Faith Based Organizations Make It Happen

I’ve been organizing in the faith based community for two years and I’ve never seen anything like what happened yesterday.

At the end of last week, a core group of faith based organizations (FBO) poured some serious brainpower and hard work into drafting a religious sign-on letter to members of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs (HCFA). The letter calls for support of Chairman Berman’s legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). The Berman bill, due for markup on Wednesday, supports comprehensive prevention programs and drops the requirement that 33% of our HIV prevention funding must go to abstinence-until-marriage programs. The letter was completed and sent out to members of the religious community for their signature at 5:30 p.m. on Friday. We asked for FBOs to sign-on to the letter by close of business Monday. We had one business day to gather signatures.

In one day, 26 religious organizations came forward and put their signature on this letter!

To put this in perspective, two years ago we circulated a sign-on letter that had a very similar message and only 12 FBOs signed-on after three weeks.

I can not say exactly why we more than doubled the number of FBOs in the course of a single day, but if forced to speculate I would say two things.

First, the excellent outreach and organizing of dedicated faith groups, including our office (the UUA Washington Office), the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women and the American Jewish World Service. When collaboration is truly effective, expectations can be exceeded in ways you never thought possible.

Secondly, I believe that every FBO that signed the letter grasped the significance of this moment. With PEPFAR due for reauthorization, there are millions of lives in the balance. This legislation has the potential to redirect our international HIV prevention programs from abstinence-based to evidence-based. This letter provided the religious community with an opportunity to say, “Our faiths motivate us to support the best and most flexible approaches possible to preventing new infections.”

This morning at 9 a.m. every member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs received our letter. I came into work this morning feeling proud and powerful. Each of the 26 organizations that signed the letter deserves a big pat-on-the-back. At a time when legislators are looking towards the faith-based community with many questions, 26 organizations provided them with an answer that challenges assumptions of what it means to be religious.

Rep. Lantos: Leaving Us with Hope

Shortly after arriving at work today I received an email from a colleague informing me that Congressman Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo, San Francisco), 80, passed away this morning due to complications from cancer.

Rep. Lantos was an inspiration. As a Hungarian Jew, Rep. Lantos was the only survivor of the Holocaust to serve in Congress. During his 30 years of service, he co-founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus through which he defended the rights of minorities around the world. I find it particularly moving that two years ago, at 78 years old, Rep. Lantos was arrested on the steps of the Sudanese embassy protesting the genocide in Darfur.

His belief in civil rights led him to be a strong advocate domestically for women’s right to choose and for gays and lesbians to have the right to marry. He was also widely recognized as a friend of the environment.

One of the last contributions to come out of Rep. Lantos’ office was draft legislation reauthorizing the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). As chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, his office developed this crucial legislation, due to be marked up this Thursday.

Within the community of global HIV/AIDS advocates, researchers, and program staff, the last few weeks have seen a flurry of emails about the nuances of the bill and its political future. Within those emails, our community affectionately dubbed the legislation as the “Lantos bill.”

The “Lantos bill” honors humanity. As a parting gift to our community, and our world, this bill would position the United States to provide the most effective and inspired leadership in the history of the struggle against HIV/AIDS. In addition to allocating $50 billion over five years, it breaks down barriers to providing women and youth with comprehensive information about HIV prevention; information that could save their lives. Additionally, the “Lantos bill” dares to care about the populations most at risk of contracting HIV, such as sex workers and people struggling with drug addiction.

For me, it is a great privilege to be advocating for one of the last pieces of legislation that this man crafted. I invite you to join me in convincing this Congress that the best way to honor Rep. Lantos’ death is by passing the “Lantos bill” just as he wrote it.

Today was a sad day on Capitol Hill. Thankfully, Rep. Lantos left us a path to a better future.