MILWAUKEE – A progressive Christian organizing institute, the Gamaliel Foundation, held its National Leadership Assembly here Dec. 4-6, kicking off campaigns for voter registration and education, immigrant rights, metro-suburban equity, and drug treatment as an alternative to prison. Major figures like Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) attended the assembly as guest speakers.

Rev. Tommie Pierson of Metropolitan Congregations United began the “Get Out the Vote” portion of the program with a passionate call for voting rights: “We’ve overcome death threats, poll taxes, literacy tests, and all sorts of racist plots, but we continue to be excluded, as in Florida in 2000. … We must keep voting rights on the agenda for 2004.”

Pierson was joined by Rep. Kucinich (D-Ohio), who branded as “a big lie” the claim that the U.S. lacks money for housing, transportation, health care and schools when it can find billions of dollars of tax cuts for the rich and for war. Kucinich echoed the themes of the conference by calling for the thunder of “millions of hands knocking on doors … millions of hearts beating for social and economic justice” and “millions of feet beating a path to the voting booth” as well as the sound “of furniture being moved out of the White House.”

“It never was more important to be an activist in this country,” Kucinich said. “We must practice courage every day.”

The Gamaliel Foundation originated in 1968 as a campaign against redlining on the West Side of Chicago. It has roots in the community organizing model of Saul Alinsky. It has designated 2004 as “the year of rolling thunder,” hoping to recreate in the United States the “rolling thunder” drive in South Africa, a series of meetings and mass demonstrations that helped bring about the end of apartheid.

One of the opening events of the program was the “passing of the symbol of hope in the struggle” from Bishop Rubin Phillip, the Anglican Bishop of Natal, South Africa, to Sherry Larson-Beville of the Oakland Coalition of Congregations. The symbol, a small wooden Zulu rod, arrived draped in a South African flag. Phillip compared the wand to the staff carried by Moses and blessed it to fight “the demons of greed and injustice and separation.”

About 1,000 delegates attended the conference, representing scores of affiliated church-based community organizations from 17 states and three South African provinces. Many of the groups have names with acronyms like NOAH, MOSES, ISAIAH, MICAH and JOB. Inner cities and barrios remain a key focus of the organization. The audience appeared to contain slightly more African American (and African) than white and Latino delegates.

The conference also featured speeches and slide presentations detailing the major projects that the foundation intends to tackle in the period ahead. Rev. Michael Harrison noted the links between many of the projects, citing the connection, for example, between alleviating the “massive incarceration” that has put more than a million African Americans behind bars and the challenge of mobilizing disenfranchised voters.

Several Wisconsin legislators who were present were asked, and agreed, to support the foundation’s Treatment Instead of Prison (TIP) initiative to reserve “prison for those we’re afraid of, not those we’re mad at.” Wisconsin leads the nation in imprisoning African Americans, and locks up almost four times as many of its citizens as neighboring Minnesota.

Joined by Dr. Ron Trimmer, Rev. Sharon Smith gave a rousing sermon on housing and transportation equity. “We have 3.5 million homeless people,” she said. “That’s totally outrageous!”

Many of the issue presentations were accompanied by personal stories. Laura Manriquez complained that all prison did for her drug-addicted husband “was baby-sit him until he was due to be released as a more criminalized individual.”

Ebony Saali showed pictures of her husband, detained because he is Ugandan. “I thought love knew no boundaries,” said Saali.

The Gamaliel Foundation cited a number of victories that it helped win over the last year, including the passage of an Illinois law guaranteeing in-state tuition rates for immigrants, the building of support for the successful Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride, and the aiding of a transit reform campaign in Michigan to link inner city workers with suburban jobs.

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