This is also what democracy looks like

Last week I went to my second meeting with the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition, a group drawn from various religion-based communities to lobby the legislature on behalf of low-income people. Many of the members have been doing this work for years, either as volunteer activists, professionals working for non-profits, or clergy. The idea is to fill out their ranks with “ambassadors” from different congregations, to educate us about the issues, mentor us in the fine art of influencing our elected officials, and inspire us to recruit more of our co-congregants to the cause.

It’s work I believe in. I don’t need to tell you that the gap between the have-a-whole-lots and the have-hardly-anything is growing larger and larger. Or that government programs that serve people with the most desperate needs are seeing their budgets slashed. Or that while banks and business associations and developers and other special interests exert their influence with campaign contributions, media buys and professional lobbyists, those constituents who are hurting most have the least clout.

I don’t consider myself particularly religious. But I do believe that if organized religion does anything right, it’s encouraging people to look out for those who can’t look out for themselves. And if organized religion does anything wrong (I mean, besides occasionally promoting a hateful social attitude), it’s erecting barriers between people. What better way to help break those barriers down than by working with an interfaith group?

I was politically active when we lived in Vermont. I volunteered for candidates, ran for office and worked as a paid staffer. In such a small state, with it’s squeaky-clean(ish), Norman Rockwell democracy, it was easy to get involved. In the four-plus years we’ve lived inRhode Island, I’ve written the occasional email, shown up for a rally or two and, of course, cast my ballot. But I have shied away from in-your-face involvement.

The politics here are scary. The two times I’ve been up at the Statehouse, I was the only one there who wasn’t dressed like a banker. I couldn’t dress like a banker if my life depended on it.

A ridiculously large percentage of Rhode Islandpoliticos went to the same (Catholic) schools: LaSalle Academy and Providence College. I’ve lived here less than five years. And I’m not Catholic.

From what I’ve heard about how business gets done in that building, public hearings and floor debates are just window dressing; the real deals get made at secret arm-twisting and horse-trading sessions. And you can’t pick up the paper without seeing another story about governmental sleaze and corruption. I don’t have the stomach for that stuff.

At this latest Coalition meeting, a Freshman rep from Providence briefed us on the best ways to get legislators to listen. Her candid comments confirmed the nasty stuff I’d suspected about the state of statesmanship in the Ocean State. But she also suggested that for all the back-room deals that go down on Smith Hill, getting access to lawmakers there is actually pretty easy.

The organizers sent us home with reports from Kids Count and The Poverty Institute about the Rhode Island budget and its impact on people in need. Trying to read through the litanies of numbers and bureaucratic short-hand makes my head swim. What is Comprehensive Evaluation Diagnosis Assessment Referral and Re-Evaluation Services (CEDARRS)? What does “hardship cash assistance for GPA recipients” mean? And I hate to sound like Talking Barbie (“Math is so hard”), but my brain just shuts down at the sight of three or four millions-of-dollars figures strung out in a single sentence.

I don’t have the background for this stuff.

Part of me wants to just run away. I’m a fiction writer. I should be spending my days at my computer, trying to trick myself out of wasting my hours on social media and You Tube reruns of John Stewart writing.

But another part of me says, sending off an email or picking up the phone or, once the legislature is in session, showing up at the state house and button-holing my rep (who, by the way, has one of the most progressive voting records on Smith Hill), is a hell of a lot easier than trying to feed a family on food stamps, or find a job when you can’t afford transportation or child care, and getting treatment for a mental illness when you depend on government assistance.

For all the ways in which Rhode Island’s democracy is broken, it’s the democracy we have right now. Until it’s fixed, the good guys need to keep trying to work through it. That just seems more productive than pitching tents in the park.

I’ll be at the next Coalition meeting, and try to get some other people from my congregation to come along.

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