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Bishops meet with U.S. lawmakers on AIDS, other issues

 


Bishops meet with U.S. lawmakers on AIDS, other issues

May 6, 2005

By Tim Tanton*

WASHINGTON (UMNS)—United Methodist bishops met with U.S. lawmakers and other government officials on such concerns as AIDS and support for struggling African countries during a visit to Capitol Hill.

The United Methodist Board of Church and Society hosted more than a dozen bishops—most of them African—during a May 4 legislative briefing at the United Methodist Building, across the street from the Capitol. After briefings from board staff on legislative priorities such as AIDS orphans, immigration issues and the federal budget, the bishops went to Congress.

At the same time, Bishop John Innis of Liberia met with State Department officials to discuss his country’s need for help with reconstruction following years of civil war. He stressed the importance of investing in such services as electricity, water and education.
 
For both Innis and Bishop Nkulu Ntanda Ntambo of the Democratic Republic of Congo, upcoming elections in their countries are a concern. The bishops expressed the need for U.S. help in ensuring fair, orderly elections.

In the Congo, June elections represent a “very scary, sensitive moment,” Ntambo said.

In Liberia, 48 people are running for president next fall, Innis said. He asked U.S. State Department officials if they could work with the Liberian government in trying to narrow the field. He is concerned that unsuccessful candidates might destabilize the country. Innis also said he was going to ask the Council of Bishops to pray for elections that are free, fair and calm.

Other issues of concern for the African bishops included the debt burden on developing countries, visa problems and AIDS. Ntambo said education and medical assistance—not just money—are needed to fight AIDS.

“We have thousands of congregations across the continent of Africa, and we have the infrastructure already to put into place ministries and programs,” said Jim Winkler, chief executive of the board. “What we need assistance on is financial help.”

The bishops and boards and agencies could develop a proposal to take to potential partners such as the Rockefeller and Gates foundations, Winkler said. “We need financing in the tens of millions if not hundreds of millions of dollars, and those foundations have billions of dollars.”

Bishop Roy Sano, executive secretary to the Council of Bishops, suggested working with the denomination’s new Connectional Table on a proposal to the private sector.

Some of the African bishops expressed interest in additional meetings with U.S. lawmakers. Winkler proposed inviting members of Congress to travel with U.S. bishops to Africa, where they can see the work the churches are doing.

The African bishops as a group visited with U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat and United Methodist pastor from Kansas City, and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

Bishop Al Gwinn of the Raleigh (N.C.) Area met with U.S. Reps. David Price and Brad Miller, both Democrats from his state. He shared his concerns about the federal budget and advocated two bills in the House of Representatives.

One of the bills would provide greater support for children in developing countries, especially in African countries, where many children are homeless and orphaned as a result of AIDS. “They are being indentured into sexual slavery, into horrible working environments,” Gwinn said.

The second bill focuses on health care for legal immigrants, particularly children and pregnant women, who currently are barred from receiving Medicare or other federal assistance unless they’ve been in the United States at least five years.

United Methodist leaders have characterized the federal budget as a moral document that reflects the nation’s priorities. Gwinn said he sees an ethical problem with cutting billions from Medicaid, food stamps, housing and other forms of assistance, then turning around and providing $106 billion in tax cuts.
 
During the debriefing, Winkler was asked about the separation of church and state.
“We believe that religion should not control or dominate the state, but we have the responsibility and the right to speak to the state,” he said.
 
He also commented on the increasing presence of religious voices in the public arena. “We’re actually at a moment in American history where political figures are very, very interested in hearing from religious people,” he said.

The positive side, according to Winkler, is that it gives the church an opportunity to be heard. A negative is that some religious figures see the opportunity as a chance “to exercise undue influence on the state.”

*Tanton is managing editor for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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