On Feb. 7, three days after the 2019 Nevada Legislative Session convened in Carson City, LEAN hosted an informal open house luncheon for legislators, staff and church clergy and representatives from around the state.
The event, which was held in the Capitol Building, offered an opportunity for Grand Canyon and Sierra Pacific Synod members and clergy to meet with state assembly and senate members, offer their hopes for the new biennial session and express how their faith informs their interactions with government.
Rev. Deborah Hutterer, Bishop for the Grand Canyon Synod, gave an impassioned keynote address centered on why the ELCA’s published and nationally recognized Social Statements are at the center of LEAN’s efforts, represented personally in this year’s session by Advocate Bill Ledford.
Following is the text of Rev. Hutterer’s address.
A caveat to this talk today. I have been in my position for six months and the learning curve has been high. And I also come at this from a position of humility. There are some of you who know far more than I do and so if you hear something that is not right, please let me know.
It was late in the afternoon of December 23, 2010. My husband, 55 years old, had been diagnosed with ALS at the end of September, just three months earlier; he went to reach for the cribbage board, lost his balance and hit the hardwood floor.
He passed out, his head was bleeding. I called 911 and he was taken to the hospital. It was the first time either of us had ever spent Christmas Eve in a hospital. He was hospitalized for two weeks. The only way he could be discharged to come home was if I could find a hospital bed an electric wheelchair and 24-hour care. None of this was covered by insurance.
We weren’t sure what we were going to do as this disease had been progressing faster than either of us could possibly imagine. I am grateful to the ALS association who helped us with equipment we could have never been able to afford and yet was necessary. I am grateful for family and friends who helped fill in the round the clock support, so I could go to work and keep the health insurance.
While we were very fortunate to have health insurance, we knew that if he was unable to stay at home and had to go to a skilled care facility, depending on how long he needed to stay, we could lose everything that we had spent our lives working for. There were days we wondered what the future held and if our resources ran out.
We were one of many who worry about health care costs.
A pastor who serves in Las Vegas as a hospice chaplain shared some insights with me around this topic of end of life. He is daily mortified by the limitations placed on patients and families with low incomes to have to rely on Medicaid — or not being able to find beds in skilled care facilities because of the low allocation of resources to this program both federally and on the state-wide level.
Having a loved one with a terminal illness and the strain of coping with that loss is hard enough under any circumstances, but the added duress and uncertainty makes the experience worse.
I know far too many people who have felt the strain, confusion, and frustration of navigating our medical system and the resulting anger and guilt has inhibited people from finding the peace they need with the situation.
Lutheran pastors have first-hand experience with the lack of mental health resources for people with lower incomes. So often they must work with clients who have issues beyond the scope of what pastors can do in grief recovery and support.
Individuals who need access to mental health resources often face long wait times and poor service at public mental health centers. These resources need to be improved.
As a pastor in Las Vegas wrote: “All I have is the agony and frustration I’ve heard from many people about trying to get the help they need at difficult times. Working in a community organization that strives to do the right thing can feel incredibly lonely.”
Those who serve the church feel a sense of hopelessness and pain. I’m guessing that you feel asense a helplessness and pain as you see the system and know that reform is needed.
Healthcare is central to our well-being and our vital relationships. Access to healthcare helps us to live out our vocations in our family, work and community. Caring for our own health and the health of others expresses love for our neighbor and it is our responsibility for a just society.
In Nevada, love for neighbor and justice would be all people having access to quality and affordable healthcare in their communities through federally funded health centers, home delivered meals, Medicaid waivers and reimbursement rates.
Health care reform is but one of many issues before the Nevada Legislative body this session.
WHAT IS THE ELCA?
I am Bishop Deborah Hutterer. I was elected by our church body to serve in this role and I’m in my sixth month. For those of you who are new, perhaps you aware like I am about how much there is to learn. And getting to spend time with you is one my learnings.
Today I stand before you as a bishop who, like you, cares about our common good and our neighbors—especially our neighbors who do not have a voice or who can be easily overlooked. I represent Lutherans from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America in the Grand Canyon Sybnod that includes the Southern half of Nevada, all of Arizona and St. George, Utah. The Grand Canyon Synod represents about 100 worship communities, as well as Lutheran Social Services of Nevada.
There are 65 bishops in the United States. Bishop Mark Holmerud from Sierra Pacific Synod represents Lutheran churches in the northern half of Nevada—and has had the privilege to be with this esteemed body.
There are a few Lutheran brands. I am attached to the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. “Evangelical” means “good news.” There are 3.5 million ELCA Lutherans in the United States. One thing that separates us from the other major Lutheran group, LCMS, is that the ELCA ordain women.
A MESSAGE FOR LEGISLATORS
From its inception, Lutherans have seen God active in the world. God’s activity includes government laws, good order, and the belief that Christians can serve in government roles. Government service to God, however you construe God, is service to neighbor. For that time in history it was startling because government was seen as something to be held at arms length, corrupt and irredeemable. ELCA sees your service as essential to serving neighbor.
I want to thank you for your tireless work in representing the people of Nevada and working for the common good.
Some of the pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who serve in Nevada are here today. Like me, they have met far too many children, women and men who don’t feel like they have a voice or access to this place of government, especially in the areas of health care reform, judicial reform and pay day lending. Many of our pastors and congregation members are advocates for systemic change; they also see the church as part of the community. In addition to worship, church doors are open to host community meals and provide education. One of our churches in Pahrump just started a Bible study in the detention center. There are some pastors who have been knocking on doors and inviting others to do the same to get out the vote—not telling people who to vote for but to encourage voting. They believe and support the good work you do on behalf of the people and see that participation in the process is essential. Lutherans Engagement and Advocacy in Nevada have been at this work for quite a few years now. Together you did some incredible work last year for anti-sex trafficking. Thank you.
