Local religious leaders hopeful for reform, despite political climate
By Jeannie Kever Houston Chronicle
Jan. 27, 2011, 11:21PM
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, carrying papers, was among the local religious leaders attending an interfaith prayer service to renew a call for immigration reform Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, carrying papers, was among the local religious leaders attending an interfaith prayer service to renew a call for immigration reform
Just two days after President Barack Obama renewed a call for immigration reform, a group of Houston religious leaders said Thursday that despite a discouraging political climate, they see signs of change.
"I feel the people are shifting," said the Rev. Michael Rinehart, who as bishop of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod oversees the region's Evangelical Lutheran churches.
But he and other leaders who spoke after an interfaith prayer service that was filled with symbols of unity - Iman Mustafa Yigit reading from the Quran in Arabic, Rabbi Mark Miller blowing a shofar, the Rev. Uriel Osnaya offering a prayer in Spanish - know the goal remains elusive.
"I'm not sure Washington is shifting," Rinehart said. "Politics trumps policy sometimes."
The interfaith coalition first began promoting immigration reform more than a year ago, both among their congregations and in public pronouncements.
"We know this is a long haul, and we want to maintain our focus," said Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston. "The work needs to continue."
The local effort is part of a broader call by religious leaders nationally, who say they have seen the toll taken by current policies on their parishioners.
'Cannot be silent'
A group of evangelical leaders, including the Rev. Marcos Witt, head of the Hispanic ministry at Lakewood Church, and Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention, joined the cause last year.
The Rev. John Ogletree, pastor of First Metropolitan Church in northwest Houston, said it is a moral issue.
"We cannot be silent or govern what we say due to the political climate," he said. "We have to say what we know is true."
Thursday's service at Christ the King Lutheran Church brought Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders together in support of policies that promote family unity, create a path for citizenship and end current detention policies.
Acknowledging that the November elections make wide-ranging reform less likely now, the leaders also asked for a limit on local laws aimed at illegal immigrants.
'Living our values'
The Rev. John Bowie, pastor of True Light Missionary Baptist Church and co-chair of The Metropolitan Organization, a coalition of congregations and other organizations that co-sponsored the prayer service, likened the voter ID law approved by the Texas Senate this week to earlier efforts to keep African-Americans from voting.
"Once you put something there as a requirement, you disenfranchise a lot of people," he said.
Rinehart, during a sermon, suggested immigration reform would even be good for Houston's erstwhile hometown airline.
"Wouldn't that be good for Continental Airlines, because people could fly back and forth freely?" he asked.
"People of faith would win, too," he said, "because we would be living our values."
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Local Religious Leaders Address Immigration Reform
January 27, 2011
With a divided Congress and a divided court of public opinion, many people may think the issue of immigration reform doesn't have a "prayer." But local religious leaders turned to just that Thursday in hopes that something will get done.
The topic of immigration reform can certainly turn into a heated debate, so religious leaders from Houston said they want to encourage a calm and rational conversation about the issue.
Praying. Singing. Local religious leaders gathered Thursday to worship as they spread their message about comprehensive immigration reform.
"We cannot be silent or govern what we say due to the political climate," John Ogletree with First Metropolitan Church said as he sat with religious leaders from various religious denominations.
That's why they hope the climate in the room they were sitting in can spread to the lawmakers who may have a say in immigration reform. Calm civil prayer here, and possibly calm civil discussion on Capitol Hill.
"I see, frankly, a good sign of hope that we saw [when] Republicans and Democrats were sitting side by side at the State of the Union [Address given by President Barack Obama]. I'm hoping we can get them to cooperate beyond what is shown on the camera," said Rev. Mike Cole with New Covenant Presbytery.
Houston-area religious leaders said upholding family unity is one of their priorities for all immigration policies.
"Keeping families together, obviously, for people of faith is a really high priority," said Michael Rinehart, who's a bishop with Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. "And right now, we've had a situation where families are being separated by visa backlogs. It's just really an unacceptable situation and an outdated system that needs reform."
The group would like a process created so undocumented workers can gain legal status in this country.
"There ought to be a safe and legal way that we can do this so these people don't get exploited," Rinehart said.
The Metropolitan Organization said the Houston-area religious leaders want immigrants to have the means to become legal, apply for residency and learn English in hopes of gaining citizenship.
The event Thursday was part of the coalition's educational campaign
The politics of the Bible and floods
By RICK CASEY HOUSTON CHRONICLE
April 7, 2011, 12:47AM
Read more: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/side2/7510791.html#ixzz1STJBYE1u
There was a fair amount of quoting Scripture at City Hall on Tuesday during hours of public comment on the drainage fee passed by Houston voters last November.
