Protestors on behalf of the poor and voiceless agree to court settlement

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  • Dale Eisman

Common Cause President Bob Edgar and a group of other civic and religious leaders agreed today to a pre-trial resolution of misdemeanor charges lodged July 28, when they conducted a prayer vigil in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol on behalf of the poor and voiceless.

“We went to the Rotunda at the height of the budget debate to refocus the attention of Congress, President Obama and the nation on the plight of millions of sick, poor and working Americans,” Edgar said. “We must keep their struggles paramount in all our minds as we attempt to fashion solutions to our nation’s fiscal problems.”

The settlement, finalized during a hearing in DC Superior Court, requires the faith and civic leaders to stay out of the Capitol building for six months and complete a drug screening program. No fines or jail terms were imposed, and the cases will be dismissed if the leaders abide by the agreement.

“We went to pray in the Rotunda for the same reason folks are joining the Occupy Wall Street protests – we are working for an economy that protects the least of these and where the very wealthy pay their fair share,” said the Rev. Jennifer Butler, the Executive Director of the Faith in Public Life organization based in Washington, DC. “Our nation’s budget problems can be addressed, but only if all of us accept responsibility for the welfare of all,” agreed the Rev. Paul H. Sherry, Director of the Washington DC Office, Interfaith Worker Justice.

The prayer vigil, which went on for about 90 minutes before police began making arrests, was conducted as an act of faithful civil disobedience. “We understood at the outset that the vigil could have legal consequences,” Edgar said. “While we accept the agreement to resolve the charges against us, we do not regret or apologize for our actions.”

“We share a belief that after exhausting all other avenues of persuasion and witness, civil disobedience is a necessary and appropriate way to demonstrate our concern and raise the voice of the faith community in the budget debate,” said the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church USA. “We are guilty of one charge: the promotion of social righteousness.”

“Our faith calls us to lift up the voices and the stories of the most vulnerable. With economic disparities becoming ever greater, now is not the time to balance budgets on the backs of the most vulnerable,” said Sandy Sorensen, director of the Washington office of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Witness Ministries. “We risk leaving our children to shoulder a legacy of poverty, underinvestment and diminished opportunities if we do not adequately fund programs that invest in the common good and make all of our communities strong.”

Children beyond America’s shores also are at risk in the budget debate, said Marty Shupack, Director of Advocacy for Church World Service. Foreign aid is “already less than 1 percent of the federal budget,” he observed, “and cutting aid to poor countries will mean countless more families going hungry and many more children dying needlessly of disease. Helping our neighbors in need wherever they are is a moral imperative and makes America more secure. The faithful way to fiscal health is for Congress to focus on job creation, ensuring that the most advantaged Americans pay their fair share of taxes, and reducing unnecessary military spending.”

The Rev. Michael Livingston, Past President, National Council of Churches, and current Director, NCC Poverty Initiative, said that he participated to “protest the irresponsibility of Congress and the deafening silence on the part of our nation’s leaders to the dire circumstances of the most vulnerable among us.”

One participant, Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society said he also had a personal reason for getting involved. He recalled how legendary Vietnam-era pacifist A.J. Muste once stood alone for nights on end outside the White House, holding a candle to protest the war. When a journalist asked if Muste truly thought he could “change the policies of this country by standing out here alone at night with a candle,” Muste had a simple reply:

“Oh, I don’t do this to change the country,” he said. “I do this so the country won’t change me.”

The coalition of arrested leaders included:

– Bob Edgar, President of Common Cause

– Jim Winkler, general secretary of the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Church and Society (GBCS);

– Rev. Jennifer Butler, executive director of Faith and Public Life;

– Rev. Paul Sherry, director, Washington DC Office of Interfaith Worker Justice and National Coordinator of the Faith Advocates for Jobs Campaign;

– Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.);

– Rev. Michael Livingston, Past President, National Council of the Churches of Christ (USA);

– Sandy Sorensen, Director of Washington Office, United Church of Christ;

– Martin Shupack, Director of Advocacy, Church World Service;

– Jordan Blevins, Director of Peace Witness Ministries, Church of the Brethren.

– Jean Stokan (*), director, Institute Justice Team, Sisters of Mercy of the Americas; Policy Advisor, Pax Christi USA .

– Rabbi Arthur Waskow (*), The Shalom Center, Philadelphia.

(*) Jean Stokan and Arthur Waskow’s cases will be handled separately.

Organizations involved with the July 28 prayer vigil: Common Cause; General Board of Church and Society, United Methodist Church; Faith in Public Life; Interfaith Worker Justice; Office of Public Witness, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.); National Council of the Churches of Christ; United Church of Christ; Church World Service; Church of the Brethren; Sisters of Mercy of the Americas; The Shalom Center.