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Episode no. 1152

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, guest anchor: Coming up – a new emphasis on faith and religion at the Democratic National Convention.

Plus, he left a conventional life to minister to the homeless; and to do it, he became homeless himself.

LUCKY SEVERSON: You don’t do drugs?

VINCENT PANNIZZO (“Preacherman”): No.

SEVERSON: You don’t drink?


SEVERSON: You don’t smoke. What do you do?

Mr. PANNIZZO: Suffer.

And three years after Katrina, how people of faith have made a difference in the wake of that disaster.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Welcome. I’m Fred De Sam Lazaro, sitting in for Bob Abernethy. Thank you for joining us.

It was, of course, a busy week in the world of politics, and we have much more on faith in politics later in the program. First other news.

Twelve and a half percent of Americans, more than 37 million people, were living in poverty in 2007, according to new census figures. The percentage was almost exactly the same as the year before. The faith-based Bread for the World and Catholic Charities called the figures unacceptable and said the federal government must do more to confront the problem.

Meanwhile, the World Bank released its figures on global poverty. The bank has a different standard than U.S. agencies. It defines the poor as those living on less than $1.25 a day. In 2005, the bank said 1.4 billion people were living in abject poverty. That’s more than a fifth of the world’s population.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: In eastern India, deadly religious violence. Clashes between Hindus and Christians have left at least 11 dead in the state of Orissa, where there have long been sectarian tensions over allegations that Christian missionaries proselytize to gain conversions. The violence began when the leader of a Hindu nationalist group was killed. Although no group claimed responsibility, his followers retaliated against Christians, burning more than a dozen churches and a Christian-run orphanage. A teacher was trapped in the orphanage and killed and a priest severely injured.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: A breakthrough this week that could eventually sidestep the controversy over embryonic stem cells. Scientists at Harvard said they were able to transform ordinary pancreatic cells in adult mice into cells that produce insulin. The discovery could offer therapies down the road for diabetes and many other diseases. A spokesman for the U.S. Catholic Bishops hailed the development, saying it was further proof that it’s unnecessary to use stem cells from embryos, something the Church leaders say destroys human life. However, the researcher who led the new study and other scientists said it was too early to reach that conclusion.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Alaska Governor Sarah Palin will join John McCain on the Republican presidential ticket. The 44-year-old first-term governor is a devout Christian and the mother of five. She is against abortion and has said marriage should be between a man and woman, and political analysts say she may help McCain woo evangelical voters.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: As the Republicans gather in St. Paul to choose their presidential tickets, Democrats wrapped up their convention. They officially chose Barack Obama and Joe Biden as their nominees. Religion – in various demonstrations and observances – was prominently on display in Denver as Kim Lawton reports.

KIM LAWTON: The 2008 Democratic National Convention began as no previous convention ever has – with a prayer and worship service. The first official event here in Denver was an interfaith gathering attended by more than 3,000 people. The gathering was hosted by the chief executive officer of the convention Leah Daughtry who’s also a Pentecostal pastor.

LEAH DAUGHTRY (CEO, Democratic National Convention, speaking at interfaith gathering): Today is a celebration of our faith and our values.

LAWTON: Representatives of several religious traditions talked about moral issues facing the nation and prayed for the delegates meeting here.

RELIGION LEADERS (praying together): God, we pray that you guide our leaders�

LAWTON: One of the participants was Roman Catholic Sister Helen Prejean, a well-known death penalty opponent.

Sister HELEN PREJEAN, CSJ (Author, “Dead Man Walking”): Just to have Muslims and to have the Rabbi and to have the sacred Scriptures read, it was a beautiful thing to do. And you watch, it’s going to be a template, it’s going to be imitated because it’s so important.

LAWTON: The gathering was part of a new Democratic strategy to incorporate religion and more aggressively reach out to faith-based voters. Observers say it’s a sea change from 2004, when the Democrats appeared reluctant to address issues of faith.

Reverend ROMAL TUNE (Clergy Strategic Alliances): Four years ago, the party was still gaining momentum in terms of the outreach in the religious community. But now, the party is more willing to express its views as people of faith, the diversity of the faiths represented by the Democratic Party.

LAWTON: But when it comes to religion, the Democratic Party still has some major challenges to overcome.

