Deseret Morning News Graphic
Budgets, the Rev.Daniel Webster is fond of saying these days, are "moral documents." It's a phrase that makes you sit up and take notice the first time you hear it: the idea of numbers having moral weight.
The Rev. Webster, spokesman for the Episcopal Diocese of Utah, is a member of a fledgling group called the Utah Poverty Partnership. He first read the "moral document" phrase in the writings of an evangelical minister named Jim Wallis, whose book "God's Politics" has climbed this winter to No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list. Webster says he has been "re-energized" by the book's thesis that the Bible speaks out against poverty and social injustice much more than it speaks out against, say, abortion or same-sex marriage.
"That's what drives me," says Webster. "A sense of gospel justice. I believe it is absolutely core to what Jesus taught."
The Rev. Webster is one of a group of faith-based members of the Utah Poverty Partnership who have been lobbying the Utah Legislature during the 2005 session, tracking legislation ranging from Medicaid funding to "family-sustaining wage" amendments. Linda Hilton, coordinator of the Coalition of Religious Communities, and Dee Rowland, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, are two more UPP members who have been fixtures on Capitol Hill.
"The so-called 'religious issues' seem to be limited to sexual issues," complains Rowland, about typical legislation that mobilizes the Religious Right. As Catholics, she says, "we believe that a fundamental moral measure of Utah's budget policy is whether it enhances or undermines the lives and dignity of those most in need."
On a recent February afternoon, 30 days into the session, Rowland and Hilton sat side by side in a Senate hearing room, waiting their turn to speak in favor of SB69, a bill that favors the idea of a family-sustaining wage, also sometimes called a living wage. By the time the committee got around to the bill, though, it was dinner time, and the senators were in a hurry to wrap things up. Neither woman got a chance to speak, and the bill went down to swift defeat. Hilton wasn't surprised, just discouraged.
She was wearing what she calls her "howler" pin: a pink dog, its mouth open to let the world know how it feels. During the final week of the session she always shifts to her "screamer" pin. This one features a human face, mouth open in apparent agony. Like other advocates for the poor, Hilton always finds the Legislature an exercise in both hopefulness and frustration.
Hilton says she has been drawn to fighting poverty since a watershed day in college, when she went with a group of friends to serve food at a soup kitchen. Hilton was studying at Whitworth College, a Presbyterian school in Spokane, Wash.
"It was a brutally cold day," she says about this turning point in her life. "And here is this woman with a stroller, with her baby all wrapped up in blankets. . . . We had walked two blocks, and I thought I was freezing, and here's this woman waiting a half hour in line, with no boots. I was blown away."
"Everybody has their moment when something clicks and it makes sense," she says. For volunteers who come to help out at the food pantry at Crossroads Urban Center, she says, that moment may be meeting, face to face for the first time, a single mother who can't afford day care and can't get a job that allows her to bring her two toddlers to work with her.
"There is this misconception that people want to be poor," Hilton says.
"It's a national disgrace the way we treat the poor and hungry and homeless in this country," says the Rev. Webster of the Episcopal Diocese. "And yet these were the exact people Jesus was talking about in Matthew 25" Christ's admonition to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take in the stranger, visit the imprisoned, and his reminder, "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."
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