“It is in times like this that the soul of Rhode Island is laid bare,” said Reverend Donald Anderson, executive minister of Rhode Island State Council of Churches yesterday.
Anderson was among nearly 30 religious leaders from various faiths gathered at the fourth annual Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition vigil on the steps of the State House Rotunda yesterday afternoon.
Those convened urged legislators to make fair and just decisions in the coming year, especially those decisions that will impact the poor.
“In times of economic prosperity, generosity and grace are easy,” said Anderson, “But in times of prolonged economic decline, generosity and grace are most costly.”
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland, co-chair of the Coalition and president of the Rhode Island Council of Churches, said the purpose of the vigil was to call legislators to issues of “peace and justice.”
“We have been called together by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Fight Poverty,” said co-chair of the Coalition, Maxine Richman, yesterday. “We believe that by working together with our elected officials and the people of Rhode Island that we can cut poverty in half by 2020.”
In the past, the event has been held on the first day of the legislative session, but was held on the second day this year to avoid opening day festivities.
Yesterday a crowd gathered on the steps of the Rotunda to watch the vigil. Senate President M. Theresa Paiva-Weed and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin were among the spectators.
The vigil commenced with a blowing of the Shofar, a traditional Jewish call to the community for assembly.
After a rendition of “You Raise Me Up,” sung by Deidre Jones, Richman shared statistics about the poor community living in Rhode Island.
“Thirty-four percent of the homeless in Rhode Island are children,” she said. “Forty-three percent, or 61,000 live in deep poverty… on $9,000 or less a year.”
She urged legislators to make resolving poverty a priority of their public policy.
“People like my dad are losing their jobs,” said Diamond Rivera, an eighth grade student from Sophia Academy in Providence. “Millions of people are living paycheck to paycheck.”
She addressed the elected officials present.
“Everyone should make an effort, including our elected officials, to help everyone through these tough times,” she said. “Sometimes I wish I could pay off my mom’s bill, or give my dad a job again… unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way because I’m just a kid.”
The crowd responded with a hushed laugh, but allowed Rivera to come to her concluding thought: “If one person suffers, we all suffer.”
After a call and response prayer delivered by Rabbi Peter Stein, Sarah Ogundare, a student and resident of Central Falls, stepped up to the podium. She spoke about her family’s Nigerian descent, and how their label as “immigrants” affects them negatively.
“Each group deserves respect and inclusion,” she said, explaining that her mother has a college degree and speaks English well. She said these characteristics defy the stereotypes of immigrants.
“We all deserve the care, attention, wisdom and compassion of our elected officials,” she said.
Anderson shared a story about a woman at his church who shared a prayer with him. Her daughter would be taking entrance exams for high school, and she wanted her to do well so she could go to a “good school.”
“Shouldn’t every school in Rhode Island be a good school?” asked Anderson. “Let’s not just care about some children in our state, let us realize that we have to care about all children in our state.”
He also addressed the issue of payday lenders, calling them “loan sharks,” and citing their 260-percent interest rates.
“They make the situation worse while they line their own pockets with substantial gain,” he said.
After concluding his speech, Anderson recognized and thanked the elected officials present for their attendance at the event.
“We’re not here to criticize,” he said. “We’re here to support you in doing the right thing.”
Paiva-Weed, who was present at the vigil, addressed the Senate on Tuesday with her opening day remarks.
“I am proud to say that the Senate has not shied away from the many challenges addressing our state,” she said Tuesday. “With a significant anticipated budget shortfall, difficult decisions will again need to be made… It is a challenge again this year to enact a budget which insures Rhode Island’s competitiveness, provides a safety net for the most vulnerable Rhode Islanders, and moves us further along the path of sustainability.”
The religious leaders concluded the vigil by reading the names of all the elected officials. The purpose was to urge them to rule fairly and compassionately this session.
Garland said the vigil was less of a challenge toward the legislators, and more of a statement.
“We are here,” she said in an interview last week. “The whole religious community is paying attention to what’s going on at the State House.”
“We are saying that although we worship in different ways we can agree on the importance of reaching out to our most vulnerable citizens,” said Anderson. “The faith community’s answer to, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is a resounding, ‘Yes!’”
HOPEFUL PRAYER: Maxine Richman, co-chair of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition, addresses a crowd of spectators, including Senate President M. Theresa Paiva-Weed and Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, at a vigil on the steps of the Rotunda at the State House yesterday. (Warwick Beacon photos)