LAWTON: According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, only 38 percent of Americans think the Democratic Party is friendly toward religion. That compares to more than half of all Americans who think the Republican Party is friendly toward religion. Democratic leaders hope the prominent role of faith at this convention will change those perceptions.

The Democrats incorporated faith on many fronts here. As is the tradition for both political parties, various religious leaders opened and closed every floor session with prayer.

Faith-based groups were part of a service day where delegates were encouraged to do volunteer work. Some delegates helped out at a feeding program at Trinity United Methodist Church. Kathy West, a United Methodist delegate from Illinois, was one of them.

KATHY WEST (Illinois Delegate): We’re the party closest to the people, in my opinion. That’s one of the reasons I am a Democrat.

LAWTON: In addition, for the first time ever, the Democrats created special caucus meetings where people of faith could come together as other affinity groups do. At a series of four separate faith caucus meetings, national religious leaders held panel discussions about key issues.

In another first, Muslims organized the American Muslim Democratic Caucus.

Fifty-five Muslim caucus members were delegates at this year’s convention. Former Muslim Army Chaplain James Yee was a delegate from Washington State. After working in Guantanamo Bay, Yee was detained in 2003 and accused of spying. The charges were later dropped, and now Yee is mobilizing Muslims to get involved in politics.

Chaplain JAMES YEE (Washington Delegate): The values of justice, diversity, equality, religious freedom – these are all values that are not only reflected in our Constitution, but they are also reflected in the teachings of the Qur’an.

LAWTON: The National Jewish Democratic Council held a reception for Jewish members of Congress. Many here praised the inclusiveness of the party’s faith outreach efforts. They also admitted that a negative email campaign falsely asserting that Barack Obama is an anti-Israel Muslim has made inroads among some American Jews.

IRA FORMAN (Executive Director, National Jewish Democratic Council): Our opponents have done a lot to try and make people fear an Obama presidency and I think that’s destructive to the Israel-U.S. relationship and unfair – “smear and fear” we call it. And I think that’s a big thing that we’re going to be working at as an organization to get out to the Jewish community.

LAWTON: Joe Turnham was gratified to see the many expressions of Democratic faith at this convention. Turnham is chair of the Alabama Democratic Party and a lifelong evangelical Christian. He has been deeply frustrated by the Democrats’ recent image on issues of faith.

JOE TURNHAM (Chair, Alabama Democratic Party): Democrats are people that pray. They are people that seek forgiveness. They are people that seek for higher meaning and truth in life and that really do follow Scriptural precepts for how we live our lives. And it’s a barometer of how we may govern.

LAWTON: At the same time, the Democrats had to be careful not to alienate secular voters who make up a significant part of party’s base. And the party also tried to walk a fine line on the thorny issue of abortion.

Both the interfaith gathering and the faith caucus meetings were interrupted by anti-abortion protesters who had to be escorted out of the building.

NANCY KEENAN (President, NARAL Pro-Choice America, during speech): I am proud to say that my party – the Democratic Party – is a party of many faiths and backgrounds united behind these core moral values: we support and defend a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion.

LAWTON: The party maintained its b support for abortion rights. But this year, delegates also approved support for measures to reduce the number of abortions.

Denver Roman Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput called the measure a “distraction.”

Archbishop CHARLES CHAPUT (Archdiocese of Denver): The fact that there’s a part of the platform that calls for that doesn’t blind me to the other part of the platform that is unconditionally committed to the right to abortion. So quite honestly, I’m not impressed by it.

LAWTON: Chaput wasn’t invited to be an official part of the Democratic Convention. Instead, on the convention’s opening night, he led a rally in front of a local Planned Parenthood office.

Archbishop CHAPUT: It wasn’t a march against the Democratic Party, but it was a march to remind all of us whether we’re Independents or always vote Democratic that the life issue is the central issue of our day.

LAWTON: Chaput believes that pro-choice Roman Catholic politicians should not receive Communion. And that would include Vice-Presidential candidate Joe Biden.

Archbishop CHAPUT: Already it’s been very clear from his own public statements that he is pro-choice. And that would separate him from the communion of the church in terms of what we believe about life. And so that’s an issue for him to take seriously. He really should change his mind if he says he’s a Catholic. He should believe what the Catholic Church believes.

