'What Is The Character Of Our Commonwealth?' by Reverend Hurmon Hamilton

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"They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." Matthew 25:44-46 (New International Version)

Jesus teaches us in the passage above that the quality of one’s character and faithfulness is measured by how one treats the “least of these.” I might add that the character of our Commonwealth is measured, not by how we treat the hungry, sick, imprisoned, stranger (i.e. immigrant), homeless, elderly – the “least of these” during times of budget surplus, but rather how we treat them during times of scarcity. Who is expendable? Who do we delete from the budget, without a whimper?

Surely this is the test that our State senate is facing at this very moment. A few days ago, this august body of dedicated individuals released a State budget that threatens disastrous consequences for the “least of these” throughout our Commonwealth.

In a time when horrific teenage violence is taking the lives of teenagers in Roxbury, Dorchester, and Mattapan at the rate of one or two a week, this budget cuts to “zero,” spending for violence prevention, intervention, or youth programming. At a time when our nation is on the edge of passing sweeping healthcare reform inspired by our State’s historic accomplishment, the Senate proposes to drop 28,000 legal immigrants from coverage and eliminate dental coverage for nearly 700,000 adults. Millions more are being eliminated from the budgets of community health centers and millions from programs to support our elderly – such as in- home health services. Even more egregious than these cuts is the fact that our noble legislatures, as of yet, proposed no enhanced revenue increases to offset these cuts. This point, the Senate’s willingness to mitigate devastating cuts by raising sensible taxes, is at the heart of the test that our Senate faces during this week as it debates the final budget. This will be the place where character is truly revealed.

I am blessed to be married to a very successful doctor. Our joint income is more than either of us could have imagined twenty years ago. And we pay more in taxes today than both of my parents joint earnings, during my childhood, multiplied by five years. Yet, I am sure that we are no different than thousands of citizens in our Commonwealth. We are prepared to share in the sacrifice needed to insure that the most vulnerable among us - during these difficult days, survive and thrive. If that means we have to pay a few more pennies when we go out to eat, to provide some help for the homeless and hungry, so be it! If that means that we have to pay a little more at the gas tank, to insure that 28, 000 legal immigrants can have healthcare; and the poor can still go to a dentist, than so be it. If that means that we have to pay a few cents more as we purchase high end goods like a home computer, business suits, or furniture to insure that the elderly can receive quality care in their homes – than so be it. If that means that we have to give more and spend less to insure that Cambridge Health Alliance, Boston Medical Center and Health Care centers throughout the Commonwealth can continue to provide exceptional care to the poor without exception, than so be it!

This is why, today at noon, clergy and lay leaders from across the Commonwealth will gather at the State house, to urge the Senate to rise up and demonstrate it’s true character –pass legislation that increases revenue and repairs these devastating cuts. Let it be said across the country, that in Massachusetts - in times of scarcity, we prioritize the poor, the hungry, the sick, the homeless, the immigrant, the elderly and our children. And we do what ever it takes, including raising sensible taxes, to insure them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – why? Because it is our character!

Reverend Hurmon Hamilton
President, Greater Boston Interfaith Organization

This program aired on May 19, 2009. The audio for this program is not available.

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Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.