Fifteen Years Worth Celebrating

In December 1995, I was a Divinity School student lucky enough to be doing my field work under the Rev. Eugene Winkler at the Chicago Temple. I heard somebody mention that a group would be testing whether an alternative voice to the political Christian right could be formed. I was present at this worship service rally of over 700 clergy and lay activists.

How could I have known that all these years later I would be inviting you to celebrate with us the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of Protestants for the Common Good? Please join us on Sunday, November 6 at St. Paul’s United Church of Christ in Lincoln Park, Chicago.

As I reflect upon these years, I am proud of the fact that PCG has often anticipated the important challenges before they became obvious. Until recently, the growing disparity of income and wealth in this country, the greatest since the 1920’s, was barely a public issue. Now it is being debated everywhere.

Two years ago, Franklin Gamwell, a PCG founder and board member, told us what was happening. In his paper, Inequality and the Pursuit of Happiness, he noted that during the three decades prior to the economic collapse starting in 2008, “the income of most Americans increased hardly at all…Some 80% of all the real economic gains since the 1970s have gone to the rich, the top 20% of households, and especially the very rich: Some 40% of all gains have gone to the top 1% of society.”

He called upon us to recognize that the narrow concentration of wealth at the top, and the political power it can buy, are the fundamental social challenges of our time.

One of our PCG board members has now developed a new educational program that addresses economic disparity, wealth and power, and the role of government. We want to bring it to your churches. Let us know when you would like to schedule an educational forum.

We are celebrating our fifteenth anniversary. But in these times of economic crisis, is “celebrate” the right word? Yes. One of the things I have learned over these 15 years is that progress often is grindingly difficult, but nevertheless possible.

Our efforts have not yet led to fair funding for public education in Illinois, but we helped to achieve an increase in the state income tax from 3% to 5%.

Who would have thought that it would be possible to move the Cook County health care system out from under the political patronage of the Cook County Board of Commissioners? We were an important voice calling for an independent board created in 2008. It was made permanent last year by the lllinois General Assembly.

The political religious right continues its misguided attack against gays and lesbians. But the world is changing. With our help, sexual orientation was added to the Illinois Human Rights Act in 2006, and we applauded as the General Assembly endorsed civil unions last year.

My PCG colleagues and I joke about the fact that seven years ago, when we walked into the offices of state legislators to talk about ex-offenders, they got a pained look in their eye and started figuring out how to get us to leave. Now this is a common issue on the floor of both chambers. We have helped to pass legislation that will give many ex-offenders a second chance.

Up until two years ago, a juvenile exploited in prostitution could be arrested and convicted. Now, Illinois is the first state in the nation to make minors immune from prosecution for this crime and instead provide them with necessary support and services.

Less measurable but just as real is the impact of our hundreds of educational forums in churches over the past fifteen years. Have we changed the minds of those who think that social justice, and political steps to bring us closer to it, should not be discussed in churches? I don’t know. Minds are difficult things to change. But I am sure we have strengthened the resolve of those who already understand that charity alone will not meet the needs of the poor.

At the event, we will spend more time on the future than the past. That’s why we are presenting the William Sloane Coffin Award to John Bouman, President of the Shriver Center on National Poverty Law. He was present at our beginning, and helped as we achieved the first welfare cash grant (TANF) increase in twelve years. He now co-chairs the Responsible Budget Coalition, through which we and colleagues from around the state are seeking ways to find new revenue for Illinois and restore the social safety net that has been shredded over the past 10 years.

We look forward to seeing you on Sunday, November 6 at 4 p.m. as we acknowledge our first fifteen years, but more importantly, gather strength for the challenges that lie ahead.


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