We are the state’s largest and most diverse interfaith organization that engages faith communities in racial and economic justice. For many years, the organization worked on a wide array of issues and relied primarily on judicatory structures. In 2016, we focused our efforts on just a couple of critical issues on which we could make a difference and on building both internal and grassroots capacity around the state.
Welcoming All to Virginia
Virginia has seen an escalation of attacks on immigrants, Muslims and Jews. Immigrant children are afraid to go to school. Immigrants are staying away from churches. Muslim parents report that their children are harassed. Mosques aren’t given building permits in communities where churches are. Synagogues and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. During the 2017 General Assembly (January-February), anti-immigrant and anti-refugee bills were introduced and became partisan showdowns. (VICPP helped mobilize opposition to the bills.)
VICPP quickly stepped up its work to engage congregations in supporting immigrants and building bridges between faith communities. The work has two main foci. First, we are building circles of protection with and for immigrants who fear deportation. We are helping congregations build sanctuary networks that support both public sanctuary (in congregations) and private sanctuary (in homes). We are building or connecting folks with rapid response networks and mobilizing faith involvement in the planned May 1 marches/rallies. We are asking faith communities to kick off the events with prayer services (and will offer sample prayer services to assist folks). Second, VICPP is recognizing and honoring diverse faiths through both long-term educational and short-term responses to crises. We are promoting an Interfaith Welcoming Passover Seder for folks to use now. We will be distributing a toolkit on how to organize a “trialogue” between a church, synagogue and a mosque. We also assist our chapters in responding to immediate attacks, such as last week’s fundraising appeal in Virginia that linked the Attorney General to terrorists because he held a town hall meeting in a mosque in Northern Virginia.
Criminal Justice/Restorative Justice
Virginia has a crime punishment system, but not much of a restorative justice system. We have more than 38,000 prisoners and we disproportionately lock up people of color and poor people. We have widespread use of solitary confinement and a growing number of for-profit prisons. Virginia still uses the death penalty and a huge percentage of people in jails are there because they cannot get mental health services.
In Virginia, if you owe court fines and fees, which all poor people coming out of the prison system do, your driver’s license is automatically suspended. Last year, 900,000 people, one in six drivers, had their licenses suspended because they owed court fines and fees. Advocates in Virginia refer to this process as our own debtor’s prison. VICPP educated our membership about this issue. We convinced a moderate Republican legislator to introduce a bill on the issue and we supported several other good bills on the subject. We won several significant improvements on the issue and VICPP was the main advocacy group working on the issue.
In the coming year, we want to do two things. We want to raise the felony threshold, which is only $200 and hasn’t been raised in 37 years. In addition, we are working on developing a statewide alternative community service program that congregations can plug into. Community service is supposed to be used as an alternative to jail time and to pay back court fines and fees. Many courts don’t offer it and there are no statewide programs to make this happen consistently. When we develop the program, a Virginia Supreme Court judge has agreed to help us promote this with the courts. Congregations that have prison ministries are looking for what more they can do.
Virginia is one of 19 states that has not drawn down federal Medicaid dollars to expand health care for its low-income workers and families.As a result, 400,000 Virginians are without health care – about 230,000 folks are in the “coverage gap,” meaning they earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little to qualify for the exchange, and the remaining folks are just above the poverty line, technically qualify for the exchange but can’t afford the premiums and co-pays. Closing this coverage gap and helping these low-income people get health coverage is the most important thing advocates in Virginia can do to address inequality. The average low-income family would save more than $1,300 a year if the state would draw down federal Medicaid dollars for healthcare. This $1,300 can be used to buy food or pay rent, thus this work reduces hunger and homelessness.
Now the nation is in a time of great turmoil over healthcare. Virginia legislators are taking a “wait and see” attitude toward healthcare expansion, and yet the state may need to move quickly to respond to ensure that Virginian’s fare well in any proposed replacement plan. We’ve seen that congregations care deeply about expanding access to low-income Virginians. The President has promised to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act with “something better.” Since Virginia never took full advantage of the ACA, we must both monitor what happens in Washington and push Virginia to take advantage quickly of replacement options.
In 2016, VICPP did the best grassroots work in Virginia engaging people of faith to advocate expanding access to low-income Virginians. We organized letter-writing campaigns, meetings with elected leaders, educational forums and local resolutions by several towns and cities.
Wage Theft/Worker Justice
VICPP has convened a statewide wage theft task force, composed of the best advocates on wage theft in the state. Over the next two years, the organization and the task force will recommend administrative changes that could improve enforcement against wage theft and then will work to create and hopefully win a comprehensive new wage payment law in the state. The current wage payment law is one of the worst in the nation. It doesn’t even contain an overtime provision. It also excludes most jobs that historically were held by African Americans. Literally, the law exempts farmworkers, domestic help, shoeshine boys (yes indeed the law says this), movie ticket takers and lots of other positions.