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A faith-based appeal to close the digital divide

As Oregon and the rest of our nation continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress must act without delay to mitigate the economic and public health hardships that we see all around us today, and that we know will long linger for many. As Congress considers economic stimulus packages now and in the New Year, these efforts should include robust investments in our nation’s digital infrastructure to meet rising demands for greater connectivity now, and to lay the foundation for a more equitable future for all.

As faith leaders from Southern Oregon proud to serve as members of the board of directors of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, we are convinced of the need to address these kinds of structural challenges facing our state if our communities are to remain strong during the pandemic — and thrive afterward.

EMO represents a broad cross-section of churches committed to public service and the common good — values we cherish and that compel us to provide equal access to hope and opportunity. However, too often, low-income, underserved and rural communities in Oregon are left behind and shut out of the economic, educational, and social opportunities afforded by reliable high-speed internet access. We rank 34th in the nation for broadband access.

Even before the pandemic, a greater share of daily life for many Oregonians was conducted online. Internet access can shape everything from academic progress and social mobility to health outcomes. There is not a level playing field when it comes to broadband access, and those who lack such access are among our most vulnerable community members.

If our leaders fail to take action to close the digital divide, we risk deepening existing inequalities that communities across Oregon are confronting. For example, amid the pandemic, students are practicing distance learning online. We must expand broadband access so students have equal opportunity to succeed. It simply isn’t right, and is contrary to American values and the teachings of Jesus, to leave our poor, rural and disenfranchised youth without access to online tools and resources they need to succeed.

Broadband internet has also become a critical component of health care access and delivery. Particularly in our more remote regions and communities, accessing primary care can be a challenge. Between a high rate of hospital closures and doctor shortages here and in rural communities nationwide, patients often find themselves forced to drive longer distances and endure longer waiting times just to access the treatments and services they need to stay healthy.

That is why the role of telemedicine and telehealth services has grown exponentially in recent years. However, if a family does not have high-speed internet, they can’t take advantage of these health services. Now, given the current health care environment — in which many hospitals, doctors and health care professionals are still recommending patients avoid all but the most essential of services — it is even more important that all Oregonians have access to telehealth services.

Will we allow the most at-risk, vulnerable Oregonians among us to fall behind simply because they lack the digital tools and resources that so many of us take for granted? As concerned citizens, people of faith, and leaders in our communities, we call on our elected officials to make universal broadband access a national priority.

Congress is still debating the latest response to the COVID-19 crisis. We urge lawmakers in Washington, D.C. to turn their attention to investing in our broadband infrastructure to meet the needs of our communities now and to prepare our nation for a brighter future.

The Rev. Ernestein C. Flemister is rector at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Grants Pass and the Rev. Victoria Brown is pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Roseburg. They are members of the board of directors of Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon, a statewide association of Christian, ecumenical and interfaith partners working together to improve the lives of Oregonians.