Yesterday, the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty held the fifth annual Interfaith Vigil at the Rhode Island State House. The vigil began with a march from the Gloria Dei Lutheran Church located next to the Providence Place Mall, up to the State House. The procession included faith leaders from various denominations and drummers from the McAuley House, a shelter for the homeless.
"The march to the State House was colorful and [an] incredible display of faith in a commitment to reduce poverty in our state," said Rev. Dr. Don Anderson, the executive minister of the Rhode Island State Council of Churches, in a statement.
Once inside the State House, three Rabbis from across the state blew the shofar, one on the House, another on the Senate side, and another in the Rotunda. The shofar is a horn traditionally used in Jewish practices to call people together for the start of services.
Lt. Governor Elizabeth Roberts, who served as the 2011 co-chair of the Food Stamp Challenge organized by the coalition, greeted the crowd. Rev. Linda Watkins, of Calvary Baptist Church in south Providence and a former Associate Director of Amos House, served as the Keynote Speaker. She called on local legislators to care for the state’s homeless and poor.
“At the end of this legislative session, what will your legacy be?” she asked. “Deeper poverty, or recovery for all Rhode Islanders?”
Christelle Maisthe Innocent, a student from Cranston East High School and the treasurer of the Youth Council of Rhode Island for Community and Justice, gave a speech about her own experiences with poverty.
“I have seen the effects of poverty in Haiti where I was born, and in the states where I lived,” said Innocent in a statement. “I know how poverty can hold people back.”
The vigil also served to urge legislators to focus on three initiatives this session: preventing homelessness, restricting payday lending and improving the Rhode Island Works cash assistance program.
Last year, Sen. Joshua Miller (D-Dist. 28, Cranston, Warwick) introduced legislation that would tighten the regulations on payday lenders but would not eliminate them all together. The goal was to help those targeted by the high-interest lenders, while still leaving low-income earners an option other than pawnbrokers and web-based lenders. The bill was postponed indefinitely last session. Also introduced last session were two bills concerning the Rhode Island Works program. Rep. Grace Diaz (D-Dist. 11, Providence) introduced a bill that would allow people to stay eligible for childcare assistance through the program, as long as their income did not exceed 225 percent of the poverty level. Another bill by Rep. Maria Cimini (D-Dist. 7, Providence) would allow childcare to continue as long as the adult was participating in education or training for at least 20 hours per week. Both bills were heard in committee but not taken to vote.
According to a release, the Coalition’s goal is to ensure that every Rhode Islander has a safe, affordable home, adequate food and access to health care, education for their children and decent work.
As is their annual tradition, 33 faith leaders read the names of Rhode Island’s elected officials as a means of encouraging them to govern fairly this session.
Maxine Richman, the co-chairperson of The Coalition and a National Board Member of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs, discussed the current situation in Rhode Island. She reminded those present that the state’s poverty level continues to rise and Rhode Island has one of the highest unemployment rates. “This”, she said of the 15-percent poverty rate, “represents 148,000 people. Of those, 68,800 are living in extreme poverty.”