What Does Social Justice Mean to You?
by Linda Hilton*
Social Justice. The words trigger different thoughts for each one of us; certain scriptural passages, marches and protests, giving money to the poor. As people of faith we all agree that social justice is part of what God has called us to do yet few of us think of this as something that should be an ongoing part of our weekly routines.
Often when I bring up the subject of social justice at church people start talking about food drives or special offerings. That is mission, an important part of what we do but only a band-aid on bigger societal problems. Social justice activities are aimed at fixing the root causes of poverty. That sounds like an overwhelming charge but taken step by step positive changes happen.
Crossroads Urban Center, a United Methodist mission institution in Salt Lake City, has developed a project wherein people of all faiths can work together to bring about real systemic change in Utah. The project, Coalition of Religious Communities (CORC), develops simple activities to involve people directly in bringing about change on issues that affect low income and working families and the homeless, primarily in the area of economic equity. CORC is a multi-faith effort with the active involvement of members in 18 different faith communities. We write letters to the editor, visit our legislators on Capitol Hill and meet with local officials who have power to bring about change.
One of CORC’s founding goals was to work with the Utah State Legislature to fully remove sales tax from food. The campaign included making the issue part of legislators’ and Governor’s campaign platforms, holding education sessions for CORC members to learn more about the issue, working with the press to publicize the benefits of removing this unjust tax and getting congregations to sign petitions and send postcards to their representatives on Utah’s Capitol Hill. Over the course of twelve years the tax has been slowly whittled down, from ranges statewide of 6-8% to a uniform 3% in all cities, towns and counties.
Along the way battles have been fought on other issues; to raise the state minimum wage, implement a state Earned Income Tax Credit, retain and raise money for affordable housing, and reinstate funding for Medicaid vision and dental services. Victories include a number of consumer protection bills including regulation and oversight of the payday loan industry in Utah that targets low income populations and people of color.
During the legislative session CORC organizes Faith Days on the Hill to encourage ordinary parishioners to move out of pews and become advocates for a day. We start the day with a 50-minute educational session on bills or budget issues to be addressed that day. Then each person is given a chance to meet his or her representative and senator to let each one know that a voter from their district is on the Hill in person. Most legislators respond well to meeting constituents and hearing their concerns. The rest of the morning is spent advocating on the issues of the day. After lunch we attend party caucus lunches and sometimes are able to make presentations about issues of concern to us. The rest of the day, for those still standing, is spent listening in on or testifying at sub-committee hearings. It is fun for United Methodists to meet those in other congregations and share fellowship and news over lunch.
We are very proud to have two United Methodists on Utah’s Capitol Hill, Senator Karen Mayne and Representative Jennifer Seelig. When asked how she viewed CORC’s work on the hill Senator Mayne said, “I so appreciate the social conscience of CORC on the hill. I have turned to Linda Hilton and her group many times for guidance.” Representative Seelig said this about CORC’s contributions, “Members of CORC are on the Hill at least twice a week. They provide me with fact sheets and talking points on issues important to low income people that might otherwise be overlooked.”
After the legislative session is over CORC will meet individually with each member of our congressional delegation to discuss the impact of federal legislation “back at home.” Later this spring, CORC will hold it’s annual meeting to decide on the 2009-2010 issues platform. Members will be giving social justice sermons, presenting adult Sunday school workshops and bible studies. We also plan to continue work on local payday lending ordinances with a number of cities around the state and sit down with state lawmakers one-on-one to start preparing bills for next fall.
Little by little we are bringing about change. It all hinges on continued involvement from people just like you.