Later this week, representatives from the Kairos Center and many other organizations will meet in Modesto, California for the first ever U.S. Regional World Meeting of Popular Movements. Pope Francis will connect with the gathering through video message.

In November of last year, the Kairos Center’s Willie Baptist, along with Maureen Taylor of the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, and the Rev. Claudia de la Cruz, co-founder of the Rebel Diaz Arts Collective, had the opportunity to visit the Vatican for the Third Annual World Meeting of Popular Movements with Pope Francis. The Kairos Center sat down with them after their trip to discuss what happened at the gathering, and what we can learn from it and Pope Francis as we work to build a movement to end poverty led by the poor and dispossessed in our own country.

Kairos Center: What was it like visiting Rome and Vatican City?

Maureen Taylor of Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

Maureen Taylor: The Vatican part was breathless. And that is the truth. The absolute stark beauty, the stark terror of the places that I walked on and we walked on knowing the historical significance of the coliseum, the historical significance of the different fountains, knowing that this is a city that is 2,000 years old plus. The statues and the artifacts and the sculptures, the pictures, all of that. The beauty and the terror in every one of those sculptures and every one of those pictures and every stone that I walked on and every clay stone in the building and every door knob and every artifact, knowing that this was slave labor that produced all of this.  

I mean, the sculpture was able to capture what it looks like to have a cape blowing in the wind and that’s what it looked like.  If I didn’t know any better, I would think statues could walk. That’s how perfect they looked. And then the leaves all across the ceiling. You know, ooh!  The whole environment. The awe of the whole experience is what will stay and will linger with me, for the rest of my life. I mean I am so lucky, so blessed, to have had the opportunity to be there and share in this.

Then the other part was an opportunity to be involved and try and pay attention to some of the other folks that were invited to this affair. There was a moment, more than a moment, where I was not welcome and I knew that. And I knew why. So I didn’t take it personally. I understood what it was. It was a small thing but I understood the message that came out of that. Viva la South America. Viva la whatever. And then viva la United States and the voice trailed off and people booed. And I thought, okay, I’m here representing the United States of America according to folks that are in this room or at least that’s what the implication was.

I wasn’t always welcome. And I kept that. And I knew what that was about. And that is another level of struggle that all of us have to be involved in, you know. I don’t represent what these corporations do, but because I live in the United States at the corner of Wall and Street people sometimes may look at me on an international level, which was new to me, and kind of hold me responsible or you know at least complicit in some of the things that this corporate devil does. So those are my two reflections that I took away from this wonderful experience.

The Rev. Claudia de la Cruz

Claudia de la Cruz: For me it was a very overwhelming experience. I’ll start by thinking a little bit about who was in the room to understand a little bit of the dynamics of what the event was. I think that there were plenty of folks from NGOs that were represented in the space. There were people who provided social services in the space. And then there were folks from what in Latin America and other parts of the world are called popular movements, which is not the same thing as in the context of the United States. The popular movements being grassroots movements. They’re not funded by governments, they’re not funded by anybody but the people in those communities. And so there was definitely a diverse group of people in that space who had a different way of communicating basically the same thing. How capitalism is not in the interest of the people, of the land, and how new proposals are necessary. I feel like that was probably the one commonality of the folks in the room, even though I think Maureen would agree that we don’t necessarily have the same understanding of what capitalism is. But we understand that capitalism is not what’s gonna save the world. Which is a good step in the right direction and the left direction.

So I think that’s important to put forth.  The gathering was around work, housing, and land as three human necessities and human rights.  And most of the people there were expressing how it’s impossible to be able to guarantee these three things in governments that are neo-colonial governments, capitalist governments, fascist governments like there’s the case in Argentina. Folks from Greece spoke about the absurdity and the economic situation which Greece is in which is very similar to the economic situation that Puerto Rico is experiencing. And if you look within the United States the same economic conditions that are being experienced in Detroit, where you have emergency managers and all these other things. So being in the space with a diverse group of folks didn’t take away from a common enemy. And being able to identify and name that enemy was very powerful for me–to be in a space where people understood that there needs to be a new way of doing politics.

KC: What was the event itself like?

