Service Title: Winter Offensive: A New Unsettling Force
Preacher/Speaker: Aaron Scott, Chaplains on the Harbor
Scripture: 1 Samuel 2:8

As part of our ongoing Winter Offensive Organizing Drive with the National Union of the Homeless, the Freedom Church of the Poor is gathering leaders from across the country to reflect on how the poor and dispossessed of this country are the new and unsettling force needed to create real systemic change. This past Sunday, November 14, 2021, leaders from Washington state and Pennsylvania reported back on their on-the-ground organizing, and shined a light on how these lessons are reflected in the theologies of the Freedom Church of the Poor and the Bible. During this service, Aaron Scott offered the following reflection on the meaning of the Winter Offensive in and through the organizing work of Chaplains on the Harbor in Gray’s Harbor, Washington.

“The Whole Ash Heap”
God raises up the poor from the dust;
God lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them God has set the world.

(1 Samuel 2:8)

Hi everyone, it’s an honor and a blessing to be here with you all today. My name is Aaron Scott and I’m one of the co-founders at Chaplains on the Harbor. We’re a congregation of about 600 poor, homeless, and incarcerated people in rural Grays Harbor County, Washington State. I’m zooming in from my home on occupied and unceded Duwamish land, and Chaplains on the Harbor is on the ancestral lands of the Coastal Salish peoples— both Quinault and Chehalis.

Two weekends ago at Chaplains on the Harbor we observed our All Saints Day memorial, honoring once again the members of our community who passed away in the last year. Twenty-eight names on our list for the year, and not a single one of them died peacefully of old age, safe and warm in their own bed. This is a small community, and every year the list for this memorial gets longer. Every year the number of overdoses and violent deaths goes up. These are all early, unjust, and preventable deaths—poverty’s most defining aspect. Poverty is a death sentence one way or another. 

I was telling Colleen last week that this list of twenty-eight names just makes a lot of things clear. This list of twenty-eight names is the only litmus test that really matters to me in terms of policy, in terms of our demands, in terms of our preaching. Are we doing anything at all that shortens this list? Are our demands and our organizing strong enough to save the lives of people who have been left to die due to rural disinvestment and medical neglect and criminalization and lack of housing and chemical warfare and mental health crises and unemployment and social violence all at once? Because to save most of the twenty-eight lives on that list we’d have to be serious on all these fronts. And because I loved too many of the people on this list, I keep questioning whether we are that serious.

I respect and defer to the discipline of big-picture strategy so please understand that I am speaking only from my own broken heart when I say that this time of year, every year, I get very weary about “winning the middle.” 

This time of year, every year, I get very weary about zeroing in on our spokespeople in the hottest electoral battlegrounds. 

This time of year, every year, I get very weary about amplifying the stories of the “right kind” of poor people with the most mass appeal. 

This time of year, every year, I get very weary pretending that we don’t do all this even in our own movements. As if, simply because we ascribe to revolutionary politics, we are somehow immune to the ways in which capitalism, through the evil and ingenious use of shame, has weaponized our morality against our honest compassion for our common human vulnerabilities. 

Let me be very explicit by what I mean here. More people are using more drugs this time of year. It’s cold. It’s wet. Especially if you have substandard housing or no housing. Chronic pain is worse. Arthritis is worse. Inflammation of all kinds is worse. Old hurts from old injuries from shitty jobs and shitty ex husbands flare up. Shame and grief about your estrangement from your family flare up. And we all know, as enlisted members of the Winter Offensive, that capitalism at Christmas time just rubs rock salt and nails into those wounds both physically and emotionally. This reality is why the Winter Offensive exists. There isn’t a way to dress that up. This time of year we are organizing to save people from suicide and self-poisoning just as much as we are organizing to save people from freezing to death outside.

It is true that the chemical warfare of the drug economy has been pumped into our communities by design, to destabilize our ability to organize. It is true that the power structure makes a killing off our participation in this economy of death—whether we are consuming or dealing, we are lining their pockets. It is true that our task, wherever we’re working, is to find ways to build a core of leaders on the ground who can somehow remain stable even in the eye of this storm.

