JEFFERSON CITY — Clergy and lay leaders representing a variety of denominations and religious organizations gathered at the Missouri Capitol on April 16 to address what they say is a moral imperative to provide health care for the state’s poorest children.
Clergy and organization leaders met for a roundtable discussion while congregants learned how to engage legislators on the issue.
The event was sponsored by Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO.org) , a faith-based organization designed to build relationships, develop strong leaders and improve communities.
The meeting came shortly after reports that both the Missouri House of Representatives and Senate rejected an amendment proposal that would have provided 10,000 children with coverage from Missouri’s State Children’s Health Insurance program, or S-CHIP.
“I’m not sure the Master is satisfied with that,” said Wallace Hartsfield Sr., pastor emeritus at Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, Kansas City, and event chair.
Hartsfield emphasized that health care is a pro-life issue.
“I am against abortion,” he said. “I also believe, on the other end, we need to have a concern for the baby when it gets here as well.”
Each week in Missouri, 10 people die due to lack of health care coverage, said John Bennett, retired Disciples of Christ minister and representative of Missouri Health Care for All.
“Health care is literally a life and death issue. We pray to God that our legislators come to understand that; that their hardness of heart is softened by the call to justice we shall give.”
Clergy also heard from Rosalind Denson, associate pastor of West Side Missionary Baptist Church, St. Louis. She reminded those at the roundtable discussion that all human life is made in the image of God and has value.
“We speak for the voiceless,” she said. “We cry long and loud.”
Since Jesus healed the sick and touched the untouchables, the church needs to be a resource for healing, she said. “We gather to speak the truth to power.”
According to Ron Levy, director of the Missouri Department of Social Services, and Senator Jeff Smith, Democrat from Missouri’s 4th district and presenter of the rejected amendment, providing health care to those children is not a financial problem.
“We’re debating a $23 billion state budget, and I’m asking for less than $6 million to make sure our children don’t fall through the cracks and go without health care,” Smith said in a Missouri Senate press release.
Thanks to a federal program that would provide nearly $3 for each dollar spent, “this measure would have cost each family in Missouri about one-half penny a day, or about two dollars each year to provide health care to 10,000 Missouri children,” he said.
During the afternoon, more than 150 clergy and lay leaders from 60 congregations reconvened for a Faith and Families Rally on the third-floor rotunda. The gathering was just outside the Senate chambers, under an inscription reading “Not to be served but to serve.”
Attendees had the opportunity to hear from various representatives who supported the amendment, including Smith, who suggested, “We will be judged on the way we treat our children, by society and by the Word of God.”
During the rally, Hartsfield urged the crowd to gather as brothers and sisters in faith to “heal this sickness of our legislative process.”
Marsha West, a member of Metropolitan Missionary Baptist Church, shared her personal struggle with health care. West is a bus driver whose employer requires her to contribute nearly $200 a month for her health care coverage.
West was recently informed that after receiving a small pay raise that her children are no longer eligible for S-CHIP. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the extra $95 a month to cover her two teenage daughters.
Even with her own coverage, she is often unable to afford the deductibles and co-pays for doctors’ visits and postpones her own health care in order to provide for her daughters, she said.
Acknowledging one of her children in the crowd, West said her daughter has seen her break down when she couldn’t afford to pay for her daughter’s medicine.
Throughout the day, rally attendees were encouraged to share their own stories with each other and to listen to the stories of those in their churches and communities.
The rally ended with the group singing “This Little Light of Mine” while circling the House and Senate chambers and marching to the Governor’s office.
“I was grateful for the opportunity to come together with others from the faith community to speak on behalf of those who are rarely heard in the public arena,” said Jim Hill, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. “The church should be speaking on behalf of the poor in our state. Jesus was passionate about the need to care for the poor. I find it difficult to understand how our legislators cannot find a way to work together on behalf of the poorest and most vulnerable children in our state. It is not a Republican or Democratic issue — it is a moral issue.”
Steve Long, Baptist minister and executive director of the Marceline Community Health Center, agreed. “Jesus said He came to bring good news to the poor. Jesus’s actions included healing the physically poor. I am glad to see other Baptist leaders becoming involved in advocating for those who are poor in Missouri, that they might receive better health care.”
After attending the event, Pete Hill, pastor of First Baptist Church, Smithville, is offering his congregation an opportunity to sign petitions and fill out a questionnaire on health care issues.
Brian Ford, pastor of Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church in Columbia, participated in the rally so that he and his congregation would be better educated about the issue.
“The information I learned was very troubling,” he said. “As a person of faith and a taxpaying citizen, I am very disappointed that members of our state legislature continue to treat health care coverage to the ‘least of these’ in our midst as a partisan issue. As people of faith, we have a clear biblical mandate to stand up and give voice to the voiceless….
“My prayer is that more citizens will become aware of this issue and begin to speak a prophetic word to the powers that be through communication and casting their vote on election day. God expects more of us. We cannot continue to be silent and sit idle as innocent children of God suffer.”
Jennifer Harris is the news writer for Word&Way.