Claudia: There was a very impactful moment for me where they had Mass taking place and there were folks from the different representations of different continents there and they all brought symbols of what the working class looks like. And they walked towards the altar and they placed all those symbols on the altar. And one of those symbols was the image of one of the oldest political prisoners in the United States, Oscar López Rivera, a Puerto Rican political prisoner who is in prison for the sole action of fighting for the liberation of his country from colonialism. And when I saw that image there it was kind of crazy because I was saying, we are reclaiming space.  

The folks that were coming up and speaking in that space were also reclaiming space. You had folks in Colombia talking against the corporations that are displacing communities. You had folks from different places in the world that are resisting and are surviving. And that was hopeful. And I’m skeptical about a lot of things and I was also skeptical about the Pope. Not that I haven’t read his stuff, it sounds amazing.  Not that I don’t know that he has an inclination for popular movements and for the poor in the world.  

But there was a moment where he was speaking that I think and I felt on a certain level genuineness from him. Almost as if he had experienced or had somehow been connected to those that he speaks of.  That made me look at him and hear him in another way. I mean, he won me.  I’m not a Catholic, and I don’t think I’ll ever be, but he won me in the sense of knowing we were on the same side. He may not have much of an impact for me in terms of my faith, but I acknowledge how much of a powerful image he is for most people in Latin America and on the North American continent. This man is actually redefining what being Catholic is in terms of the option for the poor. And saying, you know, building a movement is not for the poor. It’s with the poor. It’s actually having them be at the front and center and be the ones to determine what their destiny should look like.

This world needs to be a reflection of those who are the majority which are the poor. So, you know, it was a very impactful space for me. When Pope Francis came down and shook people’s hands … I honestly believe that he is a comrade. He’s a comrade and I think that those of us in movement who haven’t acknowledged just how strong religiosity is in our communities are missing out, and this person, this man who is such a huge symbol in Catholicism which happens to be one of the biggest religions in the world should look at what he is saying and be in a space of supporting this man because I think that within that institution, he is one of the few voices to speak that way. And it might be a dangerous thing for him, to the point where when he left he blessed people but when he left he also asked people to pray for him. And he said, if you don’t pray, send me good vibes. Because it’s very difficult to be in an institution as the Roman Catholic Church and be the head of the Roman Catholic Church and have those types of politics.  And to acknowledge that religion has politics is huge. So I think that movements, social movements, political leftist movements, we have a challenge just moving outside of our comfort zone and looking at this man as a comrade. And helping move the Church more towards the left.  

KC: What did you feel your role at the gathering was, as representatives from the United States?

The Kairos Center's Willie Baptist

Willie Baptist: It was interesting that the way we were introduced was as the work of the Poor People’s Campaign.  The feeling was that if we came in that way from the United States that people could begin to open their eyes to the fact that indeed there are two Americas.  There’s two United States.  One runs roughshod over the world, killing, maiming, exploiting the world. And the other one is us. The people who have not had the opportunity to talk to their brothers and sisters worldwide and figure out how we can come together. And there was a level of consciousness in the Brazilian situation, especially coming out of the leadership of MST that found us a spot at the gathering, and helped find the funding for us to come out there and speak. And we delivered that message.

I think Pope Francis really understood the significance of what we were doing and for that reason he asked for us to come. My estimate is that we are not dealing with a national imperialist-based capital anymore. The dominant force increasingly is global capital and we are up against a global enemy that dominates all over and therefore our struggle is all over. Most of what we deal with in the United States is a lot of groupings that form on a certain issue or ethnic community but they can’t see the bigger picture and don’t understand the enemy in terms of the global dimension. And when you are fighting a global enemy you’ve got to fight globally.

KC: What was the significance of this gathering in terms of the role religion–and, more specifically, Pope Francis–could play in the struggles of the poor and dispossessed?

Willie: The salt of the earth in America are the poor and dispossessed. They are very religious and if you are going to get close to them you have to respect that. And the strength of religion, the history, was definitely there. We saw there in Rome the kind of influence of the Church in particular Pope Francis had inherited, it was just deep. What Maureen described, this was no laughing matter. It was no light matter. It’s a depth you have to understand if you gonna move and influence and work with the bottom. The bottom of the economic ladder from which any kind of change has gotta take place. There has to be a recognition of this religious element. There has to be a battle for the Bible because I think that any other approach that doesn’t include that is just a sectarian, separate, ineffective kind of movement.  

