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Charlotte minister taps prophetic legacy in NC Medicaid push

As cars and buses from Charlotte head for a rally in downtown Raleigh Saturday morning, the Rev. Rodney Sadler may still be honing his speech on Medicaid expansion.

He wants to talk about jobs and Jesus, money and morals, the way health insurance has kept him healthy and the thousands who aren’t so lucky. He and other founders of North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement hope to build on the momentum that drew tens of thousands to last year’s “ Moral March on Raleigh.”

A Bible professor at Charlotte’s Union Presbyterian Seminary, Sadler recently agreed to lead the state National Association for the Advancement of Colored People’s push to extend health coverage to as many as 500,000 impoverished North Carolinians shut out by the state’s decision not to take federal “Obamacare” money.

He has no expertise in health care, but builds on 30 years of social activism fueled by Biblical teaching and civil rights tradition.

“Just about every chapter in every book of the Bible emphasizes issues of justice,” he says.

Several studies, including a recent one by the Pew Charitable Trusts, show African-Americans are disproportionately hit by the decision of 22 Republican-led states to refuse billions of federal dollars included in the Affordable Care Act to extend Medicaid coverage to the poorest adults.

African-Americans are also at higher risk for diabetes, a chronic disease that Sadler was diagnosed with at age 20. He has always had health insurance, and at 47 he remains healthy.

“I want to make sure that I bear witness to God on behalf of the brother who did not get those opportunities that I had,” he says, “who is struggling today with his diabetes or his kidney failure or his blindness because he didn’t have that access.”

Supporters of Medicaid expansion face steep political hurdles.

After the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the federal government couldn’t force states to expand their programs, North Carolina joined the roster of states refusing to participate. State leaders cited concerns about costs to the state and the effectiveness of the existing system. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore say they don’t plan to change that stance this year.

But Sadler and other Moral Monday ministers say their faith requires them to confront those in power, regardless of the response.

“Dr. Sadler understands that criticizing public policy is as old as the scriptures,” the Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, said this week. “It is what the prophets did.”

Crossing boundaries

Sadler, the child of teen parents, spent part of his childhood living with grandparents in inner-city Philadelphia. Eventually his father married a white woman, while his mother married a black man from Bermuda. The young man moved among races, cultures and social classes.

“I know what poverty looks like and I know what privilege looks like,” he says.

He traces his passion for activism to a high school teacher who taught that “if you are not actively opposing an unjust law, you are passively accepting it.” Ministry was a lifelong calling. Sadler earned a bachelor’s and master’s from Howard University and a PhD from Duke University.

He spent a summer studying at Hebrew University in Israel. He became fascinated with archaeology and racial identity in Biblical times, including that of the Cushites, people who came from what is now Sudan.

He found that the Old Testament included references to their dark skin, but there was none of the derogatory language often associated with race. That research led to his 2005 book “ Can a Cushite Change His Skin? An Examination of Race, Ethnicity, and Othering in the Hebrew Bible.”

In 2002, Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Va., opened a Charlotte extension on the grounds of Sharon Presbyterian Church. The school recruited Sadler, a Baptist, to teach Bible courses.

He became involved with Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith clergy group working to tackle racism. Many well-intentioned white people, he says, fail to see the obstacles African-Americans face in the criminal justice system and other aspects of life.

Sadler spent about eight years talking to white clergy and congregations across the Carolinas. “I had wonderful conversations in places I never thought I would – not only the big-steeple churches here in Charlotte but some small rural churches in South Carolina,” he recalls.

A national stage

In 2013, North Carolina’s NAACP mobilized in response to what members saw as a destructive legislative agenda. Leaders call their approach fusion politics: Bring together people concerned about public education, health care, the environment, women’s issues, voter suppression and poverty.

Sadler missed Barber’s first Moral Monday march on the General Assembly in April 2013, but he was there when the group returned in May. He was among more than 900 arrested for civil disobedience over the course of a dozen marches that summer, drawing national attention.

“I’ve been to the White House. I’ve spoken to Congress any number of times, in part because people are interested in finding out what it is we’re doing in North Carolina and why it is that this message is resonating with people here,” Sadler said.

The summer protests swelled the NAACP’s annual “Historic Thousands on Jones Street” event, timed to coincide with the February birthday of 19th-century abolitionist and social reformer Frederick Douglass.

What started as a small local event eight years ago swelled to a throng that packed downtown Raleigh streets with people from across North Carolina last year. Organizers, who hope the crowd keeps growing, built up to Saturday’s “love and justice” rally with a week of protests.

Sadler is working with a state Medicaid Expansion Coalition that hopes to pull together people who see caring for the poor as a moral mandate and those who see economic benefits to an influx of federal money. The group touts a recent analysis by the Cone Health Foundation and the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust projecting that a vote to expand in 2016 would bring 43,000 jobs to the state by 2020.

So far, that coalition is made up mostly of anti-poverty activists.

Jim Duffett, who helped build a broad coalition in Illinois as leader of the Campaign for Better Health Care, says it takes time and behind-the-scenes work to pull in chambers of commerce and other groups that tend to be more conservative. Duffett has met regularly with Sadler since Duffett relocated to North Carolina this summer.

Duffett says business and medical groups that want Medicaid expansion have to push in a way that doesn’t alienate the state’s political leaders: “They can’t be out there arm-in-arm with Rev. Barber.”

Sadler says he’s still studying health care issues and strategy. Early efforts to draw public attention included a “die-in” in Raleigh on Thursday and a mock grand jury hearing planned for Monday to “indict the General Assembly.”

State Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican who is vice chair of the Senate health care committee, got to know Sadler when Tarte convened a group of legislative colleagues and Moral Monday ministers to explore common ground in 2013. Those talks ended when Tarte told a reporter about them, but Tarte says he and Sadler continue to have good conversations.

Tarte says he respects Sadler’s call to serve the poor, though they disagree on how to put it in action. While Sadler pushes for more government involvement, Tarte says he sees the same Bible messages as a call for people of faith and houses of worship to do more.

“Rodney is an outstanding person,” Tarte said. “His heart is absolutely in the right place.”