Rev. Jennifer Bailey is the founder of the Faith Matters Network, a new initiative that is building the power of people of faith to transform their social and economic system across the Southern US. She took part in the Poor People’s Campaign reconnaissance tour of the Gulf Coast in November 2014. These are some of her reflections.
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During my time on the Gulf Coast I learned that for poor people in New Orleans time is measured by its proximity to “The Storm”. My teachers were members of Stand with Dignity, a grass-roots organization of low-income residents and workers in New Orleans. “The Storm” in question of course is Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 disaster that exposed in images and video clips that which poor people along the Gulf Coast had known for a long time: that worth in America is measured by your income not your humanity. The days, weeks, and months that followed saw an onslaught of support. Communities rallied one another. National organizations mobilized food and clothing drives for survivors. Volunteers helped gut homes and clear away debris. I was one of those volunteers. In the spring of 2006, I opted out of the spring break to the beach in favor of a mission trip to New Orleans with the campus ministry at my college. We tore down dry wall and threw what remained of people’s lives into large plastic bags to be carried away to the nearest trash facility. I wondered then when the people’s whose lives we were carting away would finally come home. Eight years later, I realized that the question I should have posed is if they would have the chance to come home.
As the floodwaters receded, the national gaze on the region shifted. New Orleans became branded as a land of capitalist opportunity. Volunteer groups were replaced by ambitious contractors seizing the chance to replace destroyed low-income homes with housing catered to wealthy and middle-class newcomers. Public education was replaced by independent charter schools funded by equally ambitious education reformers looking to New Orleans as a chance to test new technologies and strategies with relatively little accountability. Those New Orleans natives that were able to gather the resources to return home found themselves unwitting participants in a grand experiment, which they had no say in designing.
It comes as little surprise then that as our delegation met with home-grown organizers across the Gulf Coast, we were greeted with caution and in some cases outright suspicion. On more than one occasion, we were challenged to examine the true motivations behind our trip and our long-term investment in working along the Gulf Coast. We were pushed and examined. We were tested and questioned. I would not have had it any other way. During my seminary days, one of the first concepts I learned as a black woman interested in the prophetic tradition of Christianity was to employ a “hermeneutic of suspicion” in my approach to the Christian traditions many unwittingly accept without critical engagement. Those of us whose identities place us on the margins of society do not have the luxury of blind acceptance. History has shown that unexamined religion can be a weapon of the powerful to oppress the vulnerable. Yet history also teaches us that faith can be a tool for liberation for those who test the truth claims of their faith traditions by examining if they can read the truth of their own experiences in the narrative.
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Those interested in helping facilitate social and economic transformation in their communities could learn a lot from our sisters and brothers in New Orleans. Too often suspicion is framed as a distraction from collaboration and a tool of breeding mistrust among groups. I suggest, however, that if employed with diligence suspicion can be an asset to movement-building. Employing a hermeneutic of suspicion to our programs means interrogating the why of our interventions and dig deeply into the question of who those programs are serving. Is our primary audience for the work our funders, the intended communities, or our own self-interest? Suspicion can also be a tool for auditing our personal motivations for engaging in the work of building a more just, compassionate, and sustainable society. Our intentions matter because they drive our action. Suspicion can help us ask the right questions and hold ourselves and one another accountable to the communities we serve.