The Kairos Center's Delegation at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Rome, November, 2016.
The Kairos Center's Delegation at the World Meeting of Popular Movements in Rome, November, 2016.

Even though the Church, the organized Church, is traditionally reactionary, especially the Catholic Church with what Maureen described, what Claudia described as years of organized reactionary theology that is embodied in a tremendous way for the world that was there. Whole parts of the Vatican were just gold. Solid gold. I mean, Claudia had to tell me three or four times, that’s all gold. And then talking to Navar, Maureen’s son, I was looking up at one of the marble statues and I said, damn, and that’s all marble. And he said, look at what you’re walking on man. The whole floor was marble. It’s so intense.  It’s so intense you are paralyzed. I mean, that’s the effect it has. You can’t forget it.  Because of all the values that you associate with that, marble, and gold, and that kind of thing. It was all around and it just had that kind of impact.  

So you have this situation of the Church that has a profound influence on people’s thinking and you have a history of organized reaction in the Church. Not only the Catholic Church but all the churches. There’s this history of capitalism and exploitation and most of these churches have adapted to that. And their theology is adapted to that. And here you’ve got this Pope who’s inherited this stuff. He didn’t create it, he inherited this reaction. And he is taking a stand, not of charity but of solidarity. His comment is that the poor not only suffer, the poor fight and we have to join that fight. He talked about working with the poor and not for the poor.

These are the statements he was making and you go back to what he had been saying since he came to be Pope, you know that he’s locked his faith with our faith because the reaction inside that Church, you could feel it.  You’re dealing with Mafia, CIA, all kinds of forces and this guy is bravely set forth. When he said pray for me, he meant it.  Because he is going against everything that the Church has come to represent.

This Pope means we have an opportunity we shouldn’t miss. Every struggle that has been successful has won the battle of religion and won the masses and was able to win the battle of legitimacy. And the powers that be tried everything contrary to prevent them from having legitimacy. But here you have a guy from this Church, who has tremendous authority. This guy’s faith is locked up in ours.

KC: Building on what you’ve said about representing the U.S. in that situation, what can we understand the role of the poor in the U.S. to be now?

Claudia: There was a moment, particularly when they started breaking up the groups, Willie and I looked at each other and said we are going to the English one. And I said no I am going to the Spanish one. I want to be where people are speaking Spanish and are Latino and don’t know the reality of the United States. I think that because there’s such a media blackout within the U.S., outside of the United States, people don’t know what the reality is for the working class and poor people in the U.S. People only know and see what corporate media allows them to see. And so when you start talking to a group of folks from the American continent–not that far, the American continent, Central and South America–and you start saying, there are indigenous people who are struggling right now in North Dakota fighting a pipeline that’s being built that’s going to further poison them and they didn’t know about it.

That’s crazy. But then, if you think about it it’s not that crazy because a lot of people in the United States don’t know about it. So when you think about that and you think about what the United States has done throughout the world for the benefit of profit, then it’s not that difficult to understand. It calls for us as people who are coming from poverty, from the working class, to start making connections. And as Maureen was saying, not take it personal but take it as a moment of education. There’s a need to educate people on what our reality is. And there’s a need for us as U.S. citizens to also educate ourselves of what the U.S. government has done in our name.

KC: The gathering focused on the three areas of work, housing, and land, and later the document released afterwards also discussed water. All of us here are in one way or another connected with the Poor People’s Campaign–is there a global dimension to this campaign that relates to those areas?

Willie: Yes, I think all those four points capture all the questions and the necessity. And even the concept of land is more than just the person who works the land. It has to do with nature, it has to do with water, the environment. Those three areas cover everything that we are trying to cover. Every problem that the working class has in this country, in particular the most impoverished section, is embraced in those three areas. And so there’s a lot where we can work together on.  

I do think that what came to my mind was there was a statement by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King.  He said, We live in a cruelly unjust society–if we can get the poor to take action together, black and white, of all colors, then we can build a force that will be a new and unsettling force. And I think there’s much, much agitation, and much education we have to do.  But that agitation has to be connected with action of the poor themselves. As they begin to move, that’s going to unsettle a lot of the thinking. I think the effort to unite the poor and dispossessed needs to be based on the prolonged economic crisis, which I think ultimately elected Trump, and the need to agitate and educate and organize on that basis is the step that we have to take. And I think that was the mandate of the Pope.  

