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
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.
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
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
“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
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
“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
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.