Everybody’s got a right to live

Reflections on the Poor People’s Campaign and Meeting Jesus in Jail

Rianna singing.On a hot summer Monday in May, my wife Rianna and thirteen others were standing on an intersection outside the legislature in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA blocking traffic and singing a new song. The song encapsulated the reason they were there that day: “Somebody’s hurting my sister and it’s gone on far too long. And we won’t be silent anymore.” The group included college students, veterans, pastors, and elders from Christian Peacemaker Teams, coming from a variety of faith backgrounds and ethnicities. Surrounding them on the sidewalks was a crowd of myself and about fifty people who picked up the tune and joined in the song, supporting those putting themselves in harm’s way by singing and clapping, and making sure they had enough water. To the car drivers honking at us, we chanted: “Traffic is bad, poverty is worse.” After about three hours, the police arrested all fourteen of them and only released them the following day. As she was waiting in the police precinct she could see herself on the news. Across the country, about a hundred people were arrested that day in what historians say was the biggest coordinated act of civil disobedience in recent US history.

Benni negotiating with a car driver

We were inspired by the words of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who said that the moral emergency of poverty in the midst of plenty demands people of conscience break the law, just like an ambulance ignores the red light to save lives. Fifty years ago, just before he was assassinated, King and others had launched the first Poor People’s Campaign as a call for poor people black, brown, and white to come together as “a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life.” That Monday we were in Indianapolis as part of the new Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival to finish the work that King had begun.

A cartoon from the original Poor People's Campaign. "What worries me, senator, is that they're getting into step."The idea for the original Poor People’s Campaign was to bring together poor Americans across the historic divisions of race, religion, and gender to engage in disciplined mass civil disobedience to demand that democracy work for all and the wealth all have produced be shared more equally between all. A song from that time sums it up: “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, because everybody’s got a right to live.” The original Poor People’s Campaign suffered greatly from King’s assassination, and since then, many of the successes have been rolled back. Things have gotten worse for poor people in the United States in the last fifty years since the first Poor People’s Campaign. Which is why we are calling for a national revival to realize the dream that Dr. King and so many others dreamt.

Rev. Dr. William Barber II. and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival leading the Unite the Poor March in Washington DCWe began with forty days of action happening at the same time in forty US states as a powerful way of breaking into the national media cycle. At the rallies impacted people were boldly naming the sins of poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation and the ways they are inextricably connected. Our songs and prayers brought a new spirit to protest that gave it depth and serenity. At the end of the Forty Days, twenty thousand people converged on Washington DC. At the rally, Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis, the co-chairs of the campaign called us to go back to our communities and organize them, just like civil rights activists had down.

As Mennonites we often claim that seeking a just peace is at the center of our work. Yet the historic record also shows that we have often failed to show up in movements for justice. If we really want to be a peace church, we need to show up where people stand up against violence. As seminary students we brought our skills at listening and pastoral care to situations of high stress and trauma. As people of the book, we resonated with this campaign because it understood the power of stories to shape imagination and political decision-making. By letting poor people tell their own stories, we began to put cracks in the dominant story that blames the poor and to expose the violence of a system that keeps people poor in the midst of plenty. As followers of Jesus, we remember that Jesus was a poor man. He preached: “Blessed are the poor, woe to you who are rich” and taught that the way to freedom lies in serving and following the least, the lost, and the left out.

When I reconnected with Rianna after seventeen hours in jail, she was dirty and tired and had a lot to process, but she told me: „When I was in that cell I met Jesus in the women there.“

Further reading and listening:

Some initial rambling reflections on Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR)

Last week Rianna and I participated in a five day training called Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience (STAR) at the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute. Given that I had studied trauma at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in a class on Introduction to Strategic Peacebuilding and Nonviolence I expected to learn some useful practices but not a lot of genuinely new content. I was thinking of it as a kind of refresher on a first aid course. Instead, I left each day with a sense of immense gratitude and with a thousand thoughts swirling around in my head. I truly believe that wide-spread awareness about psychological trauma and resilience is crucial in many areas of life, especially for those involved in movements seeking to bring an end to violence in all forms. In order to process my own experience I am planning to write a number of short pieces which will introduce some of my key learnings and how they relate to movement work. While this is mainly meant for my own processing, I hope it will be useful to others as well. Please help me think by commenting and entering into the conversation.

As an introductory post, I thought I should write a little bit about STAR, its origins and what it is. STAR was developed by the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University after the national collective trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11th 2001. The goal was to develop a program to help first-responders become more aware of the impact of psychological trauma on the people they work with as well as themselves in the form of secondary or vicarious trauma.

But STAR is so much more than just that. It seeks to provide an evidence-based „bio-psycho-social-spiritual framework“ for understanding trauma and resilience. The STAR model integrates the insights of neuroscience on the way the brain functions and how trauma messes up these processes. This research also helped us understand how trauma is held in the body and how it can be released. But STAR also emphasizes the way trauma is a social phenomenon and how groups can hinder or help healing, as well as how religious and spiritual traditions, narratives, and rituals play a role in keeping people stuck in cycles of trauma, or help them break free and strengthen resilience through acknowledgement and reconnection.

Expanding the conventional individualistic and privatized understanding of healing, STAR suggests restorative justice as a way to heal the broken relationship between persons who suffered harms and persons who caused harm, as well as the communities they are embedded in. STAR understands that conflict is a natural part of social existence and necessary to transform unjust structures. Rather than seeking to resolve or manage conflict it suggests the framework of conflict transformation as a way to wage nonviolent conflict to balance power as a necessary step for genuine reconciliation to become possible.

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As a student of peace studies and theology, it was very exciting to have an actual framework that brings together a variety of approaches and practices that are often named together, without thought on how they actually relate to each other. My experience doing jail support for those risking arrest with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival over the summer gave me very fresh impressions of the impact of unhealed trauma in my own body, the bodies of those around me, and the collective bodies of our movements.

The STAR framework begins to provide such a framework in creative and helpful ways, that enables practitioners of diverse fields to understand their own unique contributions as well as their need for others and a coherent strategy. This framework centers trauma awareness and nurturing resilience as the elephant in the room, while also acknowledging the need for systemic transformation. Even though I hope to show that the STAR framework is undertheorized and needs to be further developed, especially in the areas of political analysis and strategies for making systems change, I believe community organizers, activists, and would-be revolutionaries more fluent in these areas can benefit immensely from honest and compassionate dialogue with STAR.

The last two years have been especially rough for people in progressive movements or even just people who care about decency and anyone beyond themselves. This weekend marks the one-year anniversary of the Unite the Right-Rally in Charlottesville with its torch marches and chants specifically designed to trigger the historic trauma of the German Nazis and the Holocaust, culminating in the murder of Heather Heyer and many others being physically and psychologically scarred by white supremacists (who some argue were acting out of their own trauma). That weekend created a collective trauma for the city of Charlottesville, the wider nation, as well as individual traumas for all involved, the effects of trauma are ongoing and are being opened up again as the anniversary comes around and white supremacists assemble this time in DC.

It seems fitting to start a series on trauma, resilience, and social movements on this weekend. May it be a mourning of all we have lost in the struggle, and another step in building a new world within the shell of the old where it is easier to be good.