FAITH AND THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
Many of our Nevada churches also partner with Lutheran Social Services of Nevada. This social service agency primarily serves in the Las Vegas area. Their mission is to express the love of Christ by serving and caring for people.
LSS-NV is a trusted grassroots nonprofit. Dedicated volunteers started the agency many years ago by providing food and clothing to our community members. It has since grown to become known for its diverse services. With a limited staff and many volunteers LSS-NV serve low- income, at-risk of homelessness, homeless, families with or without children, youth, veterans, people with disabilities, and senior citizens.
Since 1996, over 210,000 individuals have been cared for by the agency. One of their cutting edge services is Digi-Mart. It is an online grocery style food pantry, where individuals shop on line for bread, fresh vegetables, fruit, meats, dairy, and non-perishable food items. LSS offers classes to help them think more creatively about ingredients and eat healthier.
As a bishop I have a pastoral role and I am the leader of this faith community in the state. I am here to build a relationship through this opportunity.
Like me, you have been elected, but you have also called to this work to provide structure and safeguards for those who suffer. We need leaders like you who can focus on our neighbors who suffer from hunger, poverty and other ills.
From time to time people will tell me that I have a thankless job. From my perspective—it is this way for legislators at time where people are cynical and hardened about government. I can only imagine the challenge to represent all people in Nevada when there are many constituencies.
THE PAYDAY LENDING PROBLEM
One of the areas that affects many of your constituents is the payday lending industry. It has a wide reach and great impact on Nevada families, especially those in the poorest neighborhoods. Payday lending traps people in a vicious and downward spiraling debt cycle.
Did you there are more payday lending stores in Nevada than the number of McDonalds and Starbucks stores combined! They make money easy and accessible and individuals find themselves trapped.
If you needed money, where would you go? You might go to your family but I’ve discovered in my line of work that people would rather talk about their sex life than money. Money is so personal—many keep it secretive. Even in their relationships.
Mike B lives in Las Vegas. He is 48 years old and a gambler. He would cash his paycheck and then go to the casino. One day he lost his entire paycheck and knew he could not go home to his wife empty handed. As he considered his options—he had no friends or family that he could ask about this embarrassing situation. But he had driven by many pay day loan places. Rather than face the wrath of his wife, he made his first stop into payday loan store.
Showing his driver’s license, paystub and signing the paperwork he got his first $1,200. It was so easy. He had a great income so getting money was no problem. In fact he discovered that he could go to multiple pay day lending places and no one asked if he had any other paydays loans.
With high interest rates he learned the loans were not easy to pay off. He knew if he got home before his wife, she’d never see the mail. And he could keep his secret. As with most secrets, one day his wife got home before he did and in the mail was a notice for payment.
She thought this had to be wrong, so she called the company to find out what was going on. And it all came tumbling out. Mike says while he was embarrassed—he was a smart guy. Had a great job. Had a nice house, but he was trapped. His wife finding was a huge relief. He was caught in an endless cycle and did not know the way out.
Mike B. says matter of factly, “this won’t stop. The industry is too big.” In some ways we could agree this business does fill a purpose. However, these are also predatory business practices that victimize people.
So I advocate in support of the two Bill Draft Requests.
BRD 568 would enhance and enforce existing regulations on payday lenders that both lenders and people seeking loans seem to skirt around. One common problem is that a person, like Mike, get a payday loan and is unable to pay it back and will seek out a payday loan from another place to pay off the first and compounding their debt. This bill would make that nearly impossible to do.
BRD 621 would enact a 36% interest rate cap. This still may seem high, but 18 other states and DC have enacted as it stems from the Military Lending Act. This is a place where Arizona has passed legislation and set the interest cap at 36%. I advocate that Nevada follow suit.
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM
If these two topics for reform weren’t enough on their own, there is also the criminal justice system. I don’t have much to say, but we all know it needs reform. Working together we can change systems for changes in prison re-entry.
I recently read that a panel of Nevada criminal justice leaders is forwarding to the Legislature a package of 25 recommendations that those in the know say could save the state $640 million in prison costs over the next decade if enacted.
The proposals came after the Boston-based Crime and Justice Institute spent about six months poring over state data to pinpoint why Nevada’s prison population grew almost 700 percent since 1980, while the general population has grown by about 250 percent over that same period.
It’s not just a financial matter, it is a justice matter. I would urge any changes for reform be applied drug treatment, post-incarceration reentry services. Anything that could prevent crime and recidivism.
THE CHURCH AS CONSTITUENCY
The ELCA is an active church. We have many social statements that seek justice and care for those who can be overlooked. We invite you to visit with us on these issues. ELCA churches in this state are sources of expertise around hunger, poverty, human need and you can tap us as resources. We want to support you and your work. It has been a part of our history.
Every pastor I know became a pastor because they felt a call, they couldn’t not answer it despite all of the reasons why it makes sense to do something else. And, I’m guessing that is your experience. Despite the cynicism, and public mistrust and putting your lives out for all to judge, you couldn’t ignore the call to serve and to make your county or this state a better place to live. So thank you for letting me be here today. Thank you for your service. For your thoughtfulness. For weighing matters of public good and individual gain.
God does good through you, and we keep you in our prayers.