LAWTON: Inside the convention, Joe Turnham, who opposes abortion, argued for a more consistent life ethic that would include issues like poverty and the war. He believes Democrats have the advantage over Republicans on that front.

Mr. TURNHAM: I think this is the pro-life party because Christ said, “I came to give you life and to give you life more abundantly.” They talk about being the pro-life party. This is the party of having life and having it more abundantly. And that’s you know, that’s from the womb to the grave.

LAWTON: For many here, Obama’s nomination for president took on special meaning because his acceptance speech occurred on the 45th anniversary of Martin Luther King, Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Sen. BARACK OBAMA (during acceptance speech, Democratic National Convention): In the words of Scripture, “Hold firmly without wavering to the hope that we confess.” Thank you. God bless you and God bless the United States of America.

Reverend OTIS MOSS, JR (Olivet Institutional Baptist Church, Cleveland, OH): Dr. King said, “I have a dream that one day my four little children will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is the hour that America can live up to that dream.

LAWTON: Reverend Otis Moss, Jr. was a close associate of the King family. He says Obama is inspiring a new generation of clergy across racial lines who are motivated by their values to work for social change.

Rev. MOSS: The enthusiasm is so high that it’s incalculable. It’s measureless. There is a special kind of hope deeply rooted in our faith tradition and in our history.

LAWTON: Democratic leaders hope that new faith-based enthusiasm will help propel them to victory in November. I’m Kim Lawton in Denver.

DE SAM LAZARO: We have more ongoing coverage and analysis on the “One Nation” page of our Web site. Join us at pbs.org. Also, next week, Kim will have a report on the Republican convention in St. Paul.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Now, a report about an unusual ministry from one of the West Coast’s most blighted corners. It’s in East Oakland, California. It’s a ministry for the homeless – and that describes the minister too. Lucky Severson has this profile.

LUCKY SEVERSON: Sometimes there are as many as 50 homeless people, some drunk, some high, most hungry. They’re here outside this empty store in East Oakland every night waiting for the “Preacherman.”

VINCENT PANNIZZO (Preacherman, walking over to the homeless): How you doing? How you doing? How’s it going?

SEVERSON: It may be one of the few things they can depend on – religion, at the corner of Foothill and Coolidge, every night at 10:30.

Mr. PANNIZZO (preaching): Heavenly Father we pray for the Holy Spirit to enter our hearts and to guide us, to strengthen us, to set us on the right path.

SEVERSON: They know he understands their situation, because the preacherman, Vincent Pannizzo, is one of them.

Mr. PANNIZZO (preaching): In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ we pray. Amen. I despair every single day, everyday, yeah. How would you like to be homeless, living on the street? You’ll say, “Well you chose homelessness.” I don’t choose anything. God chooses everything for us.

SEVERSON: So you think God chose you to do this?

Mr. PANNIZZO: Of course,

SEVERSON: To minister to the homeless?

Mr. PANNIZZO: Yeah, I’d rather not do it but I have to be obedient to God. I can’t be otherwise. His spirit is already in me.

(preaching): And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. This is what John says.

SEVERSON: By night, this is not a safe neighborhood. Pannizzo has been robbed six times, sometimes at gunpoint.

Mr. PANNIZZO: It wasn’t as bad as getting slapped in the face, which happened to me a couple times. That’s even worse.

SEVERSON (to Mr. Pannizzo): Slapped in the face by?

Mr. PANNIZZO: Just people who felt that they needed to get their aggressions out on a homeless guy.

SEVERSON: Preaching on the streets was about the last thing Vincent Pannizzo imagined he’d end up doing. Religion was not an important part of his upbringing. He was an honors student in ancient history at Rutgers University. Then when he was in his fourth year of a doctorate program at U.C. Berkeley, he started reading the Bible casually and came across a verse that changed his life in a profound way.

Mr. PANNIZZO: “Give to all who ask,” Luke, Chapter Six. This actually, when I was still on the fence deciding whether this you know was real or not, I decided that the idea was extraordinary in itself, right – giving to everybody who asks. Why not? Why not give to anybody who asks? I began to practice it and I found that the more I practiced it, the more I had faith in it and the more I had faith in the Scriptures and the more I had faith in Jesus.

SEVERSON: He’s been ministering to the homeless and giving them money for nine years.

Mr. PANNIZZO: (walking over to the homeless woman): What do you need exactly?