The most vociferous group, Houston Area Pastors' Council, is a conservative, politically active group that was not only against the fee on churches, but campaigned against the fee itself last fall.
It also campaigned against the election of Mayor Annise Parker.
In fact, their lead spokesman, Dave Welch, posted a letter to America apologizing for Parker's election after opposing her because she is a lesbian:
"I have to first of all ask forgiveness of the rest of the country on behalf of those in Houston who were entrusted with choosing godly leaders and failed to do so," Welch wrote in the wake of Parker's election. "As I have stated often, the first responders in that line are the churches who profess Christianity and adherence to the Bible as our authority. We let our position on the wall be breached by the enemy."
So it's not surprising that people who see Parker and those who voted for her as the enemy were not inclined to accept Parker's compromise offer of exempting existing churches from the fee. Not covered would be other properties owned by churches and future churches which Parker wants to be built to better drainage standards. Under the compromise their fees would be reduced or eliminated if they planned retention ponds and other environmental measures.
But other religious leaders don't see compromise as dealing with the devil.
"There's been biblical evidence that flooding should be a concern," said one City Hall insider. "As they were reading Scripture today I kept thinking what about 40 days and 40 nights."
And also "rendering onto Caesar," and that the Lord "sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust."
The second public speaker was the Rev. Kevin Collins, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and a leader of TMO, another politically active organization made up of 30 churches, area congregations and synagogues.
The organization, which has long advocated for low-income Houstonians, has for decades supported investments in infrastructure. They've noted that while almost all of Houston is built in a bowl, poor neighborhoods tend to suffer more from flooding than affluent ones.
"Our main concern with the ordinance is that those who can least afford to pay it will be really hurt by an extra fee," said Collins. "So we asked for a fund to be set aside for people to apply for who needed help."
Parker and the council listened. The ordinance includes a $500,000 fund to assist poor property owners.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, head of the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese, estimates that the fee could cost the Roman Catholic Church $750,000 to $1 million a year. But he also appreciates compromise.
See translation at right
He authorized the archdiocese's general counsel, Frank Rynd, to send a letter to Parker yesterday that was as clear as many papal encyclicals.
"From our perspective, the ordinance (with the compromise) addresses the needs of our parish churches and parish schools although it does not provide an exemption for some of our other schools and for many of the charitable organizations affiliated with the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston," Rynd wrote. "While the ordinance does not accomplish everything we wanted, we commend the Mayor's leadership in making a significant improvement to the initial ordinance."
Translation: Thank you very much, and we hope you understand if we ask for more.
Councilman Stephen Costello, in apparent reaction to the groups rejecting the compromise, is expected to offer an amendment today rescinding it. If the amendment passes, those groups will have, in unbiblical terms, snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
Read more: http://www.chron.com/disp/story.mpl/side2/7510791.html#ixzz1STJQvrad
Houston Chronicle/Blog-Texas Politics-2011
May 9, 2011
Rabbi offers scripture message of Texas lawmakers
A Dallas rabbi invoked a scripture lesson from Second Samuel Thursday for modern-day Texans to ponder as they struggle over a new budget.
A rich man with a massive flock of sheep enriched himself further by taking the single, prized lamb of a poor man. King David flew into a rage when he learned of the injustice and made things right, noted Rabbi Asher Knight of Temple Emanue-El, largest synagogue in the South.
"We need to learn from our Biblical ancestors and not take from the poor and the needy in our communities who need it most," Knight said while meeting with other religious leaders and supporters of the Industrial Areas Foundation in the state Capitol.
The groups are fighting against budget cuts for education, health care and job training. They are lamenting a budget that the Texas Senate approved this week ‚Äì even though it spends about $12 billion more than the House version.
Dozens of leaders from San Antonio's COPS Metro, Houston's TMO (The Metropolitan Organization) and their affiliate organizations across Texas want lawmakers to pull more money out of the state's $9.4 billion Rainy Day Fund than the slightly over $3 billion maximum endorsed by leaders including Gov. Rick Perry
"It's raining!" the Rev. John D. Ogletree, Jr. said as he opened an umbrella. "Not only is it raining, it is thundering. It's pouring."
Ogletree, founder and senior pastor of the First Metropolitan Church, is also president of the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD school board.
Many Texans are still absorbing the budget and trying to assess the impact of steep budget cuts, he said. The Senate budget would cut about $4 billion from public education; the House version would cut more than $7 billion. Massive cuts also are in the works for health care.
Ogletree speculated that "rational people" don't want to jeopardize the state's future and predicted that many Texans will respond in next year's election.
