Saturday, November 2, 2013

Mixing Faith and Politics

It’s conventional wisdom that faith and politics don’t mix. In polite company, it’s best not to talk about either and to put them together is like pouring gasoline on a fire.

In my United Methodist congregation and in a number of other faith communities, there is lively sense that our faith, our principles, the things we hold to be true, inevitably shape our political, economic and social beliefs. And so while mixing faith and politics may be a social faux pas, perhaps it’s something  best consigned to the dust bin of history.

My congregation, located next door to the University of Texas campus, has regularly taken stands on political issues. Many of us have joined the call for more humane immigration reform, for an end to solitary confinement and the death penalty, and for support of a living wage.

We’ve also joined a growing chorus of Austinites who whole-heartedly support affordable housing.

A couple of years ago, with the help of Austin Interfaith, we had several meetings with folks who are homeless. We listened to their concerns about life on the streets.

I vividly recall one meeting where we began listing some of the ways that their lives could be improved. They needed more day time shelter. Safer places to sleep and keep their stuff. More public restrooms and water fountains around the downtown.

As we went down the list, one glaring omission stood out to me. I had to ask, “What about housing? Most of you live under the stars. Why isn’t housing at the top of the list?”

And to a person, our friends who live on the street said, “Pastor John, we have no hope of ever getting any kind of housing in Austin, Texas.”

Our hearts sank.

After all, what could we do? Our church already feeds over 250 people every Saturday morning and clothes over 100. We provide programs on Thursday afternoon for street youth and we contribute to the Micah 6 Food Bank. We’re maxed out. Every congregation in the University area does incredible things to help alleviate poverty, but affordable housing? That was so far beyond our reach as to be unimaginable.

Following that meeting, we learned of a new bond that was being proposed for the 2012 election that would provide $78 million for affordable housing, including some funding for permanent supportive housing for our homeless friends. The last bonds passed in 2006 helped pay for the construction, renovation and repair of 3400 homes. The investment for the city brought in almost $150 million and created over 3000 construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs. How could this possible fail?

Unfortunately, the 2012 bond did fail by a very slim margin (1.5% of voters) and the funds for affordable housing have almost run dry. But there are still 38,000 families that can’t find a home they can afford in Austin and more than 2,000 homeless students in AISD schools. Low income families typically cut back on food and medical expenses, and move often, which makes it difficult for their children to do well in school. They’re also more likely to become homeless, which puts added stress on our thin infrastructure that provides shelter and services for the homeless. Doing nothing is not a solution without its own very human costs.

As people of faith, what is our calling? The Old Testament prophet Micah asks the same question: “What does God require?” And the answer begins, “To act justly.” If we follow our faith, we will be pushed out of the relative comfort of charity into the tricky work of doing justice. We will dare to move beyond simply giving a cup of cold water to consider systems of injustice. We will be drawn into that uncomfortable mix of faith and politics, where we practice our religious tradition’s deepest teachings by challenging policies and advocating for programs that seek the fullness of life for all human beings. 

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