The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival co-chairs Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis will convene the next Mass Meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign tomorrow (Monday, November 6) at 6:00 pm PST, at Intellectual House — the Native Life & Tribal Relations Longhouse at the University of Washington. If you aren’t in Seattle, you can watch the livestream of the Mass Meeting here, and pledge to join the Poor People’s Campaign online.
11.3% of the population lives below the federal poverty line in Washington State, including 13.2% of all children. As in the rest of the nation, poverty disproportionately effects people of color — 26.8% of Native Americans in Washington live in poverty, along with 23% of African Americans and 19.5% of Latinx. Yet Washington also has a huge number of poor white residents — 9.8% of the white population lives in poverty. (We should also keep in mind how misleading the federal poverty line is in terms of truly representing what it means to live in poverty in this country.)
One of the primary host organizations of the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington State, Chaplains on the Harbor, has a long history of working to organize the Campaign in Washington and around the country. The Kairos blog has featured a number of posts emerging out of Chaplains on the Harbor’s work in Grays Harbor County, the most economically distressed county in Washington State, including sermons, reflections on the Truth Commission process, and pieces by Aaron Scott, street chaplain and organizer for Chaplains and member of the National Steering Committee of the Poor People’s Campaign. Here are some highlights from those important pieces:
In “The God of Secrecy,” a sermon for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany, Aaron Scott reflected on the New Sanctuary movement and its relationship to other historic sanctuary movements, including the project of Chaplains on the Harbor in Grays Harbor County:
We’ve been working on our own sanctuary project at Chaplains on the Harbor, in Grays Harbor County, for the past few months and I want to offer some thoughts on that in service to Christ Episcopal Church’s discernment on the work of sanctuary. On the Harbor we have committed ourselves to being a sanctuary for the poor. In our context, in a county where logging jobs have been replaced by jail expansions, this means we are a sanctuary for the criminalized poor. We are a sanctuary for impoverished millennials who cannot find living-wage jobs. We are a sanctuary for homeless people in a town that openly despises and brutalizes them. We have locked our church doors against vigilantes hell-bent on scapegoating those without housing as responsible for every social ill in the community. In doing so we have surrounded ourselves with the scrappiest band of street leaders you can imagine. There is a great deal of drama and brawling we must manage to ensure that our sanctuary is also a sanctuary from interpersonal violence. But we are doing it. We are building it. And the results, while not easily quantified, are certainly kingdom-sized.
We do not wait for anybody to get clean or sober or clear up their outstanding warrants before inviting them in for shelter, meals, and the joy and labor of community life. We do not wait for that because God does not wait for that. The psalmist says, “Even now God lifts up my head above my enemies round me.” So we have chosen to be a sanctuary for those concretely, materially surrounded by a whole system of enemies. We are not interested in being a sanctuary for perfect victims because perfect victims do not exist. As poverty deepens and life gets more dangerous on the street, from Aberdeen to The Ave, people are going to have to do more dirt to survive. And at the same they will have a greater need for sanctuary than ever. We have to respond to that here, risky and messy and exhausting as the task may be.
Following a visit of a delegation from the Poor People’s Campaign to Grays Harbor County during the planning process of the Truth Commission there, the Kairos Center’s Shailly Gupta Barnes reflected on the spring festival of Holi in the context of poverty and resistance in Grays Harbor:
It is most likely that the Krishna as God figure assumed the histories and characteristics of many different “Krishnas” who did in fact live on earth. At least one of these people grew up in a village, got in a lot of trouble, and fought in a great war. Even if he was an heroic figure, he would have remembered what it was like to have been raised under a threatening rule, in constant trouble, and feeling insecure about how he looked and who loved him. And if that Krishna – or these many Krishnas – carried those experiences into his divine form, then of course Krishna the deity would fight on the side of those who are being wronged by an unjust system.
Holi must, therefore, also be about this love: a love that refuses to be isolated, that shows and tells the truth of what is at stake when injustice reigns, and that is awakening in the Westports and Grays Harbor Counties across this country.
