May 13, 2018
Unless you’ve been there, it’s impossible to understand. We can’t walk in another’s shoes. I don’t know what it’s like to be poor, because I’ve never been poor - not really poor.
I don’t know what it’s like to apply to 73 places before a slum landlord would approve me for a $500 a month two-bedroom apartment, where the wood floors are sticking with grime, the front door doesn’t lock properly and the bedrooms are so small they can’t hold much more than a twin bed - where the kitchen sink is clogged, floor tiles chipped, and a wall of kitchen cabinets are sealed shut with laminating paper - where rats and cockroaches run free.
I don’t know what it’s like for my rent to take 70 or 80% of my income.
I don’t know what it’s like to worry that child protective services will take my kids away if my lights and gas are shut off.
I don’t know what it’s like to see my kids watching for the lunch truck from a local church deliver sack lunches three times a week so they won’t go hungry.
I don’t know what it’s like to live with 8 people in a one-bedroom apartment.
I don’t know what it’s like for my family to be evicted with nowhere to go - with all our possessions put out on the curb.
I don’t know what it’s like to live on food stamps and have them run out with another week left to feed my family.
I don’t know what it’s like to live in a neighborhood where rival gangs roam the streets and bullets zip through my front door shattering its window.
I don’t know what it’s like to live without a car, when the closest public transportation is a mile or more away.
I don’t know what it’s like to sit in jail for months for a minor offense because the state doesn’t have enough public defenders to represent me, and I don’t have bail money.
I don’t know what it’s like not to have health insurance.
I don’t know what it’s like to send my kids to the worst schools in the city.
I don’t know what it’s like to live paycheck to paycheck.
I don’t know, but the people’s lives chronicled in Matthew Desmond’s wrenching and powerful book “Evicted” know, because they live it every day. So do families here in Boston. I’ve met some of them at Home Suites Inn in Waltham.
America is supposed to be the land of the free, where you can better yourself, your family, and your community. But this is only possible if you have a stable place you can call home.
“There were over 553,000 people who experienced homelessness every night in 2017. Another 2.5 - 3.5 million are included in the “sheltered” homeless population. An additional 7.4 million were estimated to be on the brink of homelessness, having lost their own homes and transitioned into the homes of others. A majority of homeless families are headed by single women with young children. LGBTQ youth represent between 20 - 40% of the homeless population.
This in the wealthiest country in the world. It’s not just shocking, it’s disgraceful! As defense spending increases, programs for the poor, Medicaid and food stamps, among others, are being slashed. What would Jesus say? Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke for him when he said “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” Fifty years later we’re still there.
We hear from politicians and the media a constant refrain: O woe to the middle class! How often do we hear about the plight of the poor? How often are their voices lifted up?
As a Christian minister I have the responsibility to teach and preach about what the bible has to say about the poor, about economic justice, and what we, as believers, are to do to obey God and create a more just world.
We are a county divided in so many ways, but the division that bothers me the most in our current climate, is the division among Christians and how they view our responsibility for taking care of the poor.
Rev. William Barber, who has resurrected the Poor People’s Campaign, which begins today in pulpits and tomorrow at state houses, has written and spoken extensively, lambasting our current administration’s treatment of the poor. The Globe this past week reported that two dozen Christian leaders recently issued a manifesto declaring that supporters of Trump’s policies against the poor and marginalized can’t claim to be Christians.
In response, one of the Evangelical ministers on President Trump’s spiritual advisory board wrote: “I totally reject the idea that some of the folks have promoted that unless you believe in big government redistribution of money from one group of people to another that somehow you are not following the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is just absurd. There is no teaching in Christ’s ministry in which he advocates for government to care for the poor. Every message in his ministry is a call to individual Christians, and, by implication, churches, to do that.”
I beg to differ. Maybe I’ve been reading from a different bible. I agree that Jesus called on his followers to reach out to the poor. Calling on the Roman Empire to do that could get you, well, crucified. The arc of justice runs through the bible, from cover to cover. “It starts with Exodus and manna, which is most likely a response to Joseph and Pharaoh setting up a system where a few religious and political rulers amassed great wealth at the expense of the people.
Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written for the leaders in their society. They contain legal codes which describe how society and political and religious leaders are supposed to release slaves, forgive debts, pay people what they deserve, and distribute funds to the needy.
