benefits for children now and in their future — if we can keep these programs in place past the end of the year.
As Congress continues to negotiate additional recovery legislation, we have a historic opportunity to permanently invest in the future of our children. Congress should seize this moment to not only give immediate help to tens of thousands of their constituents but also to strengthen our country’s future.
Specifically, we must adjust the tax code that bends over backward for the extremely wealthy while treating those who struggle every day to afford food and housing as a burden. The more Congress can raise in revenue, the bigger the opportunity we have to address poverty and hunger while investing in our children. It takes real political will to require corporations and the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share. But we expect nothing less.
As a Quaker, my faith and practice encourage me to treat every person as a beloved child of God, which means I am called to do all I can to foster a more equitable, ethical world in which every person can flourish.
I believe Congress wants to help families in need, to ensure a better world for all. This is their opportunity to support the full refundability of the Child Tax Credit. This is the political moment when we can make transformational change in our country.
( Diane Randallis the general secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a national, nonpartisan Quaker lobby for peace, justice, and the environment. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)