[Washington Window] Politicians, press, lobbyists, faith leaders and celebrities packed into St. Mark’s, Capitol Hill on June 11 to launch ONE Vote ’08, a $30 million initiative to make global poverty a key campaign issue in 2008.
The bipartisan effort to “save lives and secure America’s future” is co-chaired by former Senate Majority Leaders Bill Frist and Tom Daschle, who shared both the stage and their commitment to work together on this issue.
Funding for the initiative, which will roll out mobilization and media campaigns in each of the early primary states, comes in large part from a $22 million grant provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“A wise friend once said to me, ‘It’s alright to pray,’” said the Rev. Paul Abernathy, rector of St. Mark’s, welcoming the disparate crowd to his red brick church. “ ‘But after we pray, we have to get off our knees and do something.’ ONE Vote ’08 I believe is faithful prayer in action.”
The African Children’s Choir, fresh from an American Idol appearance, kicked off the event, leaping onto a specially constructed platform at the front of the nave to give a joyful performance, ululating, hip shaking, dancing and drumming. Many of the children, ages 7 to 11, had lost a parent to war, famine or disease.
“We hope ONE Vote ’08 will change the lives of millions of people for the better and we want to change how America is viewed in the world,” said Susan McCue, president and chief executive officer of the ONE Campaign. “A lot of people think Americans don’t care. … But there’s a lot of evidence that if awareness is raised and there’s a call to action, Americans will get engaged.”
Faith communities have a big role to play in this process, McCue said, noting that the organizers had made a deliberate decision to launch the campaign in a church.
“That’s why we’re here today,” she said. “To demonstrate the importance of the faith community in the ONE Campaign.”
Actress Connie Britton, of the NBC drama Friday Night Lights, spoke of the unifying power of the election process and said ONE’s efforts “can make us proud as Americans.”
Frist spoke “as a physician” about his experiences in Africa, where every day people die of “treatable and easily preventable diseases” such as malaria and AIDS.
“We’ve got the tools, we’ve got the solutions,” he said. “It’s our job to get them out there.”
After Frist and Daschle embraced, drawing hearty applause, Daschle thanked Abernathy for allowing the ONE Campaign to use St. Mark’s, and remarked on its significance.
“How fitting is it that we begin this campaign in a church?” he said. “St. Francis of Assisi once said: Preach the Gospel every day. If necessary, use words.”
The words offered by many of the speakers were shaped by their personal experience of poverty in Africa, of its people’s suffering and their spirit. But perhaps the most moving testimonial came from an African – Karen Sichinga, a Zambian nurse from the Churches Health Association of Zambia – who had lost two of her brothers to AIDS.
Sichinga broke into infectious song: “This is the day that the Lord has made,” blessed America and described the indomitable African spirit.
“In the midst of poverty and disease you find us smiling,” she said. “Not because we have enough, but because we know how to be glad and be grateful for what we have, no matter how little.”
She thanked the United States for its contributions through the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, a five-year, $15 billion initiative to combat the global pandemic, and The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which have together provided care and support to more than 200,000 Zambians and sent around 50,000 of that country’s orphans back to school.
“Thank you for your help, thank you for your support,” Sichinga said. “But a lot more can be done. I’m a Christian and I believe that prayer is not enough. Prayer without works is not enough.”
“Something happens when you encounter people,” said evangelical leader Brian McLaren of his own travels to Africa. “They stop being a statistic and they start being a neighbor. Whoever you are, whatever your party, let’s get on this ONE thing.”
And, he added, “I don’t think this is in the Bible, but someone said if enough people don’t speak out, rock stars will cry out.”
Cue the ONE Vote ’08 launch video, in which Bono, the rock star most devoted to this cause (he is the co-founder of DATA – Debt, AIDS, Trade, Africa – an organization instrumental in creating the ONE Campaign) appears in blue-tinted shades alongside other luminaries, urging action “to end the kind of stupid poverty that means a child dies of hunger in a world of plenty.”
“The number of people whose lives will be affected by the decision you make next November is much higher than the population of America,” Bono said.
Jack Oliver, Republican strategist and co-chair of the ONE Campaign had the final word:
“ONE Vote ’08 will show every presidential candidate that millions of people will be thinking of the world’s poorest people when casting a vote for the next president. This is not a Democrat or a Republican issue – this is a human issue.”