UNIDENTIFIED HOMELESS WOMAN: I need $20. You should give me $20.

Mr. PANNIZZO: Well, I don’t have that.


Mr. PANNIZZO: Well, I can give you like six . . .

SEVERSON: Five years ago, he became homeless himself.

Mr. PANNIZZO: I used to invite the homeless people over to my house. And I was kicked out of three places doing that, three apartments. After I lost my third apartment I said, “Well,” – my wife had already left me by that time – when I lost my third apartment I said, “Forget it. I’m staying on the street.”

SEVERSON: His home now, is a small camp next to a noisy freeway.

Mr. PANNIZZO: I’m over there. That’s where I sleep.

SEVERSON: Oh, you’re right over here?

Mr. PANNIZZO: Yeah, I’m right over there – that humble place.

SEVERSON: Humble, but neat as a pin. Next to his bedroll, his books and the candles he reads by. Vincent is the leader of this small homeless camp that includes Donna Little Moon and Melvin Bear.

MELVIN BEAR: Even though we’re out in the open, we still feel safe ’cause Vinny’s here, you know.


BEAR: Yeah.

SEVERSON: This may be the cleanest homeless camp in East Oakland – a refuge for those who are scorned on the streets. Vincent teaches them to love their tormentors.

DONNA LITTLE MOON: Vinny taught us to, you know, treat them the right way. So we say, regardless of what they do, we say, “God bless.” I say “God bless.”

Mr. PANNIZZO (with homeless guy on a bench): You know you’re welcome at the camp man. All right? If you have any problems, let me know, and I’ll fix it, okay?

LOUISE HILL: He’s like nobody I’ve ever met before.

SEVERSON: Louise Hill retired from the EPA after 30 years. She met Vincent when he was pumping gas for spare change, and now hires him to do odd jobs. He finds some kind of work, like carpentry, almost every day.

Ms. HILL: He keeps nothing for himself at all. He buys food for people. And he keeps nothing for himself.

Mr. PANNIZZO (after his sermon at night giving money away): You got something right? You got something too? Everyone got something, right? You need a blanket? I got you sister.

SEVERSON: But then you end up giving away almost all of the money you earn?

Mr. PANNIZZO: All of it.

SEVERSON: All of it?

Mr. PANNIZZO: I have no use for money at all. I know that God takes care of me. He feeds me and he clothes me right. He keeps me healthy so I can do his work, so I can take care of others. He provides me with everything that I need so I can take care of people, people who essentially can’t take care of themselves.

SEVERSON: Bill Ward has been homeless for eight years and he thinks many who show up here each night to hear Vincent preach are not here for the preaching but for a free handout.

BILL WARD: I was the one who told him, “Look, why don’t you just come here for like a couple weeks, preach the word and don’t give out anything – food, blankets, you know. See who will be here.”

Ms. HILL: He doesn’t judge people. He doesn’t say well I’m not going to give this person money because I know they’re ripping me off. He gives money to everybody.

SEVERSON (to Mr. Pannizzo): Do you think some of them might take advantage of you?

(preaching at night): John says do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.

Ms. HILL: He’s really the only person that I know of that preaches to people that churches probably would turn away. You know, drug addicts and alcoholics you know, even though they may not specifically go to a church, if they did those are not the kind of people a church, you know, would cater to.

SEVERSON: It was difficult to convince Pannizzo to do an interview because, he says, he doesn’t want what he is doing to be glorified. But he doesn’t like to be ridiculed either, by people who believe he’s taken his religion too far.

Mr. PANNIZZO: I mean, it’s painful. I don’t like people to think that I’m nuts. I like to be treated with respect and dignity. I mean, for crying out loud, I once desired a career in academia. Now I’m a homeless guy having nothing – being a servant to everybody on the street and people thinking I’m nuts or on drugs.

Mr. PANNIZZO (handing out food to the homeless): Here you go brother.

SEVERSON: There’s little question that Pannizzo feels compassion for the people on the streets, but he says, it’s Christ’s compassion not his. He says he serves the homeless for his own salvation. You don’t do drugs?


SEVERSON: You don’t drink?


SEVERSON: You don’t smoke?


SEVERSON: What do you do?

