Last Saturday I attended an interfaith prayer vigil and Medicaid expansion celebration held at St. Anthony Catholic Church. It was a service with much prayer, music, scriptural readings, and a sermonette. It felt like a church service, but with a distinct purpose. I was invited by a friend, a member of a congregation belonging to AFACT, or Anchorage Faith and Action — Congregations Together. AFACT is composed of 14 Christian congregations representing a diverse array of backgrounds working to address quality of life issues in Alaska’s largest city.
AFACT’s statement about Medicaid expansion is here. It’s very straightforward. Based on biblical and Alaska constitutional grounds, it’s an issue of equality and fairness. When Gov. Bill Walker asked the Legislature to address Medicaid expansion, he was rebuffed. AFACT members lobbied in person, and conducted prayer vigils to bring them to their senses, but no action was taken. That’s when Walker stepped in.
I was absolutely riveted by Lutheran Church of Hope pastor, the Rev. Julia Seymour’s remarks. She asked how many of us have a junk drawer in our houses. All hands went up.
“Most of us have a ‘junk drawer’ in our houses,” she said. ”It’s a place where we stick the odds and ends that are useful, but never seem to have a home. The Medicaid expansion gap in our state functioned as a societal junk drawer. It was the place where working, single adults fell; those who did not make quite enough to afford to buy into the exchanges and weren’t in dire enough straits to be covered by anything else.”
She was right; I’d just never thought of it that way.
Later, Seymour told me AFACT members were “drawn together through their understanding of Scripture. Again and again, Hebrew Scripture, the Gospels, and the Epistles remind God’s faithful there is no such thing as a social junk drawer. Every person has a place. Every person belongs. When people belong, they should receive the benefits of having a place in society. In our work as communities of faith together, this has meant working toward a medical social safety net that covers all Alaskans.”
She finally observed this was “part of the ongoing joy that is part of being churches working together. For AFACT congregations, a Baptist, a Catholic, and a Quaker walking into a bar together isn’t a joke. We are grateful to God that it is our reality.”
I turned to the Rev. Max Lopez-Cepero, of First Covenant Church of Anchorage, curious about its AFACT involvement. “Our congregation joined AFACT,” he said, “because we found a missing link in the way we were responding to people in need. Churches are often good at compassion ministry; raising money and food for individuals and families who have needs. But most churches pay little attention to the structures and public policies which cause those needs. We realized that compassion and justice are different facets of our call to love our neighbor. Compassion is working to help hurting people. Justice is working to end what hurts people. We wanted to give some balance to our care by addressing justice as well as compassion in our outreach. AFACT has a track record of working with churches to identify justice issues in keeping with our Christian heritage.”
For me, Lopez-Cepero really nailed it when he said, “There is a heresy in some churches that God does not want government to do justice for the poor; that this should be a choice for involvement made by individuals and perhaps churches. Those taking this stand seldom apply this idea to other issues of justice and morality. In King David’s last Psalm he offers a prayer for his son Solomon who is to become the new king. Several stanzas of that prayer refer to the responsibility of the government to bring justice to the poor.” (Lopex-Cepero refers to Psalm 72, sometimes thought to be David’s last. One verse reads,”May the King defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy and crush the oppressor.”)
I’ve visited some of those churches he refers to, as have some of you.
“AFACT is about people, the people we love,” said the Rev. Fred Bugarin, pastor of St. Anthony Catholic Church. “If Medicaid expansion serves a need, and in this case, a critical need for the 42,000 uninsured Alaskans, then our faith mandates us to act justly on behalf of these, our people in need.”
To me, Bugarin echoes the voices of so many Christians around the world, and especially the Middle East, who at this time, are dying for their faith. As I write this, hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from the Middle East to protect their loved ones. Many in Europe today, are refusing aid and comfort to those in dire distress; governments stand idly by as thousands perish on their shores.
Next time you meet with your legislators, ask them if they are satisfied with their health plan. Assuming they’ll say yes, then ask them why they would stand in the way of helping those who are trapped by income and circumstance.
I stand amazed that our legislators continue to pour huge sums of our money into fighting this issue further in the courts.
There is much to criticize in churches today, but not the efforts of AFACT congregations who pursue a truly Christian ideal of social justice for those caught in the “junk drawer.”
The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.