Main content | Sidebar | Links

Wednesday, January 4, 2006

'Coalition of compassion' has clout on Beacon Hill.

Forget about the symbolic politics on the religious right and the religious left for a minute. Here's a story about a local coalition of religious organizations that crosses denominational, theological, and political lines and that is exerting real political pressure on the Massachusetts legislature to bring healthcare to more people.

Scott S. Greenberger wrote last week about the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization's push to expand health coverage in the state. He focuses on the Rev. Hurmon Hamilton, minister of a Presbyterian church in Roxbury, and Rabbi Jonah Pesner, from the largest Reform temple in Boston. The story plays up several cliches about religious communities — the religious leaders are "waging their fight to expand healthcare coverage on a different, higher plane," for example — but it also points to the Industrial Areas Foundation-style community organizing that is at the heart of GBIO's efforts:

Hamilton and Pesner . . . are leaders of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, which has used moral suasion to become an influential force in Beacon Hill's healthcare debate. Inside the velvet glove, though, is a real threat: If legislators don't pass a healthcare bill to their liking, the group and its allies will push a 2006 ballot measure that would force the state to cover everybody. Backers of the ballot effort have collected more than 112,000 signatures.

The key to GBIO's work is helping diverse religious communities identify real community needs that their members are personally invested in addressing. The interfaith group's organizers help focus and coordinate that personal investment into political power. At its heart, GBIO helps religious communities recognize that they have political clout, and that they have more political clout when they work together.

What I'd especially like to emphasize is that the coalition of religious communities involved in GBIO isn't "left" or "right," theologically or politically — and that the battle lines are not partisan. They don't get involved in "culture war" fights.

One could argue the merits of a particular healthcare proposal — but I'm not praising or disputing the specific proposal GBIO is pushing for. Instead, I'm pointing to this single, significant fact: In our democracy these days, very few groups actually represent the needs or interests of everyday people. Many represent business interests; others represent so-called interest groups, from the Sierra Club to the Christian Coalition — but few of these lobbying agencies actually mobilize local forces around issues that the local people themselves have identified as important.

Because congregations are among the "thickest" local groups around, however, they can play a significant role in democratic life. The GBIO-IAW model shows one way this can be done, and it's a model that helps congregations reach across denominational, socioeconomic, and ethnic lines. I cheer for that.

A few years ago, Rosemary Bray McNatt reviewed some books about community organizing for UU World and observed that the IAW model of community organizing has often been difficult for Unitarian Universalists to embrace. Don Skinner profiled some UU congregations involved in community organizing back in 2002.

I'd love to hear recent stories about ways UU congregations have successfully — or unsuccessfully — tried to participate in programs like these.

("Interfaith leaders invoke morality in healthcare debate," Scott S. Greenberger, Boston Globe 12.29.05, reg req'd; "Power, religious faith, and social change," Rosemary Bray McNatt, UU World Mar/Apr 2003; Grassroots work joins UUs, others," Donald E. Skinner, UU World Mar/Apr 2002)

Copyright © 2006 by Philocrites | Posted 4 January 2006 at 9:27 PM

Previous: This week at
Next: This week at




Paul Wilczynski:

January 5, 2006 08:19 AM | Permalink for this comment

My UU Church in Quincy is proud to be a founding member of GBIO.


January 5, 2006 09:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the reminder, Paul. The Quincy church also gave $100,000 to GBIO's affordable housing fund in 2001 after selling its Paul Revere communion silver.

Adam Tierney-Eliot:

January 5, 2006 09:36 PM | Permalink for this comment

I have been involved in a group similar to GBIO here in Metrowest Boston. It is called Metropolitan Interfaith Congregations Acting for Hope (MICAH) and is based on the same sort of organizing model. I mention them at my blog from time to time I know that the Framingham UU church is also involved.

It may still be too early to tell how it will work but certainly the initial response from the community has been positive. I haven't read the articles you listed here yet, but I know that in the case of Eliot Church (itself intentionally ecumenical) MICAH fits our culture quite nicely.

MICAH is affiliated with a larger group formerly called OLTC. Now it is called the Mass. Community Action Network (MCAN). Also, we are connected to the PICO network that can be found at

One of these days I need to figure out how to link things. Sorry about that...

Bill Baar:

January 6, 2006 09:00 AM | Permalink for this comment

Are there Hospitals, Healthcare organizations, Medical Schools involved, or unions of their employees involved? There is a lot of money sloshing around in the industry and they will use it to shape the message. You'll be surprized who takes it and what positions this money takes.