"I would hate to say, 'don't give us any more money out of the rainy day fund ‚Äì see you at the election' because people are going to get hurt,'" the pastor and school board leader said.
Massive budget cuts will rally people, he said.
Several lawmakers joined the group.
"We need working families coming to the Capitol to let their views known," Sen. Chuy Hinojosa, D-McAllen, said. "We have to fight back. We have to speak out for the simple reason that (the budget) will cripple education, damage health care and risk the safety of the general public. We have the money, but we don't have political will to access those (rainy day) funds."
Rep. Dee Margo, R-El Paso, voted for the House budget bill and was the only Republican lawmaker who attended the Industrial Areas Foundation meeting.
The "only hope" of developing a better budget rests on taking money out of the rainy day fund, Margo said.
"We need to use more. That's where the debate will be. How much are we willing to use? That will be the debate for the next several weeks," said Margo, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.
Last session, the Texas IAF Organizations worked with Comptroller Susan Combs and Lt. Governor David Dewhurst to create the $25 million Jobs and Education for Texans (JET) Fund. This includes the $10 million Launch pad Fund for successful nonprofits such as Capital IDEA in Austin, Project QUEST in San Antonio, Project VIDA in the Rio Grande Valley, and ARRIBA in El Paso. These projects train adults earning on average $10,000 before entering the program for jobs which pay $38,000 on average after graduation.
The jobs training programs are in danger of being abolished.
That would be a dark day for Texas, said Gloria Aceves, 25, of San Antonio who will graduate next week from San Antonio College as a registered nurse thanks to the Project QUEST program. She had been earning minimum wages at a grocery store, struggling to raise her son. Now, she is close to getting a $40,000 to $50,000 a year job.
Her message to lawmakers: "Continue to invest in those (job training programs). If it wasn't for Project QUEST and JET, I wouldn't be able to do it ‚Äì to find work part time and also trying to raise my son on my own."
Enforcement is Next Task for Law on Wage Theft
By HALEIGH SVOBODA copyright 2011 The New York Times, copyright 2011 Texas Tribune
October 29, 2011
HOUSTON - For two years, Diego Gala, a Mexican immigrant in the country illegally, worked five days a week cleaning a private school for less than minimum wage. His employer refused to pay him overtime even when he was forced to work on the weekends. Mr. Gala did not speak up, fearing deportation if he reported his boss.
"I couldn't say nothing because I did not have papers," Mr. Gala said. "So he was like, 'If you say something, you can just get deported. I can call immigration on you, or you can get fired.' "
Mr. Gala, who was brought to the United States as a small child, grew up not knowing his immigration status until it came time for him to find a job. Workers' rights advocates say that is not unusual; wage theft is a major problem in Texas, particularly among undocumented workers who do not push for their rightful earnings for fear of drawing the attention of immigration officials.
During the 2011 legislative session, Texas lawmakers passed Senate Bill 1024, which closed a loophole allowing employers to escape prosecution if they had paid employees only a portion of the wages owed. But now that the law is in effect, organizations and lawmakers in at least three Texas cities - Austin, El Paso and Houston - are facing a new challenge: how to ensure that wage theft prosecution is a priority.
In Austin, the Workers Defense Project, a workplace justice group, is collaborating with Representative Eddie Rodriguez, Democrat of Austin, who sponsored the bill in the House, to set up a meeting with Austin's police chief and the district and county attorneys about enforcing the wage theft law. State Senator Jos√© Rodr√≠guez, Democrat of El Paso, who wrote the bill, set up a task force in El Paso to work on putting the measure in effect.
In Houston, the Metropolitan Organization, an interfaith social justice nonprofit group, plans to meet with local authorities and elected officials to ensure that the law is enforced.
The challenge, particularly in urban centers, supporters say, is that district attorneys and police departments may feel they have far more pressing crimes to deal with.
And law enforcement officials will face a lingering problem: that underpaid workers - many of them immigrants - will not feel brave enough to pursue charges. In construction jobs, an estimated one in five workers experiences wage theft, according to a legislative analysis of the Senate bill. Half of all day laborers are believed to have suffered wage theft.
For the Metropolitan Organization, the wage theft law is not just about employees' rights; it is a way to carry out immigration reform in the current political climate. The Rev. Kevin Collins, the organization's co-chairman, says that while illegal immigrants are less likely to report having their wages stolen than United States citizens are, they will still benefit from the reform.
"It will start to change the culture," Mr. Collins said, alluding to the employers of illegal immigrants. "They'll start to say, 'I can't get away with this like I thought I could.' "