This summer our family was welcomed into homes, houses of worship, and picket lines from Washington state to North Carolina. Crossing this country, we found that the United States is producing three things in great abundance: corn, coal, and crisis. We drove through millions of acres of corn, crossed paths with thousands of train cars of coal, and found families and communities in economic crisis in every town, large and small. But good news is breaking across our nation in the face of heartbreak and broken dreams.
The Province VIII Deacon’s Conference in Vancouver, WA (June 27-29) was the inspiration for our journey. They invited Kairos and the Poverty Initiative to deliver the keynote and lead workshops as they came together around the theme “Poverty on the Homefront: Service and Solidarity on the Frontline,” asking what an anti-poverty movement led by the poor looks like and what is the role of churches in building up this movement. Under the leadership of the Ven. Gen Grewell, it was a welcoming community of feisty Episcopal deacons eager to address the poverty in their own parishes and beyond. (Never have we felt so welcome to have our children, Myles (5) and Jo (2), with us in a conference.) They were eager to relate service to justice, willing to talk about their own poverty (past and present), and ready to tie together issues and people usually kept apart into a revolutionary social movement. As part of our presentation we spoke on the history of the Poor People’s Campaign and Dr. King’s Riverside Speech where he articulated the triple evils of poverty, racism, and militarism. Of particular interest was the Poor People’s Campaign “Indian Trail,” the caravan originating out of the Pacific Northwest featuring Native American leadership, especially from the Stillguamish Nation.
The diakonate extended this invitation through Poverty Scholar and Union Theological Seminary graduate Aaron Scott, a Postulant to Holy Orders for the vocational diaconate, and her partner, Poverty Scholar and Union Theological Seminary graduate the Rev. Shelly Fayette, who live in Vancouver, WA. Aaron and Shelly welcomed us into their home, life, and revolutionary work, taking excellent care of all four of us.
Among the many things they do, Aaron and Shelly have both been on the picket lines with the brothers and sisters of the ILWU Local 4 (International Longshore and Warehouse Union). Vancouver is one of many port towns on the Columbia River, and one of the principle commodities that come through the port is grain. The ILWU Local 4 workers who handle the shipments of grain at the United Grain terminal have been locked out for over 500 days now, denied their livelihood and right to fair work and wages. We had the honor of meeting with Cager Clabaugh, a rank-and-file ILWU union leader, and learned about the struggle and the role faith leaders have played in support of the workers. Afterward we visited the workers holding down the picket at the United Grain gate. Myles was excited to learn that NYC isn’t the only place with giant inflatable rats. We pray for a quick and just resolution.
On Sunday Colleen preached and led bible study at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, a wonderful congregation in Salem, OR, where Rev. Shelly Fayette is interim associate priest. John and the kids worshiped with Camas Friends Church in Camas, WA with Poverty Scholar and George Fox Seminary professor Pastor Wess Daniels, where John preached on the leadership of Harriet Tubman and Quaker Thomas Garrett. Wess recently completed his PhD at Fuller Theological Seminary and we wish we were students in his August course at Earlham School of Religion on “Poverty, Empire and the Bible.” Among the assigned readings is the Poverty Initiative’s A New and Unsettling Force.
When we think of the leadership of the freedom church of the poor, we think of Aaron and Shelly. And part of that leadership is their ability to seek out other leaders, like Wess, who are doing similar work and asking similar questions. We were excited when they introduced us to and invited us to travel and camp with the Rev. Sarah Monroe. She shared with us her emerging ministry with the poor, in particular the homeless, of Aberdeen, WA. Aberdeen, where deceased Nirvana lead-singer Kurt Cobain grew up, is a small industrial town at the mouth of the Chehalis River. Since the decline of the timber industry and pulp mills, Aberdeen and the surrounding area has suffered economically. Unemployment is high and, for a town its size, Aberdeen has a remarkably large homeless population. Sarah, a native of the county, is committed to ministry engaged with the poor and dispossessed in Aberdeen. From poverty herself, she is a true example of one the many unsung saints and emerging leaders in the movement to end poverty.
Our next stop on our cross-country journey was Kansas City where we joined an exciting exchange between First Baptist Church of Overland Park (Kansas) and West Union Baptist Church (West Virginia), called MC2 (Missional Church Squared). Poverty Scholar pastors Dan Chadwick and Jessica Williams, co-founder of the Poverty Initiative and Union graduate, brought together their congregations for a reimagined mission trip that incorporates the study of poverty and social justice into service. The churches took turns traveling to each other’s towns, sharing the difficult economic conditions they face in their respective communities, examining what the bible envisions for human life, and thinking about the ways in which we are called to be agents of change. We are particularly excited about the ways in which Dan and Jess are finding new ways to lead churches that break down our usual division of our economic lives from our worship lives, refusing to talk about money only in relationship to tithing and the budget. They truly lead with their lives. Jessica and her fabulous husband Justin welcomed all four of us into their home yet again, and Myles in particular appreciates their love of fun and games. They inspire us with their ability to share joy even amidst heartbreak.
As part of our time with MC2, we spent the afternoon at Bethel Neighborhood Center, with leadership from Poverty Scholar and recent seminary graduate Claire Chadwick. We are eager to see her ministry take form out of her clarity about the plight of poverty and the fight for its end. We were also excited to meet with the executive director of MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equality), Lora McDonald. MORE2 has responded to families struggling to make ends meet in Kansas City with several exciting campaigns and has been active in relating to Moral Mondays in North Carolina.
Later down the road, we found good news is inbreaking amidst crisis at the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC under the leadership of Rev. Bryan Combs. We are grateful to former Union board member and long-time Poverty Initiative advisor Mitchell Watson and his wife Kate for introducing us to Haywood Street Congregation whose ministry to the homeless continues to grow by leaps and bounds, including a new respite center for those discharged from the hospital with no place to go to recover from illness.
And we are inspired by the good news in the face of the attack on the poor coming from Moral Mondays and the North Carolina NAACP. We visited fellow Union student Rob Stephens in Raleigh, NC where he continues his work as a NC NAACP Field Secretary. He generously shared his favorite Carolina bar-b-que with us, along with updates on the struggle to save Pungo Hospital led by Belhaven, NC’s Republican mayor Adam O’Neal, the Moral Freedom Summer, and plans for coordinated actions in states across the country later this month.
In our “sea to shining sea” drive we saw so much of what is beautiful about our nation and our people, much of what is praised in America the Beautiful, but these accolades never were the whole story. The song is based on an 1893 poem that included this later-excluded verse:
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
Seventy-three years later Martin Luther King Jr. similarly called our nation to a “revolution of values.” We returned home to our apartment in the shadow of Riverside Church where in 1967 King preached “we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” By God’s grace we can hear that call today. It is clear that we are in crisis with nowhere to hide, but it is equally clear that we are called to respond to our suffering with a social movement led by the poor. We are overwhelmed by the enormity of the task at hand, but we have faith in the emerging religious and community leaders coming to similar conclusions despite being separated by distance and difference. We must unite together, sharing ideas, inspiration, and study. Are you out there doing the same?