And after The People’s Trial and Revival in Grays Harbor County was held in May, 2017, Truth Commissioner Rev. Shawna Foster of About Face: Veterans Against the War described her experience of the event:
We held a people’s court hearing. We brought evidence of the systemic failure of those in power. The plaintiffs shared story after story after story of the destruction of their lives and community at the hands of those who are charged to serve the very people they oppress. I acted as judge, along with other faith and moral leaders. We found the evidence sufficient to say that the system must go on trial. The people of Aberdeen and Westport must tell the truth so powerfully that these institutions will be totally revolutionized.
The biggest barrier the poor face is the lie that they have no power. Jesus knew this, which is why he always spoke for the poor as one of the poor. He knew that the poor rising up threatens empire. Those who would wash their hands of us are always the ones in need of redemption from the poor. The people of Chaplains on the Harbor are ready to offer this redemption. They will heroically move forward, not as victims blamed for their circumstances, but as a people who know their circumstances are no accident. They will tell truth to power, and redeem their entire community.
Bob Zellner, a veteran organizer from SNCC, the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968, and the Moral Mondays movement, also reflected on The People’s Trial:
I was honored to serve as a judge at the People’s Trial in Aberdeen, where there has been almost a score of deaths in the poor and homeless community just in the last few months. It gave me the opportunity to talk about similar trials we had during the original Poor People’s Campaign fifty years ago in the deep South. I could say to Rev. Sarah Monroe and the grassroots folks at the trial that they were not alone because freedom is a constant struggle. It is generational.
Finally, Aaron Scott wrote recently on the opioid crisis in Grays Harbor County, in a powerful piece on hope, revolution, and Narcan:
In the previous generation, the resources being extracted were timber and human labor. Today, the resources being extracted are human freedom and sobriety. By keeping large numbers of young, unemployed adults trapped in this ongoing medical, psychological, and legal crisis, the system puts a hurting on people’s ability to organize and demand change.
But it can’t stop us.
We’ve buried fourteen members of our base community in the last twelve months. Many of those deaths were caused by overdose, or by health complications resulting from long-time drug use. When the Poor People’s Campaign sent a delegation out here in May 2017, we had to scrap the first day’s itinerary to perform yet another last-minute funeral. Civil rights veteran Bob Zellner was the first to roll up his sleeves and don an apron washing dishes at the funeral reception. At Chaplains on the Harbor we’ve been forced to learn how to turn organizing tours into funerals, and turn funerals into base building events.
We are sick to death of the funerals. So for the short term, we are leaning on Narcan. For the long term, we are working toward a comprehensive reentry program that connects our brilliant young incarcerated leaders to housing, decent employment, health care, therapy, recovery support, and ongoing popular education upon release. Many of our young adults emerge from prison with skills in carpentry and culinary arts. We seek to hire them to rebuild the physical ruins of Grays Harbor County, to feed local people who are starving in the midst of natural abundance, and to always keep an eye on the horizon by studying and learning from other people’s struggles for liberation. We believe that nobody’s more qualified to be a “restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58) than a kid who’s had to live on the streets for most of their life.
This may sound like an absurd pipe dream, especially for a place so slammed by poverty and heroin, but we have confronted far greater absurdities in this work. And we have also confronted the powerful grit, resilience, and redemptive labor of our community, which we know better than to underestimate. After all, the powers and principalities of this world wouldn’t be working so hard to try and kill us if we weren’t so strong.
For more on organizing the Poor People’s Campaign in Washington State, check out the second episode of AMERICA WILL BE: “Poverty is Violence,” for footage of The People’s Trial in Grays Harbor County earlier this year.
Tomorrow, join us in Seattle for the Washington State Mass Meeting of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, as we continue our call to unite the poor and dispossessed across the nation for a moral revival from below, to end poverty, racism, militarism, and environmental degradation forever.