“The Poor People’s Campaign”
January 14, 2018
The Hasidic masters tell the story of the rabbi who disappeared every Shabat Eve, “to commune with God in the forest,” his congregation thought. So one Sabbath night they sent one of their cantors to follow the rabbi and observe the holy encounter. Deeper and deeper into the woods the rabbi went until he came to the small cottage of an old Gentile women, sick to death and crippled into a painful posture. Once there, the rabbi cooked for her and carried her firewood and swept her floor. Then when the chores were finished, he returned immediately to his little house next to the synagogue
Back in the village, the people demanded of the one they sent to follow him, “Did our rabbi go up to heaven as we thought.”
“Oh, no,” the cantor answered after a thoughtful pause, “our rabbi went much, much higher than that.” Joan Chittister in There Is a Season
The rabbi was following the laws prescribed in Deuteronomy 15:
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. … Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the Lord your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.’
Being as the Israelites, along with the rest of us, were only human, they were in need of constant reminders of this law and its application. That’s where prophets, through the ages, come into play. There were many in the history of Israel, but one that spoke to me on this Martin Luther King Day celebration was from Isaiah 58:6-12. This prophet lived in Judah after the Israelites’ return from Babylonian exile in 539 BCE. He is speaking to a people who were rebuilding their lives in their homeland, who on the surface appeared right-living, law-abiding and God-honoring, but behind closed doors bickered and fought, and exploited their workers for profit. They worshipped and fasted, and thought that was enough to please God.
Isaiah thought otherwise:
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.
If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.
Almost 500 years later Jesus carried this same message to a people in need of a prophet. In Matthew 25, he describes an end of times when we will be held accountable for our actions and how we have treated those in need:
“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.” This confused the righteous who asked when they had done all of this. Jesus answered them, “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.”
For over 50 years Martin Luther King Jr. has been revered and celebrated as the prophet of the 20th Century, and rightly so. He lived that message of Isaiah and Jesus throughout his life. I was finishing high school on April 4,1968 when he was assassinated. I remember it well. What I don’t remember were his plans to organize what he called “A Poor People’s Campaign.”
In May of 1967 he told the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, “I think it is necessary for us to realize that we have moved from the era of civil rights to the era of human rights…[W]hen we see that there must be a radical redistribution of economic and political power, then we see that for the last twelve years we have been in a reform movement…That after Selma and the Voting Rights Bill, we moved into a new era, which must be an era of revolution…In short, we have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society.”
In December of that year, he announced his plan to bring together poor people from across the country, poor people of all races and ethnicities, for a new march on Washington, to demand better jobs, better homes, better education - better lives than the ones they were living. It was to be a fight by capable, hard workers against dehumanization, discrimination and poverty wages in the richest country in the world. He knew that for the load of poverty to be lifted, the thinking and behavior of a critical mass of the American people would have to be changed.
In his last Sunday sermon, he stated:
We read one day: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But if a man doesn’t have a job or an income, he has neither life nor liberty nor the possibility for the pursuit of happiness. He merely exists … We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that was signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic non-violent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible.”
The Campaign was organized into three phases. The first was to construct a shantytown, to become known as Resurrection City, on the National Mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. With permits from the National Park Service, Resurrection City was to house anywhere from 1,500 to 3,000 Campaign participants. Additional participants would be housed in other group and family residences around the metropolitan area.
The next phase was to begin public demonstrations, mass nonviolent civil disobedience, and mass arrests to protest the plight of poverty in this country.
The third and final phase of the Campaign was to launch a nationwide boycott of major industries and shopping areas to prompt business leaders to pressure Congress into meeting the demands of the Campaign.
Despite Kings’ assassination on April 4th, on April 28th the first phase of the Campaign went forward. It began with lobbying efforts and media events in the capital. Then they launched nine regional caravans bringing thousands of participants to D.C. from around the country.
This climaxed in the Solidarity Day Rally for Jobs, Peace and Freedom on June 19th, where 50,000 people joined the 3,000 participants living at Resurrection City to rally around the demands of the Poor People’s Campaign. Does anyone remember that event?
Sadly, due to the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, who was a key proponent, the other phases of the campaign were crippled and it’s impact greatly limited.
