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Faith Leaders Demonstrate the Power of Connections in Moving a Member of Congress

August 2014

It began with a dozen clergy from Chicago’s South Side and northern suburbs, who signed and circulated a letter to their senator asking him to support emergency unemployment compensation (EUC). This federal program provides unemployment aid after state benefits have been exhausted. This assistance helps families pay bills and put food on the table while they seek work in a difficult job market.

Sen. Mark Kirk (R) had twice voted against reinstating EUC, even though the unemployment rate in Illinois is 8.9 percent—the third highest in the nation. EUC expired last December, and Congress has so far been unable to reinstate it, causing more than 2 million people to lose this vital assistance, including more than 110,000 from Illinois.

A number of factors came together to make this a good opportunity to take action. Pastors were concerned about people struggling financially in their congregations and communities and were primed to respond. Bread for the World regional organizer Zach Schmidt and the original signers of the letter helped it to get wider exposure in congregations across the Chicago area. They sent the letter out over Bread’s blog—a good tool to harness when an action involving Congress needs to happen quickly—and watched the list of signers increase.

In a month’s time, the number of signers had multiplied tenfold, to more than 100. Many of the letter signers were unfamiliar with Bread, so this was also a good chance to introduce them to advocacy and a way to make their voices heard. A group of clergy—led by Rabbi Ike Serotta of Lakeside Congregation in Highland Park (Sen. Kirk’s hometown) and Rev. Brian Roots of Christ United Methodist Church in Deerfield—took the action a step further and also asked for a meeting with the senator, so that they could tell Sen. Kirk in person why his vote was important to them. After this advocacy by faith leaders, Sen. Kirk changed his vote and added his name to a bipartisan bill to restore EUC.

“This shows there's a diverse group of faith leaders who care about the decisions Congress makes and the impact those decisions have, especially on vulnerable people,” Schmidt says. “I think our letter, with the backing of so many faith leaders, many of them from congregations Sen. Kirk knows, along with our request for a meeting, was hard to ignore and helped to change his vote.”  

It also shows the power of relationships in building a stronger network to work against hunger. Many pastors signed on to the letter because they knew the person who asked them to sign, even if they did not yet know Bread for the World. This also gave Bread the chance to reach out to other faith leaders beyond Christians.  Even a small, committed group of people like the original dozen letter signers can have a powerful impact on moving legislation in Washington that helps people who are struggling.

Although the EUC extension is now stalled in Congress, Bread will continue to push for efforts to restore it. There are still three job seekers for every job available in the United States. Until the economic recovery truly reaches all our neighbors, we will continue calling on Sen. Kirk and other legislators to support EUC—for the good of all communities.

Photo: In the spring, clergy in Illinois put their names on the line in signing a letter to their senator in support of emergency unemployment compensation, and it snowballed through the faith community. Jim Stipe for Bread for the World

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