Spiritual leaders to keep pushing for $15 minimum wage

Former Bennington state Rep. Kiah Morris speaks at the Vermont Interfaith Action annual statewide convention in Randolph. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
Former Bennington state Rep. Kiah Morris speaks at the Vermont Interfaith Action annual statewide convention in Randolph. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

RANDOLPH — The 50 spiritual congregations that belong to the Vermont Interfaith Action grassroots organizing group will keep pushing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage and a paid family leave program that Democratic state lawmakers in the Senate and House couldn’t agree on this past legislative session.

At an annual meeting Friday, the coalition also emphasized standing up against racial discrimination as a key priority.

Vermont Interfaith Action, made up of Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Muslim and other spiritual leaders from Brattleboro to Burlington, launched a “Raise the Wage” campaign in 2016 with the help of the nonprofit group Rights & Democracy and more than a dozen Vermont unions and social service organizations.

The coalition initially felt stymied by Republican Gov. Phil Scott, who expressed reservations about the initiatives after his election three years ago. Members voiced hope when Democrats secured veto-proof majorities in the state House and Senate in 2018, only to see the two chambers disagree on a plan this past session. House Speaker Mitzi Johnson and Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, both Democrats, also came to blows over the initiatives in the 2016 biennium.

“Even though it was kind of a train wreck, I do think once we continue to work, pray and be there, we can make a moral economy for Vermont,” the Rev. Earl Kooperkamp of Barre’s Church of the Good Shepherd said at the coalition’s annual statewide convention in Randolph.

Spiritual leaders pointed to a recent press commentary by state Rep. Randall Szott, D-Barnard, who called for “a moral, caring economy.”

“People are beginning to pick up the language,” Kooperkamp said. “This shows our work is getting through.”

Attendees also reaffirmed other priorities including affordable housing and health care, as well as racial justice and immigrants’ rights in the nation’s second-whitest state.

Former Bennington state Rep. Kiah Morris, the only black female legislator before her 2018 resignation because of racial harassment, pointed to news of recent problems with discrimination and deportations.

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“Do you know what that terror feels like — to not know if your co-worker, your classmate, your friend, your neighbor, your relative is whispering words of evil that they have gotten off the internet?” Morris asked the audience. “Are you correcting their course? That is your charge.”

“Show up at your city council meetings, at your school board meetings, at places where major decisions are being made,” Morris continued. “Show up as faith leaders, not as mere citizens. Many of us have no choice but to be visible in this state. We cannot afford to not have you stand and claim who you are and what you’re about.”

Morris was just one of several speakers calling for change. The Rev. Alvin Herring appeared via video as executive director of Faith in Action, an international network of nearly 40 coalitions in 20 states and three countries.

“Faith without works is no faith at all,” Herring said. “Sometimes you might not be able to do all that you want to, but you can always bear witness and stand in solidarity.”

VIA central Vermont organizer Melissa Battah called on the group to address such headline-grabbing issues as gun violence.

“We have to stand up in the moment and say enough is enough,” Battah said. “If we don’t, we are complacent.”

VIA’s newly hired Brattleboro-based organizer, Daniel Quipp, said the fight needed to extend statewide.

“We can’t organize in southern Vermont without people who are there every single day,” Quipp said.

State senator and VIA Executive Director Debbie Ingram said the coalition understood the challenge.

“We realize we’re at a seminal moment, bringing together people of different religions, races and economic and immigration statuses to try to create a world where everyone can thrive,” Ingram said. “There has been some discouragement, but faith communities are innately optimistic and hopeful and try to bring that to our work.”

Ingram, an ordained minister, said such inspiration helped in her other job as a Chittenden County state senator wrestling with many of the issues pushed by her spiritual peers.

“Patience,” she said, “is a virtue.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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