A Moral Revival to Help the Poor?
The Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice, along with the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey, selected me to represent my state at the launch of the 2018 Poor People’s Campaign, inspired by Martin Luther King’s original 1968 march. The campaign’s planned 40 days of civil disobedience in support of anti-poverty measures began May 11th in Washington D.C.
On the train ride there, I got a text message from a homeless man in his late 20s letting me know that he’d just gotten a job stacking shelves at night in a department store. The young man is homeless in part because he was raised by an abusive, alcoholic father. He lacks self-esteem and self-confidence in social settings, including work. I knew that the job would not pay well enough to allow him to afford indoor housing, but it was still a step in the right direction. So I supported and encouraged him to try to make it work. I also kept him updated throughout the weekend on what was going on in D.C. It made him feel as though there were people looking out for him, and it reminded me for whom and what we were campaigning.
We — representatives of 31 states — checked into the Washington International Hostel in downtown D.C. on Sunday, May 10th.
On the first night of our stay, we attended a “mass meeting” (as our itinerary described it) at the National City Christian Church. We walked there. On the way, I noted four or more impressive looking Christian churches of various denominations. But none was more impressive than the National City Church. In fact, it was an epic Cathedral. I recognized it from TV as the place members of our political elite get married and eulogized.
This was the first time I heard the Reverend William Barber speak — or, better, orate. His speech was very impressive. Not only could he orate well, but he was also very specific and well-informed about why we have systemic poverty in America. So was Liz Theorosis from the Kairos Center who also spoke about the reasons 140 million Americans are living in poverty. After we got past these pep-rally aspects of the campaign, I expected we’d get down to the real business of counteracting poverty.
I can’t say that I was surprised we didn’t. I work with religious advocates for the poor and homeless on a regular basis, but by necessity, not by choice. Religious groups are the only ones who seem to care about the issue. But they mostly talk and pray over the poor and homeless. If half of the large, well-appointed churches in D.C. opened a wing of their operations to shelter and provide services to the homeless — and there are lots of them on the District’s streets — it would go a long way toward reducing the problem and providing some real relief.
The next day, Monday, May 11th, we were to start the civil disobedience. We were instructed what to do: stop traffic on the street in front of the Capitol and allow ourselves to be arrested without physical resistance. The organizers also informed us that we would each receive a fine of $50.00 for our misconduct and that the Kairos organization would pay for it.
I chose not to participate. For one thing, it was a choreographed act, not spontaneous; and secondly, there were more than 300 of us doing this. That meant $15,000 in fines — more like a passive donation to the police than real advocacy. I could use that money for a down payment on an emergency housing facility in my community, where people like the young man I mentioned earlier could get their lives back on track and permanently move out of poverty.
I also decided not to put on a black and yellow t-shirt that read, “The 2018 Campaign for the Poor: A Moral Revival.”
Instead I wore a shirt promoting KYDS: Konscious Youth Development and Services, a community-based program I contribute to in Asbury Park, New Jersey. It provides young adults living in poverty with practical life skills so that they can break the cycle of poverty, violence, and criminality they grew up in. The campaign organizers gave us talking points to tell the media, but, if asked, I would have told them I came here to support community-based programs like KYDS that do the real hard grassroots work of changing lives for the better, one person at a time.
The poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote: “The Universe is made of Stories, not Atoms.” So I will leave you with a story that I feel speaks volumes about top-down forays into social and economic justice like the Poor People’s Campaign.
In the time-honored tradition of Tom Wolfe’s “New Journalism,” I embedded myself in the story in order to get the whole picture of what was happening. At a certain point, the police stopped demonstrators from entering the area where we were to stop traffic. Because I wasn’t dressed like the other demonstrators I was able to get past them, near where arrests were being made, in a park.
Several buses full of police were there, I assumed, to cart the demonstrators away to a police station. When I asked a cop why they were doing it in the park, he said, “We were expecting a lot more people to show up. With a small group like this we can just book and release them on the spot.” And take your fifty dollar donations, I thought. Thank you very much and come back soon.
Later that day the organizers of the campaign would tell us that the police arrested and processed the demonstrators in the park because there were too many to take to a police station.
After talking to the police I went and sat down on a bench about a hundred yards from where the demonstrators were being processed. I noticed a Muslim woman stop a police SUV and frantically bang on its driver-side window until a cop opened it. She spoke with him briefly and then walked toward where I was sitting with some locals. I asked her what was going on.
She pointed to a figure back in the direction where the demonstration had begun. “Look,” she said, “It’s Rabbi Arthur Waskow. He marched with Dr. King 50 years ago at the original Poor People’s Campaign.”
The temperature was in the 90s and relentlessly sunny. The 85-year-old Rabbi was being helped toward us and eventually sat down on a bench next to mine. He looked disoriented and exhausted. The police from the SUV came over and offered him bottled water while the Muslim woman and another woman dressed in Christian garb — white collar — fanned him.
It was obviously not a good day for an 85-year-old man to be walking around by himself in the mid-day heat. I asked the Muslim woman what had happened. She said, “He was walking slowly toward the event with the support of the other clergy. But when the commotion started and TV crews and reporters showed up, they just left him there on his own.”
A moral revival, indeed.
James Abro is an independent grassroots activist for the poor and homeless in his community and a national advocate for economic justice. This summer, the Burnes Center on Poverty and Homelessness at the University of Denver will be publishing an excerpt from his latest book, “Facing Homelessness.”