I've sat in many a Public Hearing on building or closing a hospital and you have many people including Clergy talking in grand social justice terms for building something uneeded or closeing something obsolete. Usually they're lobbying for a special interest.

There is Health Care. There is Health Insurance. Many people have very good insurance and can get very bad care. Some people can have no insurance what so ever and get surprizingly good care. There no seperate issues, with different problems, that should be solved by different players. They're often badly tangled together.

The worse thing we do with Health Insurance in the country is link it to jobs as a benefit.

In Illinois it is illegal to drive a car without liability insurance. It should similarly be illegal to go without Health Insurance.

The young and healthy self employeed should not have the option of dropping out of the system and shifting the risk onto the aged and sick.

The states and feds can should then figure out the subsidy for those who can't afford the premiums.

The Federal Employee Health Insurance program is a nice model of what the menu of plans should look like.

The great tragedy of the Clinton Admin is they did not select it (It was an option presented to Ira Magaziner) and instead they proposed the mess they did. (Read it here.)

The great benefit of the Medicare Drug benefit law was it all introduced Medical Savings accounts. That's really the future of how people will use a combination of self insurance, insurance, and medicare/medicaid to cover themselves.

It's a first step towards making people better consumers of healthcare which is probably going to result in better care too.

Elz Curtiss:

January 6, 2006 03:33 PM | Permalink for this comment

The First UU Society of Burlington VT is a driving force behind Vermont Interfaith Action (VIA)and houses VIA's main office in one of the UU outbuildings(yes, UUs DO sometimes have such things...) At the kick-off rally last June, the UUs were one of the largest congregational groups assembled.

VIA concentrates on health care issues, possibly some housing stuff, but has a special focus on the needs of Vermont's youth. Rural youth often "age out" into nothingness at a young age. This may be one reason that Vermont has the highest per capital death rate for soldiers in Iraq right now. We also have an appalling number of teen-age/young adult road deaths -- seemingly one every weekend. VIA does not take a position on the war, of course, but just wants ALL Vermont youth to have safe young years here in the Green Mountain state.

Elz Curtiss

Elz Curtiss:

January 7, 2006 11:36 AM | Permalink for this comment

Quick response to Bill Baar's call for a mandate on people to carry health insurance. As much as it seems to make sense, for plenty of young people, when they get done paying their other bills and their college debt, health insurance is not a good personal budgeting decision. I get very upset with people who treat young adult socializing as a luxury to be deferred. Most young adults socialize to process the stress of starting a career, leaving the family nest, and to seek a life partner. Health insurance is much less immediate in these circumstances -- even though, as we all know, young adults do have health care needs, some of them quite dire.

As to savings accounts, well, we'll have to speak to employers about paying at a wage that allows for money in the bank at the end of each month.

Bill Baar:

January 7, 2006 02:46 PM | Permalink for this comment

The best solution to an insurance problem is spread the risk. We have a huge chunk of young, healthy people (at least in Illinois) opting out of the system. They're not doing their social duty so to speak to bear the portion of the risk.

We don't tolerate it for drivers. It's worse for health care system.

It's a social justice question when you think of it. We let people forsake the collective good because they're betting they'll win individually.

I've felt the best solution wsa offering the same menu of Health Insurance programs available to Congress and Fed Employees on the same terms i.e. same split between employer paid portion and employee portion.

Couple this with Health Savings Accounts maybe.

And the Gov works out the balance for those who can't afford it.

The huge obstacle here are the Unions (at least in Illinois) where the teachers and more entrenched unions get 100% of the tab picked up for them as a benefit.


January 9, 2006 04:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Bill is right to key in on the difference between health care and health insurance. For many Americans health insurance is about protecting their wealth, not their health. With health insurance, if you get really sick, you don't lose your house.

Elz is right that for people without assets, health insurance is often a bad deal. If a poor working person without insurance gets really sick, they are probably going to quit working and go on MedicAid. If they buy expensive insurance, the de facto beneficiary is therefore the government.

Certainly government finances would benefit by requiring poor people to buy health insurance. This would have the effect of placing a heavy new tax on the poor people involved. Indeed the GBIO proposal is partly to create a new tax which would be paid exclusively by workers who don't have health insurance. (Nominally the tax is on the employers but it comes out of the payroll so it has the effect of a tax on workers.) The idea would be to give poor people an incentive to get insurance. Alternatively, they could leave Massachusetts, which would also help state finances.

This may be good policy, but it seems to me morally complex.

Comments for this entry are currently closed.