Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Interfaith gathering challenges local leaders

Friday, October 30, 2009

Before a cheering crowd of several hundred people last night, Sierra Club member Rachel Martin stood before a microphone, looked toward city Councilmen William Peduto and Bruce Kraus, and in a soft but firm voice, asked them a question.

"Council persons Peduto and Kraus, will you support city legislation that will guarantee family-sustaining jobs, environmental protections and a more effective public role in taxpayer-supported economic development?"

Without pause, each councilman replied, "Yes."

The crowd roared.

"We have a moral obligation as your elected to protect the least among us," Mr. Kraus said. "You have my word, you have Councilman Peduto's word, we will move this legislation forward."

Ms. Martin's was the first in a night full of questions from members of the Pittsburgh Interfaith Impact Network. They posed them to city, county and state politicians, who, up against a boisterous crowd, pledged their commitment to fix a host of problems large and small.

In turn, the interfaith network, which comprises more than 30 faith-based organizations, promised to hold them accountable on issues such as health care, immigration reform, racial profiling, neighborhood blight and public transportation.

For two hours at Epiphany Catholic Church in Uptown, PIIN members outlined problems and plans for reform, then called upon officials or, in some cases, their surrogates, to answer a series of yes or no questions.

Among the promises, representatives for Sens. Bob Casey Jr. and Arlen Specter said they would support legislation that protects immigrant workers from abuse regardless of whether they were born in the United States.

Allegheny County Council President Rich Fitzgerald said he would continue to support plans to make shopping malls more accessible to public transit riders. A representative for County Executive Dan Onorato said he would make eradicating blight a priority.

And Pittsburgh police Chief Nathan Harper said he will work to implement a policy that would bar officers from targeting people based solely on race. He also agreed to create a "cultural diversity training program" that would be mandatory for each officer and said he wants the force to better represent the diversity of the community it serves.

"We have a lot of work to do," the chief said. "The only way we're going to do that is by coming together."

Some of those in attendance also offered emotional testimony about their own experience dealing with various social problems.

Anna Karen Alberto, a 16-year-old high school student, teared up when she spoke about being an undocumented immigrant from Mexico.

"I came to this country when I was 5 and I have lived here for almost all of my life," she said. "I am not able to go on to higher education and achieve my dream of becoming a dentist because I am undocumented."

As the session wound to a close, the Rev. John Welch of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, urged the crowd to move "from action to actualization."

"Tonight we have witnessed commitments from our elected officials," he said. "We need to experience, we need to taste and we need to smell the commitments that were made tonight."

Sadie Gurman can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or 412-263-1878.