by Rhina Guidos
WASHINGTON (CNS) — From a Washington rooftop, Pedro Francisco could see the top of the U.S. Capitol, the place he was heading to the next day to speak for the poor.
Through a program for the Christian nonprofit Bread for the World, which focuses on eradicating hunger, Francisco, representing the Diocese of Birmingham in Alabama, was one of more than two dozen Latinos from around the country who spent June 12 learning about the budget being proposed by the Trump administration.
“I work at the school system in my hometown, a low-income school. We benefit from [social service programs] in the budget,” said Francisco. “Nothing says ‘I love you’ more than a plate of food.”
Bread for the World, like many organizations, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have cried out against the so-called “skinny” budget the administration has proposed. It’s called skinny because it aims to drastically cut social safety-net programs, but fattens military spending. This year, the nonprofit hosted a meeting for Latino advocates to get more Hispanic Christians to understand and participate in legislative efforts to end hunger and other issues that affect them as well as other communities on the margins of society.
“We’ve been working to have more Latinos involved in our legislative agenda,” said Dulce Gamboa, associate for Latino relations at Bread for the World. “It’s definitely been challenging.”
Some of the Latino participants come in with the fear that they’re not going to be heard by Congress or they may have migrated to the U.S. from countries where citizens don’t usually advocate for issues with their elected officials, she said.
The effort by Bread for the World aims to discuss some of the issues with the Latino advocates, which includes pastors and lay church members, and then have them join in the organization’s lobby day. For participants like Pedro Francisco, a first-generation American, that meant having a chance to talk to his state representatives about what would happen if Congress reduces programs that help feed some of the children he works with in Alabama schools.
“It’s a difficult thing, as a Christian, to hear,” said Francisco, a former seminarian, about the proposed cuts that would end meals for the poor, particularly when they involve educational programs for children. “How can you expect a child who comes from a low-income family, not economically well-established, to do well and excel at school when they’re barely making ends meet?”
Such measures are contrary to the social justice that the Catholic Church, and other Christian groups advocate, Francisco said — and in his case, it’s personal. He has an 8-year-old nephew who lives in public housing and is in an after-school program that helps give him stability, food, and enriches his life, he said.
“It’s not just statistics, these are people we’re dealing with,” Francisco said. “When they’re taking money and resources away from the educational system, from those who need it, and are appropriating that for mass incarcerations, that to me . . . it’s bad policy.”
By “incarcerations,” he was referring to funding in the proposed budget for immigration and detention centers.
Gamboa said the program for Latinos is about empowering communities to use their voice, particularly when that voice comes from a place of faith.
“God is calling us at this very challenging time to tell Congress what should be the priority for the government,” Gamboa said. “Our faith really motivates us. God is a vision of a world without hunger.”
God’s message of justice resonates with Latinos whose lives are centered on faith, said Gamboa, and it goes beyond issues of hunger.
For Catholics, the issues of hunger and poverty particularly resonate, said Bishop Richard E. Pates of Des Moines, Iowa, who’s a member of the board for Bread for the World, and now’s the time to speak up for the poor and hungry because they’re “under great, great threat,” with the proposed budget cuts, he said in an interview with Catholic News Service, but there are other issues that are important for people of faith, too, and also are under threat.
The Trump budget would cut by 37 percent the $50 billion budget for the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Both have anti-poverty programs to help foster democratic societies abroad and cuts would be disastrous, said Bishop Pates, who as past chairman of the U.S. bishops’ International Justice and Peace Committee, said he saw the positive relationships those programs created. Cutting the agencies’ budget would mean “undermining all we’ve been able to accomplish in terms of our relationships with other countries,” he said.
And what’s more troublesome is cutting programs that help people in order to buy more arms, Bishop Pates said, referring to the proposed increase for the military.
“They’re bare bones to begin with,” the bishop said about the budget for the Department of State, “and they want to put [money] in defense? And with the arsenal we have? What kind of arsenal do we need, to kill people seven times over?” he asked.
Instead of benefiting people and humanity, that money benefits “the gun merchants, those people who have a lot of investment in the war machine,” Bishop Pates said.
It’s important, he said, for Catholics to remain engaged in the issues of the world, to be advocates for the poor, to call out injustice and call for good stewardship of what God has provided.
“The world’s goods are intended for everyone,” he said.” That’s what justice is about.”
The Gospel makes it clear that if “our relationship to Jesus, if it’s going to be authentic, it’s going to have to be also expressed in our service to others,” he told CNS.
That’s why Christians must engage in issues of hunger, poverty, as well as immigration and climate change, Bishop Pates said.
For Francisco, who hadn’t engaged his faith in a similar way before, the experience provided by Bread for the World meant thinking about issues for a bit, praying, and then seeking to dialogue with elected officials.
And dialogue is an important part of the process, said Bishop Pates.
“We don’t want to be judgmental,” he said. “But we want to call them to task, ask them to be faithful to the stewardship that God has entrusted . . . if we have faith in God, and his will, we have to advocate.”