Fifty years later a new prophet has emerged, Rev. Dr. William Barber, who sees his work as the unfinished work of Dr. King. Many refer to him as the MLK of the 21st Century. He pastors’ the small Greenleaf Christian Church, Disciples of Christ in North Carolina. Until last May he was the president of the NAACP in Charlotte.
In his book “The Third Reconstruction: How a Moral Movement is Overcoming the Politics of Fear and Division”, he chronicles how he built the Moral Mondays’ Movement there. Beginning in 2012, using a racially diverse coalition of believers and non-believers, through their persistent non-violent protests at the statehouse, they were able to change the make-up of the legislature and reverse some of the most regressive legislation in decades.
Marge O’Reilly will be leading a two session study of his book beginning on January 23rd and 30th. It’s a powerful and important read, and a call to action. Several of us heard Rev. Barber speak this past year. Robert described it as a transformational experience.
Isaiah called those who work for social justice “repairers of the breach.” Barber is president of a non-partisan, not-for-profit organization he founded called Repairers of the Breach. In their own words, “they seek to build a moral agenda rooted in a framework that uplifts our deepest moral and constitutional values to redeem the heart and soul of our country … we declare that the moral public concerns of our faith traditions are how we treat the poor, women, LGBTQ people, children, workers, immigrants, communities of color and the sick.
Our deepest moral traditions point to equal protection under the law, the desire for peace within and among nations, the dignity of all people, and the responsibility to care for our common home.”
Over 2017 they have been organizing, training and working with a diverse school of prophets from every state and the District of Columbia. On December 4th, along with the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary, and hundreds of other organizations and individuals, they launched the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
They are calling for 40 consecutive days of prophetic direct action in 25 states and the District of Columbia, from Mother’s Day to the Summer Solstice, a journey from birth to light, calling on clergy and lay people and all people of conscience to join together to put a human face on poverty in this country, and reawaken America to its higher moral purpose, and build steadfast unity in defense of our most cherished Constitutional and moral traditions.
Reebee and I have already participated in brainstorming groups to determine what shape this movement will take in May here in Massachusetts. You will be invited to participate, to put your faith into action. We live in a country divided in so many ways. It’s time for those of us with a moral conscience to come together to speak truth to power.
Early in 1968, not long before his death, Dr. King spoke at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He told the congregation what he hoped people would say about him when he was gone. He said:
"If any of you are around when I have to meet my day,
tell them not to talk about my Nobel Peace Prize....
I want you to be able to say that I did try to feed the hungry--
that I did try to clothe the naked--
that I did try to visit those who were in prison.
I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
I just want to leave behind a committed life."
Will they be able to say the same about you and I?
This is where I ended my sermon as I wrote earlier this week, but due to the events of this week, and those leading up to it, I felt compelled to write a post-script.
Inscribed in the base of the Statue of Liberty are these words:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
I see that lamp today being slowly extinguished as the golden door is being shut in so many faces: the Haitian minister I met who pastors mostly Haitian refugees in Boston; Norma, a member of Eliot and her daughter Gabby, both TPS recipients from El Salvador; Ali Morales, who spoke to us last fall, living under the protection of DACA. These, along with almost a million others, are good, law abiding, hard-working, tax paying people, who came here, not from s-hole countries, but from homelands suffering from poverty and natural disasters. They came aspiring for a better life.
These are people I know. These are people once welcomed by that majestic statue in New York’s harbor. I know it’s impossible to walk in another’s shoes, but try, just for a moment, to imagine what it must feel like to live in constant fear of deportation, in many cases to a country you do not know.
Imagine being Siham Byeh, arrested with no prior notification, and then deported while her case was pending, separated from her young son, not even allowed to speak to him. Imagine the fear, confusion and feelings of abandonment that child is going through. Imagine being told you’re not welcomed here because of the color of your skin, or the faith you practice.
What kind of country have we become when our president denigrates other counties and the people who come from them in offensive language while many in congress remain silent? - when evangelical pastors make a mockery of Christianity by defending their actions?
And who are we, as citizens and Christians, if we remain silent? It’s not enough to pray and sing We Shall Overcome. The only way we can honor the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. is to stand up and speak out, and work to once again live up to the words on our Statue of Liberty.