KC: You said that movements that have neglected the role of religion are missing something. I wonder if you could say more.

Willie: I kept thinking coming through the basilica, where is the Church? Is the Church in the basilica or is the Church in the people? And I think of the fact that the Pope brought people who were not Catholic and were from wherever and were just regular people. It was a statement that is totally in contrast to the organized structure of this gold-filled marble-filled church. And I think religion is not organized religion. Religion is the people and they are very religious even though they might not go to church. And the idea that we surrender our faith to organized religion or to restrict organized religion to the Church I think is a real error. And so I think the question that came to my mind was the phrase that Dr. King pointed out, of the need to develop a ‘freedom church of the poor’. I think what was being said at the gathering was that the Church is everywhere. The Church is not just on Sunday in a building. The Church is out there in the streets. And I think we have to state that again because I think in terms of the language of the bottom who are very religiously shaped, whether they go to church or not, it’s something we have to respect.

Those of us who are religious, we have to really make a battle, help facilitate a battle for the Bible. Because we saw the Bible. The Bible was embroidered in the ceilings of the basilica. All out of context. Every scene of the Bible was up there in gold, you know. But you put it back in context, here is Jesus doing ministry in the ghetto. In the most impoverished area of the Roman Empire. And he’s fighting against a militaristic dictatorship and he gets executed by a military dictatorship for reasons of subversion. And yet there is this notion of theology that to walk in his steps is not to be threatening. To be a real Christian, to walk in his feet is a real threat. I mean you are talking about your life.

That’s what I sensed in Pope Francis, in what he was taking on. I think up until then, I was thinking, ‘okay we are going to see a Pope. He is a politician who effectively reframed the discussion in the Catholic Church away from the molestation and the corruption in the Vatican treasury. He was able to effectively use the issue of the poor and poverty to do that.’ I got a different sense from hearing what the Pope had to say and also seeing how people related to him. They didn’t just relate to him because he was just the Pope. They related to him because he was talking their language. He was talking about them.

You’ve got to say, where is the Church? We gotta say the Church is the people. And that’s what I think the Pope is saying. The Church is the poor. I think this Pope has locked his faith with ours. Our success is his success and his success is our success. I think we have to understand and develop leaders who understand that and know how to play with that kind of politic.

Claudia: We also need to think about Jesus. The historical Jesus being kidnapped by the Church. He has been kidnapped. And what the Pope has done is kind of to unveil that. Jesus has been kidnapped so we need to bring Jesus back to poor communities where he belongs.

I feel like folks who are in the process of movement building and trying to understand politics need to understand that church has always been an instrument. And church is political whether we want it or not. There are politics in the Church that would make Trump nervous. The Catholic Church as an institution is one of the most powerful instruments that has been utilized in history. And if we don’t see that whether we are religious or not, then we are missing out on an instrument that could be transformed into one of liberation.

What I’ve learned from people in Latin America and throughout the world is that there have been people who have sat in those pews and listened to these messages and have afterwards held political meetings in the basements of these churches. So we need to be there, too. It might mean listening to a sermon that’s full of crap that we know isn’t going to liberate, but by doing so we are close to the people we are saying we are fighting with. And a lot of the time we are way more comfortable in our political meetings, in our soap boxes, preaching to the choir and not reaching out to the people that we are saying we are fighting for.

And we have an entire community of folks who are religious not only in Christianity. We are talking about world religions, all sorts of religions, faith traditions that are instruments of the oppressor. And we need to be able to identify where those forces are and subvert them because that’s what Jesus did. He subverted. He went to the temple and he turned shit around. And he reclaimed space and that’s what we’re called to do: reclaim space and walk with people in a very compassionate way. Whether it be a church, a mosque, a Buddhist temple, we need to be with the people.  

KC: Any final comments?

Maureen: Let me say one more thing. See, here is the scary component to going to the Vatican–I didn’t know it would be that way. This dude, he helps legitimize the way we think.  I really like it when Claudia said he is a comrade. He is, but he is scary because you could see he wasn’t afraid. He stands up there saying, ‘Yeah, this is the way I talk all the time, why don’t y’all get with the program.’ And that’s scary. Now, at the end he says, and in conclusion, ‘You know, you all know how to take over stuff and y’all know how to enlighten and educate and stuff. Here’s the blessing, go do your job.’