Reflections on the Poor People’s Campaign and Meeting Jesus in Jail
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.
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.
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.
We 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:
- We were interviewed on Mennonite Church USA’s peacelab podcast about our work with the Poor People’s Campaign.
- Rianna wrote about her experience of getting arrested on radicaldiscipleship.net.
- Benni wrote two bible studies on themes of the Poor People’s Campaign which can be found here at Common Word.