Mr. PANNIZZO: Suffer. Jesus says, “Pick up your cross and follow me and deny yourself every day.” And that’s what I’m doing. I’m denying myself. I’m denying myself a life here. What did Jesus say? “He who seeks his life will lose it, but he who loses his life for my sake will gain it everlastingly.”

Mr. PANNIZZO (handing out food to the homeless): You want some bread?.

SEVERSON: He says what he’s doing on the streets is no different from the many stories of personal sacrifice in the Bible, and he can’t understand why people today consider it so unusual.

For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Lucky Severson in East Oakland, California.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: On our calendar, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan starts next week. The first day will be Monday or Tuesday, depending on the sighting of the moon. During the month, Muslims observe daytime fasts and often gather at dusk for celebratory dinners called iftars. The holy time commemorates God’s revelation of the Qur’an to the prophet Mohammad.

On Wednesday, Hindus celebrate Ganesh Chaturthi. The holiday honoring the popular elephant headed lord Ganesha, one of the faith’s primary deities.

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FRED DE SAM LAZARO: Tropical storm Gustav offers both threat and reminder this weekend as the country marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. We have a story about two people in the vanguard of a historic grassroots movement that’s brought hundreds of thousands of volunteers to the region. Its focus has shifted from Katrina’s immediate aftermath to broader issues of social justice.

Dr. COURTNEY COWART (Author, “An American Awakening”): I lived in New York City at the time Katrina hit.

SHAKOOR ALJUWANI (Community Organizer, Episcopal Church): It was maddening to me to watch the stories on the national media and see no signs of heroism.

Dr. COWART: I just felt very bly that now it was my turn to be one of those people, and to go to the point of need.

Mr. ALJUWANI: Once I got here, it became clear to me that this was going to be more than just a one-time disaster.

Dr. COWART (reading from “An American Awakening”): Well over 1.1 million Americans, the greatest voluntary outpouring of humanity by grassroots white America toward grassroots black America in the history of our nation, continues to flow unabated to this day.

I know the people of New Orleans are going to turn this into something really, really good.

(Videoclip of Irwin Mayfield playing trumpet)

Dr. COWART: (reading from “An American Awakening”): I’m immediately drawn to Irvin as he begins to talk about blues and jazz. He’s describing in musical terms all that I have come to believe about metabolizing suffering – watching it transformed into grace. In his music he is telling me a story of the frustrations and aspirations of a battered group of survivors under siege who are greatly in need of divine and human assistance.

What is it that millions of Americans are saying when they come to gut and rebuild this city block by block with their own bare hands? Americans saying that they love their neighbor as themselves and want those beliefs and values reflected in our public policy.

There is no question that hundreds of thousands of struggling Gulf Coast survivors view the youth who are doing the heavy labor as Angels of Mercy.

Mr. ALJUWANI: You couldn’t stop people from coming. College students especially were willing to risk everything to help people they didn’t even know. It’s becoming clear to more and more people that it’s not just enough to bring food, as important as that is, or to gut somebody’s home – isn’t that we have to fight for affordable housing. We have to fight for schools that function. We have to fight for a transparent and democratic system of government.

Dr. COWART: Katrina is the incident that brings up all the issues. We need to address straight on the issues of racism. Doing it in a non-violent way is going to be tricky, which is why the church leaders will be key.

(reading from “An American Awakening”): Despite New Orleans’ multi-generational destruction, our recent decimation, our floundering elected leadership, and the fear many have of the poverty and pain in our city, we see in the helpers in New Orleans the growing presence of an incredible light. It’s hard to walk into a situation where you’re becoming intimately familiar with the circumstances of a family in New Orleans as you gut and rebuild their houses.

You realize that children aren’t being educated. The parents are unable to earn a living wage to support their family. The grandmother can’t get health care. And when you start to ask those “why” questions that’s when you’re really getting to the justice issues.

What I see is this generation taking that a step farther and becoming politically aware and politically involved.

Ms. ALJUWANI: They’re not satisfied with just, you know, doing good for a week – that they want to make a real difference in the lives of people.

Dr. COWART: People of faith and people of compassion in this country have led every great era of social progress in the history of America. And, I think we’re about to see it happen again.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * FRED DE SAM LAZARO: That’s our program for now. I’m Fred de Sam Lazaro. There’s much more on our Web site. Audio and video podcasts of our program are also available. Join us at pbs.org.


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