Every year, religious leaders from eastern Washington hold their legislative conference, to talk about issues about which they want to speak about with their elected officials in Olympia. This year’s conference will be Saturday at the Spokane Valley United Methodist Church.
Scott Cooper: “Bringing folks together from a number of different faith communities and faith traditions to try and amplify a common voice of concern grounded in all of our faith traditions and faith values to advocate around public policy.”
That’s Scott Cooper, the director of parish social ministries for Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington. This is Jim CastroLang is the pastor at the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Colville and a board member for the statewide Faith Action Network.
Jim CastroLang: “We have a lot of activist types who come, who clearly, they’re motivated for a lot of reasons, but clearly they’re rooted to some faith community and all the values that come out of that, say we’ve got to change this, we’ve got to make this better, we’ve got to improve that. Some of them are real veterans of it. For those who are not veterans of it, hopefully coming to the conference will help focus some of the key issues for them, what’s really happening on them and give them some tools for how they can be part of the process in making that change.”
Doug: “So what typically are the types of issues that are discussed here and which are the types of issues that are avoided?”
This is Malcolm Haworth is ecumenical and interfaith liaison with the Fig Tree newspaper.
Malcolm Haworth: “The environment, poverty, homelessness, changes in social services, the current issue regarding immigration. But we’ve had contentious issues as well where the faith community doesn’t, obviously, agree with. The issue of gay marriage was brought up one year. We’ve also issues about abortion that were present.”
Doug: “And when those were brought up, how were they handled?”
Malcolm Haworth: “I think there’s just more of a sense respect there versus incivility so that we respect the rootedness of each faith tradition and we allow each to chime in where there may be disagreement and so we don’t try and dwell on where we can be combative and argumentative, but where we can in a state of rest or peace, which I think is good in a time where things are so contentious in the political environment in general.”
Jim CastroLang: “By the nature of the event, we don’t often get a lot of people who don’t respect other faith traditions other than their own because they wouldn’t come to a mix of people like this very often. Once in a while in any group you’re going to get somebody who’s going to change everybody’s mind, but that’s not who tends to come to this. It’s actually people who see value across faith traditions, not just in their own.”
Doug: “So as we look at the 2019 session, what are the hot button issues?”
Scott Cooper: “We’ve spoken a lot about how the elephant in the room, if I can use that, for the last several years has been the McCleary decision and how that set so much of the tone for what was happening in Olympia, especially around money, around budgets. Now that that has had some kind of resolution, repercussions of that still filtering down, I feel a little bit of freedom now to begin looking at some other kinds of issues. We’re not just sort of hemmed in by, ‘well, our hands are tied here by the McCleary decision.’ Now that that has been somewhat resolved, it feels to me like we’re going to be able to move forward on some other issues-based kind of work.”
Jim CastroLang: “I think an issue that’s constant for us throughout the years, no matter what else was happening, is to deal with poverty issues and those who are the working poor and really struggling. This is definitely a group of people who believe that there are appropriate times to help people along the way because, even when the economy is strong, the way things fall out, some people fall between those cracks. Caring about homeless issues and those struggling poverty issues. Clearly with the government shutdown right now, if it goes on much longer, there’s going to be more repercussions. That’s a thread that runs through every single year.”
Doug: “Climate change is also a big issue. Is that also an important issue at your conference?”
Jim CastroLang: “Yes. Many of us come from faith traditions who have our creation stories that actually science helps us complete. But we have our stories from faith perspectives about the value of creation and the fact that we are part of that creation. All of this was created in love and we have a responsibility to live in it in the way that we’re sharing with everybody else and we’re taking care of it. Our faith point of view is whatever is happening as a result of climate change would be a key concern for us.”
Doug: “Poverty has become a bipartisan issue. It used to be one where the left seemed to be the one that was advocating more often. But now, given the homeless situations in Seattle, in Spokane, and they’re so visual now. What are the types of things that you’re going to be advocating for in terms of homelessness, in terms of housing?”
Scott Cooper: “Looking back to the past, at past conferences, we spent a lot of time informing and inspiring participants to advocate for a state housing trust fund and low and behold, such a thing came to pass. I don’t want to pretend that it was entirely our doing, but I do like to think we had some hand in that. A state housing trust fund was then part of the tool kit that we agencies and actors in the state were able to reach into to develop more housing. So we do see where advocacy at this level, at this stage does translate down the road and it does perhaps take awhile. We’re in this for the long haul. It translate into actual, sustainable, meaningful service and resource for the population that we’re trying to serve. So what I think what we’re looking at at this point is how can we continue to work with the state legislature and the various budgets to continue to offer resource, to continue to offer service so that non-profit partners around the state will have those opportunities available to continue to develop housing. We’re all really aware of the lack of affordable housing in Spokane, that that’s one of the drivers behind the homeless population that we’re seeing. So let’s get in front of that and develop more housing.”
Doug: “Is there a skepticism about mixing religion, religious people having political viewpoints on different issues?”
Jim CastroLang: “I think that is always there because, as human beings, we want to keep safe and it’s always kind of risky when you take your faith values and you go out into the public arena and try to apply them and also stay authentic to those faith values because it’s crazy out there. It can be a challenge. It can be a threat. It can be confusing at times. Yes, there is always some of that. The opening panel discussion that we have for the legislative conference is actually going to address that. How do you bring your faith voice out into that public arena without being co-opted by the political language and all the political stuff that’s happening out there that is part of our culture as well. But what we can add value to is bring kind of a centeredness from our faith traditions into that dialogue and add to it, not just part of how it’s going on out there.”