It is true that our task, wherever we’re working, is to find ways to build a core of leaders on the ground who can somehow remain stable even in the eye of this storm.

None of that negates our moral and strategic obligation to be participants in God’s love and healing power.

1 Samuel 2:8 says, “God raises up the poor from the dust; God lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor.” 

It does not say “God lifts the needy from most marketable, most stable, most strategically positioned corner of the ash heap.” Everybody’s got a right to live.

So what does that mean for us, as people uniting to build an effective movement? How do we carry the double weight for our communities, of both long-term power building and immediate survival? I know there’s never just one way to do this right, each community finds their own way, but for tonight I want to share how we’ve tried to carry this at Chaplains on the Harbor. 

First: our projects of survival are for everyone. We feed people who are on the run from the law, we shelter people who are actively struggling with addiction, we pastor people of all political persuasions and stripes. That’s how we gather our base. That’s how we make ourselves relevant to people’s daily lives, and how we make ourselves credible when we tell folks we believe everybody’s got a right to live. We roundly reject the framework that says a person has to hit “rock bottom” and be cut off from all support until they get sober, because rock bottom is death for many people. And dead addicts don’t recover.

Second: we walk with people on their journeys of healing and recovery. We don’t set the terms of those journeys—you can’t want something for someone if they don’t want it for themselves. So we meet people wherever they’re at, without shaming or judging people for their struggles with addiction, and if and when a person is able to start that walk toward recovery, we walk alongside them. This looks different for each person: sometimes it means mailing LOTS of reading material into jail, sometimes it means publishing their artwork in our newsletter, sometimes it means giving them a ride to treatment with the clear understanding that a) we love them no matter how it goes and b) we will not give them a ride back home until they graduate. 

Third: for the people who, through a combination of deep work, determination and serious luck in a county with so few resources, are able to access the things they need to recover, we seek to bring them into our leadership core as paid staff—to carry our program forward in new ways, to help us seek out other emerging leaders.

With people in every stage of this model, we are organizing for human rights. We are not only organizing with sober people. We are not only allowing people in recovery to have an active voice or role in our communal life because, in this county, that is not possible—this is a small place, deeply impacted by the drug economy, and there are simply not enough people for us to operate that way. And that gets really hard and really fucking messy sometimes. Holding boundaries is really important. Honoring people’s needs to step back from certain fronts of our work, so that their recovery is not compromised, is really important. But along with the hardness and messiness, there is also real hope and healing that happens. People still in the drug game have a chance to see what life might be like if they got out, because they see their peers doing it and then coming back to give back—by running our shelter and food programs— instead of abandoning those who are still stuck in it. People learn that their lives have value now, and that they are deserving of love and support now, which is the opposite message they’re receiving from the media and elected officials and anti-homeless vigilante groups. And I don’t think I can overstate how important this is because it’s very hard to consider making changes in your life when you don’t believe your life matters right now, wherever you’re at, whoever you are, whatever you’re struggling with.

People learn that their lives have value now, and that they are deserving of love nd support now, which is the opposite message they’re receiving from the media and elected officials and anti-homeless vigilante groups.

This time of year, more than any other, is the time when survival is paramount. That’s why the poverty pimps and demagogues prey on our communities so much harder this time of year—because our desperation and despair are heightened. And we can counter their predation—but we won’t effectively counter it by minimizing the fight to survive. Projects of survival are important year-round but they are most important this time of year: in these long, dark, cold nights, we need to birth a movement that concretely gathers everyone in with warmth and safety and a meal. Long dark nights are some of the best nights to begin the telling of untold stories, and building trust, and showing our communities we mean it when we say that the poor deserve to inherit “a seat of honor.”

Watch the full service from November 14, 2021 here.

Join the Freedom Church of the Poor this Sunday at 6pmET/5pmCT/3pmPT and La Iglesia del Pueblo at 7:30pmET/6:30pmCT/4:30pmPT on the Kairos Center Facebook page.