Clergy, lay leaders press state to spare funding for poor, elderly at Modesto rally

MODESTO -- A diverse crowd of about 500 adults and children, most of them arriving on buses from Fresno, Merced and Stockton, listened to clergy and lay leaders urge the Legislature to protect services to the young, the poor and the elderly.

"We know balancing the budget is the right thing to do," said the Rev. Wayne Bridegroom, pastor of west Modesto's Central Baptist Church and the event's master of ceremonies. "But it is immoral to break faith ... by cutting off services when there are other ways to balance the budget."

The event, billed as a prayer and political rally, was sponsored by five organizations, including Modesto's Congregations Building Communities and People Improving Communities through Organizing.

The Rev. Bill Knezovich of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in Fresno told of dwindling state help for the needy:

$38.5 million was cut from the Healthy Families program statewide. In Stanislaus County, he said, 824 children have lost health care, as have 648 in San Joaquin County.

8,500 seniors and people with disabilities have lost their supplemental income grants.

Modesto City Schools board member Cindy Marks addressed the impact on education: larger class sizes, fewer school days, teachers, counselors, sports and arts.

"Our schools have been asked to do so much more with less," she said.

The Rev. Stephen Blaire, Catholic bishop of the Stockton Diocese, drew the rally's most enthusiastic applause.

Alluding to recent disasters, Blaire said, "Our families may not be literally drowning in floods, but they are drowning in debt, drowning in homelessness, drowning in poverty. We have a need for justice that is just as real as a tornado, just as real as a tsunami, right here in our valley."

Santiago Ramirez, a 42-year-old Merced resident who attended Wednesday's event to "do a little bit with our presence now and with our vote later," liked Blaire's talk.

"He's the voice for poor people," he said. "He's got all the reasons, and it's the truth."

Zang Thao, a 19-year-old college student from Delhi, said his mother is unemployed and knows others who need financial help from the state. "There are many people who don't make enough money to live," he said.

Shaffona Dayas, a divorced mother of four children ranging from age 4 to 16, said the state budget crisis has led to the elimination of school bus services in her Merced neighborhood.

"It will be hard finding transportation for my children," she said. "We need money for education for everyone -- I go to Merced College myself."

Modesto Bee staff writer Sue Nowicki can be reached at snowicki@modbee.com or (209) 578-2012.