We hear in our reading from Deuteronomy today: If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbor. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be.
Then the arc continues through the prophets who insist that the way to love and honor God is to promote programs that uplift the poor and marginalized, and who decry those with religious and political power who cloak oppression in religious terms and heretical theology.
Isaiah cries “Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless. (Isaiah 10: 1-3)
And then we have Jesus, who lived under Roman occupation where 2% of the people amassed the wealth, while the masses lived in poverty.
In Matthew 23 he points out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders as he instructed the crowds and his disciples:
‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them.
And those famous words from Matthew 25: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. … Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Throughout his letters Paul commands Christ’s followers to care for the poor, to resist taxes that impoverish the poor, and promote programs that uplift them. In four of his letters he sets up collections in the cities he is visiting, to be sent to the poor in Jerusalem.
What a wonderful world it would be if individuals and places of worship could (and would) provide for all the needs of the poor in this country, as that evangelical pastor suggested. We would have a little bit of heaven here on earth. But we know that is a pipe dream. We are not living in first century Palestine. Left to the churches, many of them shrinking and struggling to survive, where would that leave the poor?
I’m proud of the work Eliot does to reach out to those in need: the Walk for Hunger, the CROP Walk, Alternative Giving, donations to City Mission for the Christmas Shop, Cradles to Crayons, the Outdoor Church in Cambridge, a water purification system for a poor school in El Salvador, outreach to a school and students in Zambia, and many more worthy organizations over the years.
I’m proud of the hands-on ministry we’ve done with our summer cookouts and parties for families in transitional housing, the Friday Cafe at 1st Church Cambridge, Community Dinners at our Brighton Alston Church, and Common Cathedral, to name a few. We’ve helped outfit apartments for a Ugandan refugee and a family moving from transitional housing. We’re starting to provide rides to grocery stores for families without cars who are living in the Home Suites Inn.
But as we know, this is just a bandaid for a few, although a necessary one. The systemic problems are so overwhelming, we desperately need to have just laws and programs that provide a safety net, and help lift people out of poverty. Reverend Barber says, “We have the money, we don’t have the moral capacity.”
This is where people of faith must stand together and provide a moral message. Rev. Barber has provided a platform through his Moral Mondays in Charlotte over the years, and now with the Poor People’s Campaign, happening in 40 states and D.C. over the next six weeks.
Thousands of people will take part in non-violent civil disobedience at statehouses every Monday to call attention to the challenging issues facing our country: poverty, racism, environmental degradation and the war economy. Others will attend rallies bringing to light these issues, hearing from those impacted the most, and calling on our legislators to respond. As clergy, we’ve been called to preach and educate our congregations.
The organizers don’t see the end of these 40 days as the culmination, but as the beginning of a movement. Rev. Barber says we’re not going to see change yet. It takes time, patience and persistence. By the end of June they hope to shift the narrative, getting people to talk about the issues and have people imagine that something bigger could be done.
Reebee and I will be joining others at the statehouse on Monday at 2 p.m. for a rally focused on the theme: Somebody’s hurting my people – children, women, youth and people with disabilities. It will last for an hour. You are welcome to join us. We are not participating in the non-violent civil disobedience that follows the rally, and we don’t encourage you to be trained to do that.
Jesus reached out to those in need, curing one person at a time, in body, mind or spirit. He sent his disciples out to do the same. And as members of the Body of Christ, we too are sent.
But he didn’t stop there. He railed at those who created unjust laws and filled their pockets at the expense of the poor, pointing out their hypocrisy.
During the six weeks of the Poor People’s Campaign I plan to do four things each week:
- Take an issue that I’m concerned about and educate myself - read a book or article, watch a documentary - attend the U-Chan meeting on affordable housing here Thursday night, attend the rallies at the State House - just become better informed.
- Let my voice be heard, by contacting one of my legislators - writing a letter, email or phone call, or signing a petition.
- Reach out in some way to make someone’s life a little better. And here I have many to choose from: signing up with Nadja to transport someone from Home Suites Inn to the grocery store; clean out my closet and take items to the Brighten Alston thrift shop, drop some food in the basket outside the sanctuary for the food bank, volunteer at the Wednesday night community supper, sign up to help at the Sanctuary Church.
- pray for those affected.
Will you join me to help make someone’s life in our community a little better? I’d love to hear from you about the things you are already doing!