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U.S. church leaders prepare message
to send to President-Elect Obama

Washington, December 6, 2008 -- Church leaders attending the annual meeting of the United States Conference for the World Council of Churches in Washington began drafting a message to President-Elect Barack Obama that they plan to send to him prior to his inauguration on January 20.
 
The leaders share many of the President-Elect's stated goals, and a panel of leaders on 3 December expressed the hope that he will reduce poverty, remove U.S. troops from Iraq ahead of schedule, improve education, end government raids on places where suspected undocumented aliens work, end torture as a means of interrogation, and use his bully pulpit with humility and respect.

The list is ambitious and no one doubts the new president already faces some of the thorniest challenges in recent history. But panelists made it clear they were offering suggestions in the same spirit of hope that Obama made a hallmark of his campaign.
 
The ideas will be sent to a drafting committee that will prepare a final message to Obama to be sent prior to his inauguration on January 20.

The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches USA, cited three items on which the NCC has acted in the last two months.
 
Human trafficking is one dire phenomenon that needs addressing, Kinnamon said.
 
“According to the International Labor Organization, 12.5 million live in forced labor and sexual servitude,” Kinnamon said. “I have seen estimates as high as 27 million … We would like to see the new administration give aggressive leadership on this issue."
 
Kinnamon also urged the new president to take action on immigration reform and the elimination of torture as a mode of interrogating criminals.
 
“It is wrong to traffic in human beings,” Kinnamon declared. “It is wrong to treat any human being, whether documented or not, simply as an unwelcome stranger. It is wrong to torture a child of god.”


The panel was moderated by Dr. Elizabeth G. Ferris, Quaker and co-director of the Brookings-Bern Project on Internal Displacement of the Brookings Institution. Ferris is a former member of the WCC staff in Geneva.

Another panelist, the Rev. Dr. Sharon Watkins, General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) said she had been deeply impressed by Obama’s assertion that “we are not red states and blue states but the United States of America.”
 
“That’s something we Disciples can cotton to,” Watkins told nearly 60 conferees from the US and other nations around the world. “Disciples call ourselves a movement of wholeness.” Watkins recalled Obama’s commitment to education and expressed the hope that he would carry it to all sections of the nation and to the world.
 
“Education is important to us,” she said. “Classrooms are test prep sessions instead of suited to children’s needs and teachers’ creativity. Parents cannot advocate for their child’s particular needs without having to label their child. President-elect Obama  has made it clear that education is his priority but he leaves the burden on parents and teachers. We are also a global family. The child in Ramallah and Cuba and Congo also matters to us. Our own security as a nation is inextricably linked with the wellbeing of others.”
 
Watkins also observed that recent US policy toward Cuba “has impeded our relationship with church partners who are our brothers and sisters in Christ in Cuba.” She urged the new administration to restore the permit that enables Christians in the US and Cuba to exchange visits.
 
Church leaders who have negotiated with government officials to restore the permit have been told that the government does not consider the general ministries of a denomination as church. “That is an inappropriate attempt by our government to define what is or is not church,” she said. “We hope for a new attitude from Obama."
 
The Rev. Michael Livingston, executive director of the International Council of Community Churches, and past president of the NCC, said he could express his suggestion succinctly. “The one issue I’d like to place at the top of the agenda for President-Elect Obama and the 111th Congress is poverty,” he said.
 
“A child dies from poverty every five seconds,” Livingston said. He paused for five silent seconds. “One just went back to God. Now that’s an abomination. We pray our president-elect will do something about this, and we will be there to hold him accountable.”
 
The Rev. Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA), cited Obama’s oft-stated goal of saving the American middle class that is struggling with financial downturns.
 
“Before we are saved you need to let us confess that it wasn’t just predatory lending that led to this crisis, but was predatory acquisition,” he said,  addressing Obama as if he were in the room. Millions of middle class persons helped precipitate the economic downturns by purchasing “mansions, cars, ignoring gas mileage, ignoring the environment … we need to confess our complicitousness for the mess we are in.”
 
Parsons said “we need to change the narrative. Being middle class should not be the eschatology (end goal) of every child born in this country.” 
 
The Rev. John H. Thomas, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, noted that despite the US tradition of separation of church and state, the president of the United States is perceived as a “public theologian.”
 
Thomas expressed the hope that Obama would fulfill this role with humility – unlike the current resident of the White House who, Thomas said, could not reflect on his decisions because of his “messianic certainty.”
 
Being a public theologian may not seem to be an important part of the presidential job description, Thomas said. “But in a country so profoundly saturated in various pieties it is inevitable that a president’s rhetoric will be interpreted through the lens of theologies. Barack Obama is articulate about the relationship of faith and life. We encourage him to recognize that he will to a great degree be recognized as a theologian of the American narrative. “
 
The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey W. Carter, senior pastor of the Manassas, Va., Church of the Brethren, represented Church of the Brethren General Secretary Stanley Noffsinger on the panel.


“Our hope is for peace in Iraq, and it is predicated on promised hope and change,” Carter said.  “We need to end the military agreement in Iraq and pull out ahead of the 2010-2011 agreement. We need to  maintain Iraqi national unity, especially among  Sunni and Shia. We cannot go back to a 2006 civil war. We need to broaden efforts in reconstruction. “
 
He urged Obama to “act morally: be transparent, not only in action but most of all in motives. Be responsive to real needs rather than to rhetoric. Raise the level of civil discourse. Be truthful to your faith heritage. Do justice. Love kindness and walk humbly with you god, for you are a child of god called to serve.”

Other persons attending the U.S. Conference meeting added their own ideas for the message to Obama.

Young Adult leader Kathryn Lohre asked that the message express thanks to Obama for his inclusion of youth in his campaign, and she asked heads of US Conference member communions to follow his example.

The Rev. Dr. Angelique Walker-Smith, who was part of a WCC "Living Letters" visit to Sierra Leone and Liberia on the day of Obama's election, observed people dancing in the streets when the news came in. The election of the first African American President of the United States had been enthusiastically received around the world, she said.


NCC News contact:  Philip E. Jenks, 212-870-2228, NCCnews@ncccusa.org


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