I want to start this evening with a story from the Bible — from the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 8. But first I want to mention a few things about the setting of this story. This passage comes right after the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus has laid out what matters to God and how God desires the world to be — Matthew 5 proclaims that the poor belong to God’s reign, that those who hunger for justice are finding it, those who mourn are called to organize and will find comfort. Matthew 6 teaches the way Jesus wants us to pray — for the forgiveness of debts, for having the food and housing all of us need and deserve, for building a beautiful land of milk and honey here on earth — not waiting for poverty to end in heaven. Matthew 7 teaches us to do unto others how you would want them to do unto you.

And then Matthew 8 starts with a sick person, a marginalized leper, someone rejected and trodden on by society coming to Jesus and saying, “If you choose, you can heal me.” And Jesus responds, I do choose, and heals him. Then people around Jesus start announcing that they want to join in his revolutionary movement. And Jesus reminds them who he is and where he comes from. He says, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man doesn’t have anywhere to lay his head.”

A biblical scholar I have a ton of respect for says we should read this line as “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man, Jesus, is homeless.” He even suggests that we should read this passage a little more collectively, “Foxes have dens and birds of the air have their nests but humans are the only ones who are homeless.”

Now I start with these Bible passages because I think for too many years we have been blamed for our poverty, we have been called lazy and crazy and stupid. We have been bombarded with the message that if God wanted to end poverty and homelessness, God would do so. We have been lied to and heard that if we just prayed more, and worked harder, and had fewer babies, and did less drugs, we wouldn’t suffer so much.

Jesus reminds us that even if we don’t have housing or adequate food or our kids go to failing schools or the wages we’re paid are too low, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is not God’s will.

But the Bible actually has a different message for us. Jesus reminds us that even if we don’t have housing or adequate food or our kids go to failing schools or the wages we’re paid are too low, it doesn’t have to be this way. This is not God’s will. And it is our responsibility to our community, our country, our God to work for justice and to build a movement that can end poverty, that can end homelessness.

Jesus reminds his followers — the same followers who experience poverty and homelessness just like him — that we are to let our light shine. We are to give our bodies, our minds, our souls to uplifting the human condition. And sacred texts across many faith traditions teach that the way we are to honor God is to be just to our neighbor, to welcome the refugee, to protect the vulnerable, and to organize society around the needs of the poor and down-and-out.

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California Homeless Union
Members and organizers of the California Homeless Union in Paradise, CA last week.

In the 1990s, when I was organizing with the Homeless Union in Philadelphia we had this poster we would hang when we protested and organized and prayed. It read, “Why do we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” and it raised some very important questions for what our society should do in the face of growing poverty and homelessness.

Let us not forget that passage I just referenced above — that if we choose we can heal those marginalized by our economic system. This indeed is true today — perhaps even more possible than it was 2000 years ago. There are more abandoned luxury housing units than homeless people, yet homelessness is at levels higher than during the Great Depression. They can build a pre-fab house in forty-five minutes or 3D print a building these days but tens of thousands of people all over California and in this country are living in homeless encampments.

Indeed, there is an economic emergency in this country and it is worsening. Today, in the year 2019, there are 140 million poor and low-income people in the United States. 250,000 people die from poverty every year — more than from heart attacks and cancer and strokes combined. And 700 people freeze to death on the streets homeless every year. We live in a country that spends 53 cents of every discretionary dollar on the military and less than 15 cents on health, education and anti-poverty programs.

But standing here on MLK Day, Dr. King has a different message for us as well — just like the prophets throughout the ages. Dr. King tells us in times such as these,

We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. And you see, my friends, when you deal with this you begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the oil?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Who owns the iron ore?’ You begin to ask the question, ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?’ These are words that must be said.

Indeed, the only way to honor Dr. King on his 90th birthday, 51 years after he was killed trying to unite and organize the poor of all races, from all places, is to take up the baton and carry it the next mile, to build a revolutionary movement from below led by those most impacted by injustice. We must ask the questions Dr. King asked. Questions like, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that’s two-thirds water?”

I was in Michigan last week with moms and grandmas from Detroit and Flint. Detroit, where tens of thousands of families have their water cut off because they can’t afford to pay their bills. And when they can’t pay their water bill, many of these families are evicted from their homes and many kids are taken away from their parents. Flint has some of the highest water rates in the country but they’re paying for water that’s been poisoned by politicians and corporations and almost five years after they first learned their water has lead in it, they are still without clean water to drink or bathe in.

