On March 20, Presbyterians at Ecumenical Advocacy Days heard from several leaders in Washington who serve in a variety of capacities but who agree that faith-based organizations have a role in political advocacy.
The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson is the new director of public witness in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)'s Washington Office. He spoke about the responsibility of God's people to be "priestly in love and prophetic in speaking truth to power."
The dinner was also a time to say farewell to the Rev. Phil Tom. Tom was the former associate for small church and community ministry in the General Assembly Mission Council. He left to take a position as director of the Department of Labor's Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
Presbyterians also heard from Paul Monteiro, associate director of the White House's Office of Public Engagement. His role involves making sure religious voices are heard in public policy discussions. At the dinner, Monteiro spoke of the good relationship between the denomination’s Washington Office and the administration.
"It makes a difference in the work that you do and it makes a difference in the work that we do when we work together," he said.
Speaking on the eve of the passing of the historic health care reform bill, Monteiro spoke of the connection between the political ideals of justice and dignity and the biblical call to care for the "least of these."
"It's about much more than money. It's about what is right," he said. "It is what every faith tells us we are required to do."
Ecumenical Advocacy Days is an annual conference that combines worship and education with lobbying around a central theme. This year's theme was "A Place to Call Home" and focused on immigrants, refugees and displaced people.
The work for health care reform wasn't easy or popular, and the same will be true for immigration reform, Monteiro said.
Although most politicians agree that the current immigration system isn't sustainable and needs to be changed, "how we fix the system is very much up for debate," he said.
When trying to reform the system, the input from faith groups on a range of topics — such as law enforcement, the creation of new laws and status decisions — is very important.
"We need your help in making this hope, this aspiration, a reality," Monteiro said.
The immigration system needs to provide more opportunities for undocumented people to become citizens, remove incentives for employers who hire undocumented workers and works to keep families together, he said.
"How can we talk about family values but continue to let families be torn apart?" Monteiro asked.
He also emphasized the need for faith organizations to take a stand against fear-mongering.
"It's not hard to imagine how easy it will be to demonize this issue," he said. "We will depend on the voice of the PC(USA) to keep the debate civil and keep the debate honest."
Although Monteiro said President Obama is committed to immigration reform, there is much to be done outside the White House. People urge the president to make speeches and push the issue, but a large part of his work centers around finding enough bipartisan support to make a meaningful bill.
Unlike with the health care reform, on which many faith communities disagreed, immigration reform is like a "gift" — most groups agree that reform is needed.
"Every faith group I talk to ... they all are excited to work on this issue," Monteiro said.
It's important for faith groups to stay involved and continue to build bridges while maintaining a legitimate debate.
"We'll need your input, your insight to move us forward," he said. "Too often, our politics fail our morals."