Whether it's in Sudan, Haiti, Indonesia, or New Orleans, religious communities are regularly on the front lines responding to dire human need.
In one among a multitude of instances last week, Lutheran World Relief redirected health kits usually meant for refugees overseas to people caught in hurricane Katrina's path, to help them maintain personal hygiene until they could be relocated.
Yet churches' commitments across the globe also put them in the forefront of those seeking long-term solutions to the plight of the poor.
As political leaders prepare to meet at a UN summit Sept. 14, religious leaders are working to keep global antipoverty efforts high on that agenda, which will also address UN reform.
They hope to galvanize a partnership with governments to pursue the millennium development goals first set forth by world leaders in 2000.
The eight goals involve 18 targets for the coming decade, including: halving the number of people living on less than $1 a day, halving the number of people without safe drinking water, halting and reversing the spread of malaria and AIDS, and enabling all children to attend primary school.
More than 30 international church leaders have gathered this week for a three-day consultation at Washington's National Cathedral to affirm support for the goals and to propose appropriate action. They'll carry their message to New York on Tuesday for talks during the summit.
These clergy represent one-third of the world's population, says the Rev. John Peterson, head of the cathedral's center on global reconciliation. "The infrastructures we have throughout the world ... are second to none," he says. "We want to partner with the UN, governments, and NGOs to use our infrastructures. Enormous things could be done."
For instance, "There is no reason today why anyone in the world should have malaria," he adds. Millions of children could be protected by making low-cost insecticide-treated bed nets available.
The gathering highlights the rising leadership of clergy from the developing world, where Christian denominations are growing most vigorously.
Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane of Cape Town, South Africa, a convenor of the conference, is a strong voice on development, poverty, and globalization. Debt issues, meanwhile, are a focus for the Rev. Angel Furtan, a Lutheran pastor in Argentina, who will soon lead a Latin American conference on that topic.
"When we read the Bible, we find that gospel salvation and social justice go hand in hand," says Archbishop Ndungane in a statement for the conference. "Poverty mars the image of God in the poor as it deprives them of opportunities for abundant life; and it mars the image of God within those of us who have more than enough, but who, through greed, complacency, or even ignorance, fail to do the justice, to embrace the lovingkindness, that our God asks of us."
Participants include Christian clergy of Orthodox, Methodist, Evangelical, Roman Catholic, Seventh Day Adventist, and Reformed denominations.
"The leadership from the [developing] world is a new element," says Peter Vander Meulen, head of the US chapter of Micah Challenge, a global Evangelical network that promotes the millennium goals. "We need the humility as US Christians to listen carefully to our brothers from overseas. When they say free trade may not be fair trade, we need to pay attention."
Micah Challenge is working to enlist Evangelicals, based on the biblical call in Micah 6:8 ("What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God"). This week it is joining other religious groups for an interfaith vigil, prayer, fasting, and advocacy at the UN. The groups will press US leaders to increase America's aid budget.
At a gathering of world leaders in 2000, the so-called Millennium Declaration set out goals and targets. Some 191 countries have committed to try to achieve them. When economic studies showed that the costs were affordable, world leaders meeting in Mexico in 2002 endorsed a spending target for development assistance of 0.7 percent of GNP.
Five countries have reached that target; Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden. Others have set timetables for doing so. The US has doubled its aid, but still spends only 0.16 percent, the lowest of the rich nations.
Recently, US Ambassador to the UN John Bolton sought to eliminate even a mention of the development goals from the summit's main paper. The global reaction was so intense that the US backed down.
Religious leaders say there is public support for a greater US commitment, and they aim to help rally it. A November 2004 poll by the One Campaign, a coalition of faith-based and antipoverty groups, found that 86 percent of Americans agreed it was important for the US to put forward "a new effort to work together with other countries to help the poorest people in the world overcome AIDS and extreme poverty."
A Pew Research Center survey taken last month found that 69 percent of Americans favor more generous assistance to the poor, even if it means more taxes.
Since Katrina, many expect those views to strengthen.
"I would hope that as people see our own vulnerability in the face of calamity, we would see the parallels to the situation people are facing in the developing world," says Dennis Frado, director of the Lutheran Office of World Community.
Many young people of faith are also embracing the antipoverty agenda. Faith groups are part of a "young global leaders" summit on poverty held in New York this weekend, which kicked off a national youth movement to promote global justice and fulfillment of the millennium goals.
By 2015, all 191 United Nations member states have pledged to meet these goals:
1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger.
2. Achieve universal primary education.
3. Promote gender equality and empower women.
4. Reduce child mortality.
5. Improve maternal health.
6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other diseases.
7. Ensure environmental sustainability.
8. Develop a global partnership for development.