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What I remember most about being in jail is not the spirited singing in the holding cells, the endless waiting for processing, the loss of control, or even the fried-bologna sandwiches we got for breakfast. What I remember most, after we were finally transferred to the District of Columbia jail and escorted to our bare, single cells at 3 a.m. on Day Two, were the women prisoners who greeted us in the morning.
Unlike us, a total of almost 250 protesters arrested on a “day of Christian resistance,” these women had not come into jail by choice. Unlike us, they had not had the luxury of choosing much of anything about their lives. They were African American, poor, and powerless. They couldn’t imagine choosing to be jailed, but they wanted to hear why we had. And when they understood that we had let ourselves be arrested in part, at least, in the hopes of helping people like them, they were deeply moved.
We talked, exchanging names and where we were from, and then they wanted to sing with us. In a paradoxical turning of the tables, they could move freely about the cell block while we, having undergone less-than-complete body searches, were confined to our cells. We stood at the doors of our cells and put our hands through the bars. Their black hands clasped our white ones, a large circle was formed, and we began to sing, together.
We sang verse after verse of “We Shall Overcome,” relishing the irony, determined to make it true, and then, when we thought the song was over, one of the regular inmates started a new verse: “Moms and kids together, moms and kids together, we shall overcome someday.”
That was a long time ago now—1985, to be exact—and we have not overcome. By any number of measures—the gap between rich and poor, the criminalization of poverty, voter suppression laws, the number of Americans who are homeless, and the proportion of poor families who receive government assistance—things have gotten only worse. Go back even further, to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign of 1968, and the regression in our nation’s treatment of its poor and black, Latinx, and Native American citizens, along with immigrants and the environment, is even more shameful. 1
“For too long,” says the Rev. Dr. William Barber, “we’ve accepted [a] moral narrative in America that has blamed poor people for their poverty and has pitted people against each other.” 2
It seems to me that, as people of faith, we must accept at least some of the responsibility for that. For too long, the church has accepted a misreading of scripture that discounts the poor and favors charity over justice. For too long, we have let soup kitchens and homeless shelters excuse us from addressing the root causes of poverty and the ongoing injustices of systemic racism. For too long, we have ignored a key emphasis of Judeo-Christian scripture and twisted the words of Jesus.
Dr. Barber, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and a newPoor People’s Campaign are out to change all that. Starting tomorrow, at more than 30 statehouses across the country, poor people, people of color, immigrants, environmentalists, peacemakers, and people of faith and goodwill will join together across lines of race and class and religion in 40 days of “moral direct action” designed to “shift the moral narrative” of this country.
Some of them will risk arrest for engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience. Some of them may go to jail. And if their actions, and the grassroots-level relationships between the marginalized, the organized, and the privileged begin to bear fruit, then perhaps the conversations in this country will begin to change—from heated, one-way arguments about left and right, Republican and Democrat, to honest, soul-searching, and humble conversations about right and wrong.
Perhaps compassionate people will begin to connect the dots between systemic racism, persistent poverty, the war economy, environmental degradation, and inhumane immigration policies. Perhaps people in churches like ours will begin to study what our scriptures have to say about wealth and poverty and how to treat the least of these; perhaps we will repent of our indifference to these matters, and heed the call of Jesus and the prophets to let justice roll down like waters. Perhaps these transformations in understanding, commitment, and action will lead to changes in circumstances for our poor and suffering neighbors.
The “fundamental principles” of the Poor People’s Campaign mince no words. “We believe,” they say in part, “in the dismantling of unjust criminalization systems that exploit poor communities and communities of color … We believe that people should not live in or die from poverty in the richest nation ever to exist. … We recognize that the centrality of systemic racism in maintaining economic oppression must be named, detailed, and exposed … Poverty and economic inequality cannot be understood apart from a society built on white supremacy. We aim to shift the distorted moral narrative often promoted by religious extremists … from issues like prayer in school, abortion, and gun rights to one that is concerned with how our society treats the poor, those on the margins, the least of these, women, LGBTQIA folks, workers, immigrants, the disabled and the sick …”
That is strong stuff—but then so are the values and programs set forth in our scriptures. While the ancient Hebrews were still wandering in the desert on their way to the Promised Land, Jewish law set forth economic practices designed to forgive debts, release indentured servants, and prevent the creation of a permanent underclass.
“Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth,” Moses quoted God in saying, “I therefore command you, Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.” The nation of Israel was, in other words, meant to be different from the rest of the world, an alternative society, an illustration of the equality and justice that are possible when people love God and their neighbors more than money and power.
Economic justice remained a central theme of the Jewish prophets, and Jesus defined his own mission as the proclamation of debt relief, liberation, and good news for the poor. By some accountings, one of every 10 verses in the Gospels concerns the poor. From our scriptures it should be clear that the creation of both personal lifestyles and political and economic systems that lift up the poor is a matter of faithfulness and discipleship.
And yet, in considering our obligations to the poor, many Christians are more likely to cite another statement attributed to Jesus, that “the poor you will always have with you.” But this is shallow, out-of-context misreading. Jesus was not discounting the sins of a system that created and discounted poor people, but rather praising the extravagant devotion of a poor, oppressed woman.
The good news of Jesus was and is that change is possible—not only on a personal, spiritual level but also on the societal level. After all, it was his affirmation and empowerment of the poor, Jewish subjects of Rome—his own poor people’s campaign—that got him executed.
Almost two thousand years later, Martin Luther King broadened his vision and sharpened his goals. Having secured laws calling for civil and voting rights, Dr. King began pushing for an “economic bill of rights.” In the face of the war in Vietnam and violent riots in some 160 U.S. cities, he turned his attention to making peace and eliminating poverty, to the need for jobs, housing, and income assistance for people of all races.
And so it was that in May1968, barely a month after Dr. King was assassinated, some 50,000 grieving but determined people traveled to Washington from all over the country for the Poor People’s Campaign march. They came by bus, by mule train, even on foot. Then as many as 5,000 of them occupied the national mall. They set up tents; they built plywood huts; they organized themselves; they made arrangements for food and health care and other services; and every day they staged a demonstration.
Their occupation was called Resurrection City. The people lived and worked in the rain and mud and muck for six weeks, and then bulldozers came and demolished the encampment. The Poor People’s Campaign was considered a failure.
And now there are more poor Americans than before. Voting rights have been rolled back. Wages have stagnated while housing prices have skyrocketed, and “the top 1 percent’s share of the economy has nearly doubled.” The military budget continues to grow while government programs designed to sustain and even change the lives of the poor sustain drastic cuts. And our government’s callous immigration policies now include a Trump administration directive to take children away from their undocumented parents.
After much prayer and discernment, I have decided that I can no longer stand idly by. My faith—my love for God and neighbor—calls me to action.
Previous commitments will prevent me from participating in tomorrow’s action in Boston. But I do plan to participate in next week’s action, which will focus on the connections between systemic racism and poverty as well as unjust immigration policies and the suppression of voting rights. And, if I can work out the logistics of scheduling and dog care, I intend to commit civil disobedience and risk arrest, in the hopes of drawing public attention to these issues.
I have discussed my intentions with the members of our Elected Leadership Team, and they have encouraged me to follow my sense of the Spirit’s leading. I also welcome your feedback and questions, and I covet your prayers and support. I encourage you to learn more about the Poor People’s Campaign at poorpeoplescampaign.org and to consider reading a couple of books: Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor, by Liz Theoharis, and, by William Barber, The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Division and Fear.
God has told us, beloveds, what is good. Jesus has told us to open our hands and our hearts to our poor and needy neighbors.
And what does the Lord require of us but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God?
1 For more context, and a link to a documented study with detailed figures, go here:https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/audit/
2 On Twitter, May 11, 2018, @RevDrBarber.