Some members of the Rev. David Carl Olson's congregation are homeless. A few work minimum-wage jobs, he said, but they still cannot afford to leave shelters.
His faith calls him to live in a world with "profoundly more justice," said Olson, who oversees First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, and that starts with increasing wages.
Olson spoke to about 25 people gathered to protest the corporate profits of low-wage employers Thursday morning at a Walmart store in Catonsville. Demonstrators chanted "Raise the minimum wage!" and held up signs with frowning faces parodying the Walmart logo of a smiling face. Raise Maryland, a campaign supporting the wage increase, sponsored the event.
The group intended to rally in front of the store, but Baltimore County police lined the entrance. Walmart officials said the group wasn't permitted on the property, so the organizers moved to the sidewalk at the edge of the parking lot.
The event came as attention has been refocused on the minimum wage, currently $7.25 an hour in Maryland and other states that adhere to the national rate. During his State of the Union address last week, President Barack Obama called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $9 an hour.
In Annapolis, state legislators are considering a bill that would increase Maryland's minimum wage to $10 an hour by 2015, boost the minimum wage for those who receive tips to 70 percent of the minimum wage and index minimum wages to the cost of living.
A January 2013 study by the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute found that upping the minimum wage would help more than 500,000 Maryland residents.
At Thursday's event, Raise Maryland released a report concluding that major corporations could "readily afford" to pay their minimum-wage employees more.
Of the nation's 50 largest low-wage employers, more than 90 percent were profitable last year, according to the report, which was based on a National Employment Law Project analysis of Standard and Poor's Capital IQ database.
"What we're trying to get across is people are making a fabulous amount of money, and it just is not coming down to the workers," said Stacey Mink, Raise Maryland's spokeswoman.
The nation's top minimum-wage employers are Wal-Mart Stores, Yum! Brands — which operates fast-food chains Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut — McDonald's and Target. During the last fiscal year, those companies' top executives made millions each; Yum! Brands' highest earner took home in more than $20 million, the report said.
Thursday's demonstrators held up signs detailing the compensation disparity. A Walmart store worker made about $15,000 last year, the posters read, while the company's highest-paid executive made more than $18 million.
Walmart employee Michael Mensah, 31, said he's worked full time at $10 an hour for more than a year but can't pay for "basic necessities." He's living with his mother while he saves up to purchase a car. Mensah said he'd like to make more money — closer to $12 an hour.
"I believe Walmart can afford that," he said.
Wal-Mart, with a workforce of 1.4 million, is the nation's largest low-wage employer. Spokesman Dan Fogleman said the national average pay for a full-time hourly Walmart associate is more than $12 an hour.
Before 2007— the last time Congress approved a minimum wage increase — Wal-Mart championed the increase, saying its customers didn't have enough money to make purchases between paychecks. Fogleman said the company is reviewing several proposals from Obama's State of the Union address but wouldn't say whether the company had taken a position on the proposed minimum wage increase.
Those opposed to hiking the minimum wage have said the jump would lead to layoffs and higher prices.
Kathy Snyder, president and CEO of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said it's not the right time to consider an increase because many small businesses haven't recovered from the recession. Those owners would have to make tough financial decisions that could include eliminating part-time jobs or deciding not to hire an extra worker, she said.
The chamber also worries about "wage creep," Snyder said. If small-business owners raise wages for lower-level employees, other workers might want a salary increase, too.
Ellen Valentino, Maryland state director of the National Federation of Independent Business, said higher costs wouldn't run big businesses out of state but would hurt small business owners.
Olson said he recently spoke with a 7-Eleven owner who shared those concerns. While Olson conceded the owner may be right, he said he also thought increasing the minimum wage could mean more people would come into the store to buy coffee.
"Any raise in pay is going back to the economy," he said, citing an Economic Policy Institute study that found raising the minimum wage would generate about $492 million in increased economic activity.
Olson likened the struggle for higher wages to the biblical story of David and Goliath. He said people fighting to increase the minimum wage have their own metaphorical stones to throw, and one of those stones is fairness.
Corporations should make money, Olson said, but not at the worker's expense.
"We need to find another way," he said.