As many Rhode Islanders prepared for Super Bowl Sunday, a number of South County churches spent part of the morning focusing on the issue of poverty.
The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County, Kingston Congregational Church, Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd, Wakefield Baptist Church and St. Peter’s by-the-Sea were the congregations to participate in Poverty in the Pulpits, which was coordinated by the South County Poverty & Faith Group of the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty.
“It addresses that whole question of it, of what is happening in our community and what the facts are,” said John Lord, director of ministry at St. Peter’s by-the-Sea. “Especially right here in Narragansett, we don’t think there are people who are in need, but of course there are.”
Statistics provided by Poverty in the Pulpits organizers paint a grim picture. Rhode Island has the highest poverty rate in New England at 12.8 percent, including one in five children. One in 10 Washington County residents lives on an income below the federal poverty level, defined as less than $20,420 a year for a family of three. Locally, 14.1 percent of children in North Kingstown are part of families below the poverty level. That figure is 8.8 percent and 5.1 percent for children in South Kingstown and Narragansett, respectively.
Organizers also highlighted issues of food insecurity and homelessness in South County, and the work of the Jonnycake Center of Peace Dale and Welcome House of South County to address them. According to the Poverty in the Pulpits group, Jonnycake Center distributed more than 280,000 pounds of food to more than 2,000 Narragansett and South Kingstown residents in 2017. An estimated 400 of those residents were seeking assistance for the first time. Welcome House, meanwhile, provided shelter to more than 230 people and served more than 15,000 hot meals to members of the community.
The Poverty in the Pulpits gatherings sought to highlight the ties between the area’s faith community and its social service providers.
“Scripture, all scripture, indicates that our role is to care for those most disenfranchised,” the Rev. David Helfer, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of South County, said in an announcement for Poverty in the Pulpits. “That doesn’t mean caring for them, but about them. To recognize their inherent worth and dignity, and to understand that we are not different, separate, or better than anyone else. Our faith invites, cajoles and demands that we work toward a more just world, one in which food, shelter and opportunity is a given, for all.”
At Kingston Congregational Church, the Rev. Weldon Palmer drew on his experiences growing up in poverty in addressing parishioners. He also spoke of his daughter’s recovery from a brain tumor to convey his message.
“We human beings have a very difficult time imagining an experience that is very much different than we ourselves have had,” he said. “In many cases, no amount of description will enable us to imagine it ... Another problem is that we don’t want to imagine certain experiences that are greatly different than our own.”
He later added, “First, we have the human imagination largely unable to imagine the experience of poverty. Second, we generally do not want to imagine the experience of poverty. And third, most of us tend to assume that we already know enough about the experience of poverty ... My friends, we should not live in a society that makes it hard for us to remember the divinely bestowed blessedness of the poor. But we do. So whatever else we do concerning those who live in poverty, let us resolve in this one most basic thing that we hold the words of Jesus in our hearts and minds.”
After the service, Jonnycake Center Executive Director Kate Brewster spoke about her organization’s offerings, which include a food pantry and thrift store, tax assistance, nutritional coaching, health care outreach and school vacation meals.
“[Poverty is] here [in South County], it’s just not as visible,” she said. “I think it’s great that so many of you, and I know that you do because of what you do for our center and the Welcome House and others, recognize that that need does exist.”
Additional information can be found on the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty’s website, endpovertyri.org.