Pope Francis’s call for a series of meetings to bring together thousands of leaders from popular global movements is a recognition that the poor and dispossessed across the world face a common enemy — the system of global capitalism that is causing enormous suffering for the human family. In his address to the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Modesto, CA this past February, Francis’s reference to the parable of the Good Samaritan did not suggest a mere charitable response to the problems at hand, but advocated a structural critique that has been echoed in our own movement history by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when he explained,
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s road side, but that will only be an initial act. One day the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be beaten and robbed as they make their journey through life. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar, it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. (MLK, “The Three Evils of Society,” August 1967)
It is in this context that Pope Francis challenged the crowd gathered in Modesto to think deeply about “who is our neighbor” in a moment when walls of exclusion, indifference, racism, and intolerance are growing. In asking this question, Pope Francis condemned the system that normalizes and legitimizes poverty, homelessness, xenophobia and racism while the people experiencing these offenses are being criminalized and deemed illegal.
The appeal to recognize “the other” as our neighbor was not only a critique of rising extremism, but also a challenge to existing organizing models in the United States that have been consumed by issue-based and identity-based organizing. Like Dr. King before him, Pope Francis was acknowledging that the whole Jericho Road needs restructuring.
The need to build strategic unity that can challenge the death-dealing power structure in the United States was a theme that echoed throughout the gathering of popular movements in Modesto. From panels on racism and migration, to sessions focused on low wage work, low-income housing, and environmental displacement, there were ongoing attempts to illuminate the connections that existed between our struggles.
Yet participants like Lorena Melgarejo of San Francisco reminded the gathering that we are not yet unified, not really. Lorena noted that the assault people are experiencing since November’s election is not new. For years, people have been being evicted from their homes, deported for “illegal immigration,” made victims of over incarceration and medical neglect. And we in the United States have let this happen. The challenge Lorena put forth to those gathered was to tear down the walls of indifference — to begin to truly understand that we are each other’s neighbors. We cannot continue to work in our organizing silos, but must find meaningful ways to stand in solidarity with one another.
In order to meet this demand — to become each other’s neighbors — the World Meetings of Popular Movements took up a framework set forth by the Latin American Church to “see,” “judge,” and “act.” Reclaiming this praxis of liberation theology, the WMPMs are coming together with grassroots struggles and challenging the Church to more clearly see the situation that millions of people across this country and around the world are facing.
What was revealed in the testimonies offered by various panelists throughout the weekend was that we are all being maimed by a system that values profit above human life and dignity. From Jose Arrellano’s gut wrenching tale of gang life in Los Angeles as a child in the early 90s to the Nayyirah Shariff’s account of the horrific conditions that have plagued Flint residents since the water crisis began in 2014 — their stories revealed how we are experiencing different effects of same crisis.
The belief that poverty and inequality are contrary to the will of God is dependent on our ability to analyze the historical conditions that create impoverishment and to connect with what the poor are doing to fight back against this unjust reality. The attention to the poor in liberation theology is not about what the Church can do for the poor, but rather is a recognition that the poor — who are often made invisible by the larger society, whose rights are often denied, and whose dignity is overlooked — are responding out of necessity to the contradictions of inequality through their lived experiences. It is these experiences that must lead the collective way forward.
This is why leaders from across the New Poor People’s Campaign — from organizations that included Blocks Together, Fight for $15, Picture the Homeless, United Workers, the Kairos Center, and Repairers of the Breach — participated in the Modesto gathering. The NPPC takes seriously God’s preferential option for the poor and argues that it is our right not to be poor in a society where great abundance exists. For this reason, we must recognize the signs of the times and, as Bishop McElroy so boldly proclaimed, we must become disrupters of a system that continues to produce wealth and power for a few and suffering and death for many.
In his remarks offered on Saturday morning, Bishop McElroy explained that he often drew pushback when he quoted Francis in saying the current economy is “one that kills,” that people accused him of exaggerating what was meant merely as a figure of speech. He then asked those assembled to close their eyes and think of someone they know who has been killed by the economy: “A senior who can’t afford medicine or rent. A mother or father who is dying working two and three jobs, and really dying because even then they can’t provide for their kids. Young people who can’t find their way in the world in which there is no job for them, and they turn to drugs and gangs and suicide.”
Such judgement is necessary if we are to confront the unjust structures that protect global capitalism. The grassroots leaders who testified about the conditions they face in communities across the United States not only spoke to the suffering they experience, but also took a reflective step to ask who benefits from the established structures that create suffering in U.S. society and around the world?
But disruption is only the first step. We must also become rebuilders. Bishop McElroy continued, “We have to rebuild this nation so that we place at its heart the service to the dignity of the human person and assert what the American flag behind us asserts is our heritage: Every man, woman and child is equal in this nation and called to be equal.”
This call to build real transformative unity is not a utopian ideal that overlooks the particularities of our struggles, but — if following the lead of those in the struggle — becomes a strategic endeavor that can learn from the movements of the poor and dispossessed and, as Pope Francis suggests, can begin to systemically heal the social wounds and confront the structures that leave so many brothers and sisters by the wayside.
The New Poor People’s Campaign recognizes this call for unity as a strategic act of the poor and dispossessed to disrupt the death-dealing system of global capitalism and to build a new society that values true compassion and solidarity. The Pope’s call for popular movements to come together requires us to deepen our understanding of the diverse struggles of the poor and dispossessed of all races, of all creeds, of urban, rural, and suburban communities alike. In seeing clearly the enemy we are up against, we will find shared interests that will enable us to break our isolation and work together to build a society that chooses bridges over walls, action over indifference, community over exclusion, and life over death.
Click here for a Bible study developed by the Kairos Center to foster conversations about the biblical and theological significance of the New Poor People’s Campaign, inspired by the Pope’s references to the Good Samaritan at the Modesto gathering. It is also available for download in PDF form here.