Jubilee Justice seeks debt relief for poor countries


COLUMBIA — Church leaders from different denominations gathered at St. Peter Church on Oct. 2 to heed the Word of God in practical terms. They had in mind a radical idea.

“The concept is both radical and profound, but it’s amazing how much movement there has been on the part of the people in this direction,” said Marie Dennis, keynote speaker for the gathering called “Jubilee Justice and the Crisis of Poor Country Debt: A Statewide Convocation.”

Dennis, who represents the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns, was referring to the Biblical call to relieve people of their debts in jubilee years, as outlined by the prophet Leviticus. In the days of Leviticus, 4,000 years ago, Jews celebrated a jubilee year every 50 years. They were called upon to make the celebration sacred by “proclaiming liberty in the land for all its inhabitants” (Chapter 25). The sponsoring organizations of the Jubilee Justice gathering took God’s call one step further: They are calling on the U.S. Congress to forgive poor countries the debts they owe to the United States.

“It’s a critical issue,” said L. Mark Barwick, southeastern director of Bread for the World. “These poor countries are laboring under a crushing burden of debt.”

The convocation began with a reflection service that asked the question: What are we called to do in this jubilee time? It ended with break-out sessions designed to gather some practical answers. One of the most practical, according to Barwick, is to write to your congressman or woman. A bill called the Debt Relief Bill (H.R. 1095) was introduced into the House of Representatives in March, and a similar one was scheduled to be introduced into the Senate this week. Barwick said that he hoped a petition signed at the Jubilee Justice convocation and letters from concerned persons will prompt Senators Strom Thurmond and Fritz Hollings to become early co-sponsors of the Debt Relief Bill.

The Jubilee Justice convocation itself was co-sponsored by the Diocese of Charleston, the (Episcopal) Diocese of South Carolina, the (Episcopal) Diocese of Upper South Carolina, the South Carolina Christian Action Council and Bread for the World.

Dominican Sister Pat Keating, Coastal Deanery coordinator for Catholic Charities in the state, was one of the organizers of the event. She said it came about because the religious leaders in South Carolina had been asking themselves the same question that the convocation asked.

“We wondered if we couldn’t do some collaborative and ecumenical effort for the jubilee year,” Sister Keating said. “We wanted to know what we can do to effect change.”

The afternoon speaker was Father Charles Rowland, a Guyana native and an Anglican missioner there at the Mission of the Good Shepherd. Father Rowland talked about the effect of debt relief on the poor people of Guyana. The average annual income of a person in that African country is $829; the accumulated foreign debt is $2,278 per person.

The Right Rev. William J. Skilton, bishop suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina, said that the worldwide Lambeth Conference of 750 bishops convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1998 called for worldwide debt reduction as its first priority.

Msgr. Leigh A. Lehocky, pastor of the host parish, said that Pope John Paul II spoke of an opportunity for ecumenism when he visited St. Peter 12 years ago: “The pope told a gathering of ecumenical leaders that if we give our attention to the poor, we may just find a way to get together.”

The church leaders who gathered for Jubilee Justice gave their attention to the poor. They heard some hard truths.

“Is it possible for human beings to thwart the will of God? We say no, but in degradation of the environment.

The time is right, according to Barwick, for a push in Congress to appropriate some funds to cancel debts owed to the United States by poor countries. He urged all citizens to write or e-mail their representatives in Washington.

Marie Dennis said: “We have to hold on to hope, to the depth of meaning of jubilee.”