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Paradise, California
Homes destroyed by the wildfires in Paradise, CA.

And Dr. King asks questions like, “who owns the oil? Who owns the iron ore?” The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival connects five interlocking evils — systemic racism, poverty, militarism and the war economy, the distorted moral narrative, and ecological devastation. Standing in a part of the country that has been devastated by wildfires that were created by climate change — not the behavior of a few people not raking their leaves — we must ask who is responsible for climate change? We must ask why is it that our government has given 20 billion dollars in subsidies to the fossil fuel industry, but virtually nothing to the people who are bearing the brunt of the disasters caused by these energy companies and fossil fuel investors?

And I bet you all have questions that must be raised — why are so many poor in this rich country, why do we have to fight over crumbs when those in power own the bakeries and throw out more food than it takes to feed every man, woman and child in this country? When will this suffering end? What’s it going to take?

I bet you all have questions that must be raised — why are so many poor in this rich country?

When we ask these questions we begin to shift the narrative and shift the narrator. We begin to talk about the real moral issues of our day, the real emergencies of our day, the real crises of our day. We begin to defeat the lies that we should blame immigrants or the homeless or the victims of storms and fires or those who were poor before the storms and fires ever hit for society’s problems, and instead see that if we can help the poor to take action together we can build a movement that can change things for the better for everyone.

We begin to come together. And Dr. King had more to say on this coming together as well. Because you know divide and conquer is not a new tactic. Pitting the poor against each other is not just happening here and today. Pitting the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ poor against each other has happened for a long time. Dr. King says,

You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh’s court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that’s the beginning of getting out of slavery.

Today as we traveled around Northern California — Chico and Paradise and Maryville — I met with people who are coming together and organizing. I can say that I see something happening in Pharaoh’s court today — or Marysville County Court or California’s legislative court. I see people coming together. I see the beginning of getting out of poverty, of the ending of poverty and homelessness and injustice.

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Liz Theoharis
Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis with Sarah Frohock in Paradise, CA.

I see people who, last spring, engaged in the largest wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in the 21st century, the most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in U.S. history — the Poor People’s Campaign. And we didn’t engage in civil disobedience because we thought it was a good idea for us to get arrested another time. We engaged in moral fusion direct action because there are times when we are compelled to challenge unjust laws. To say like we did when I was organizing in the Homeless Union twenty years ago and came to towns and cities where massive evictions were taking place, that if we stay in the homes we’re being evicted from it’s illegal but we will live, but if we get evicted and stay outside on the streets we might be legal but we also might die. To say, in the words of Virginia Fight for $15 worker Nic Smith, our backs are against the wall and all we can do is push.

Let us hear this in some more words by Dr. King:

There comes a time when a moral man can’t obey a law which his conscience tells him is unjust. And I tell you this morning, my friends, that history has moved on, and great moments have often come forth because there were those individuals, in every age, in every generation, who were willing to say “I will be obedient to a higher law.” These men were saying “I must be disobedient to a king in order to be obedient to the King.” … And never forget that everything that Hitler did in Germany was legal! It was legal to do everything that Hitler did to the Jews. It was a law in Germany that Hitler issued himself that it was wrong and illegal to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. But I tell you if I had lived in Hitler’s Germany with my attitude, I would have openly broken that law. I would have practiced civil disobedience. And so it is important to see that there are times when a man-made law is out of harmony with the moral law of the universe, there are times when human law is out of harmony with eternal and divine laws. And when that happens, you have an obligation to break it, and I’m happy that in breaking it, I have some good company. I have Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. I have Jesus and Socrates. And I have all of the early Christians who refused to bow.

So I want to take a few minutes to recognize those of you who have stepped forward and said that you refuse to bow — you refuse to bow to unjust anti-homeless laws and ordinances, you refuse to bow to the unjust closure of emergency shelters, you refuse to bow to leaders who try to divide us with racism and xenophobia and classism. You refuse to bow to racism and sexism and ableism and ageism and heterosexism and environmental injustice and poverty and homelessness.

Because we know from history, and we’re learning now, that somebody is hurting our people and it’s gone on far too long, and we won’t be silent anymore. Everybody’s got a right to live, everybody’s got a right to live, and before this Campaign fails we’ll all go down to jail. And we only get what we’re organized to take.

Thank you for stepping forward. Keep refusing to bow. Keep coming together. Because we may be poor, we may be homeless, we may believe unpopular ideas, but we are powerful and we’re not going anywhere until justice is served.

Homeless, not helpless! I believe that we will win!