A nun, a rabbi and an imam walk into Congress. It may sound like the beginning of a convoluted joke but that's exactly what happened last Thursday when an interfaith team of clergy leaders came together to lobby Congress for a fiscal solution that protects government programs for the needy while ending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans.
"We have to come up with a just and equitable solution," said Rabbi Esther Lederman of Temple Micah in the District.
Traveling through the nation's capital on a yellow school bus festooned with a bright banner, Lederman joined representatives from Bend the Arc Jewish Action; NETWORK, A National Catholic Social Justice Lobby; and the Muslim Public Affairs Council in their efforts to convince lawmakers that those at the economic fringes need government program support and that the richest people in America should contribute an amount commensurate with their wealth.
The pressing need to find an agreement that satisfies both President Obama and the Republican majority in the House of Representatives has grown as January and the so-called "fiscal cliff" draws near, but a solution amenable to both sides has yet to be proposed. If no compromise can be reached, the combined program cuts and tax increases could send the fragile economy back into a recession. Whatever decision is reached however, the group of Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith leaders want to impress Congress with the idea that it cannot be one that further marginalizes the poorest people in the country.
"Congress must protect working poor families from cuts that will take food off their table or push them out into the street," said Sister Simone Campbell, the executive director for NETWORK.
Campbell, perhaps best known for her work organizing "Nuns on a Bus" - the touring social action pressure group which gained wide media attention when campaigning against the budget proposals of former vice-presidential candidate Paul Ryan. Campbell had appeared on The Colbert Report just the week before to talk about the planned lobbying and the necessity of social programs for the poor.
The busload of clergy began the day at So Others May Eat (SOME), a social services agency that provides both immediate aid with food and clothing as well as housing, job training and counseling services to the poor and homeless in Washington. Along with the clergy, some of those who have benefited and improved their lives thanks to the opportunities provided by programs for the working poor spoke of how they had been able to get back on their feet thanks to those programs and organizations like SOME.
Though of different faiths, the clergy all said they could come together on the matter of social and economic justice.
"Our message when it comes to the poor and needy is the same," said Imam Makhdoom Zia, of the Mustafa Center.
After touring the facilities, the group loaded up the bus again and headed to Capitol Hill where they were joined by Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) and Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) for a press conference on the goals of the upcoming meeting.
"We are united in our message about economic justice," Wasserman Schultz said.
Ellison and DeLauro echoed their commitment to the pursuit of a budget that won't hurt poor families despite the difficulties in finding any plan to which both political parties would agree.
"It's time to do right by this country," Ellison said.
By highlighting what they see as the moral priorities, the interfaith clergy hoped to persuade congressional leaders that programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid have to be kept funded lest the working poor, seniors and other vulnerable groups get pushed into even more desperate circumstances.
"Our budget is a moral document. Where, when, how and for whom we spend our taxes speaks to who we are as a people," said Bishop Don Williams, associate director for African American Church Relations of Bread for the World.
The group agrees that some of the revenue for these programs should come from those who have benefited from the tax cuts that favor the wealthiest top 2 percent.
"Those that have the most should contribute the most," Campbell said.
Hadar Susskind, Bend the Arc's director, had brought along a letter from rabbis around the country affirming their agreement that they believed the tax cuts for the wealthy should expire in order to benefit everyone, especially the poor.
"I was thrilled to see more than 300 rabbis sign the letter," he said.
After the press conference, the group went to meet with the staffs of both the House and Senate majority and minority leaders to talk about their ethical and moral stance on the economic standoff facing lawmakers.
"The time to act is now," Lederman said.