PROVIDENCE — As members of the General Assembly prepared to convene last week for a new legislative session, faith leaders, state officials and activists from across Rhode Island huddled together beneath the Statehouse rotunda to remind lawmakers of their responsibility to fight poverty through policy. 

Although those who had gathered don’t agree on everything, Rev. Tom Wiles of the American Baptist Churches of Rhode Island said in his keynote address, each of them has “a passionate concern for those who are entrapped and oppressed by poverty.”

“We come to challenge those of you who are elected to serve. We come to offer our recommendations and to commit ourselves to work alongside you as you share our passion for the sacred task of serving the poor,” Wiles said during the 12th annual event, as before him the religious garb of Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and Indigenous leaders blended together underneath the dome of the Statehouse. 

Organized by the Rhode Island Interfaith Coalition to Reduce Poverty at the start of each legislative session, the Fighting Poverty with Faith Vigil is meant to raise awareness among legislators while promoting the coalition’s belief that all Rhode Islanders deserve a safe and affordable home, adequate food, affordable healthcare, quality education and decent wages. 

The coalition on Tuesday outlined a number of goals that it hopes to see brought to fruition this year.

“We are here to call for justice — economic justice and, yes, legislative justice,” Wiles said, adding that justice, rather than wealth, is the opposite of poverty. “And we have a vision for how justice may look in Rhode Island.”

In addition to calling for a $15 minimum wage, the coalition hopes this year for increased food access, for a ban on housing discrimination based on source of income, and for undocumented Rhode Islanders to qualify for driver’s licenses.

Though meeting those goals alone won’t eradicate poverty in Rhode Island, Wiles added, it “will move us in the direction of justice and economic health.”

Touting the vigil as a chance to “focus our priorities in the right place,” Gov. Gina Raimondo said the event also serves to remind Rhode Island’s elected officials of their “commitment to everybody in Rhode Island.”

“A commitment to every child who deserves to have high quality, flourishing, affordable education,” she continued, standing at the podium Tuesday. “It means making sure everybody has affordable housing — a safe, secure place to lay your head on a pillow at night.”

Raimondo added in her remarks that she supports paving the way for all Rhode Islanders, regardless of immigration status, to qualify for driver’s licenses. 

Senate President Dominick Ruggerio also delivered remarks during the vigil, assuring those in attendance that the Senate, too, shares many of the coalition’s goals. 

“The decisions that we make in this building have a real impact on Rhode Islanders who are struggling with income insecurity,” Ruggerio added. 

Some of the specific issues that Ruggerio said the Senate will focus on this year include the high cost of prescription drugs and access to education.

“Education provides the means for individuals to improve their circumstances in life,” he said. “We want to make sure that every Rhode Islander has access to high quality educational opportunities, starting in early childhood.”

Several issues related to housing will also be tackled this year, Ruggerio said, calling it a priority to end discriminatory housing practices. Legislation sponsored by Sen. Harold Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence), for example, would prohibit income discrimination in housing. 

The Senate also intends to increase the minimum wage “to keep pace with our neighboring states,” Ruggerio added. 

The Senate in 2019 approved legislation that would have increased the state’s minimum wage by $1, to $11.50 per hour. When the House approved the state budget, however, it was without an increase to the minimum wage.

Raimondo echoed Ruggerio’s comments on the need to increase the minimum wage, adding that “it should have been done last year.”

“I’m going to call on the Assembly again to do it this year,” she said. “It means making sure that no one who works full time lives in poverty.”

As she wrapped up her remarks on the importance of fighting poverty, Raimondo addressed another issue that she said worries her even more — while she’s troubled by the issues surrounding poverty, Raimondo said she’s particularly concerned by the rise in religious intolerance.

“Every time you see it, stand up against it,” she urged, as applause rang through the rotunda. “Every time you hear it, speak out against it.”

Wiles also spoke of those divisions.

“This rotunda is filled with those who daily confront these challenges. Investing their own time on their own dime, they work for justice,” he said. “They give words to the needs of others.”

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