With two people, then ten, then hundreds, and then thousands, the mission of changing the lives of the downtrodden can do just that.
Dr. Martin Luther King envisioned this same change in 1968. He was intensely passionate about the rights of all people to live with honor. He once described the 1968 Poor People's Campaign as "a new and unsettling force in our complacent national life."
But the Institute for Policy Studies has just released "The Souls of Poor Folk", a social history of the U.S. over past 50 years that shows little progress has been made in combating poverty since the death of MLK. Many feel it is time for another revival — not a religious revival, but one that will initiate a new era of dignity and honor for all people. And so, in 2018, thousands of participants are launching a new Poor People’s Campaign, starting with a season of nonviolent, direct action in more than 30 state capitals across America. The United Religions Initiative (URI) is one of the dozens of organizations that have signed on as an official co-sponsor of the campaign.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival is washing over this nation and at least three URI Cooperation Circle have joined in to help usher in this new era.
This wave of change started on Mother’s Day and continues for 40 days until June 23, culminating with rallies all over the United States. People across the country have been engaging in gatherings to spotlight and protest policies that perpetuate poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation.
Rev. Will McGarvey, Executive Director of the Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County (ICCCC), a Cooperation Circle of URI North American region based in Walnut Creek, Calif., passionately described the continued failure of our lawmakers and policymakers to address the issues that keep people in poverty.
As Rev. McGarvey describes the areas of ineffectual policies, his frustration is palpable. He goes on to describe everything from systemic racism to neighborhoods surrounded by pollution: the poor have been subjected to the effects of bad laws and inherently crippling systems. He believes the time for change is now. Rev. McGarvey feels so strongly about this that he and many other clergy and community members got arrested in Sacramento to raise awareness of this nonviolent campaign.
During these 40 days of change, ICCCC, along with other members of URI, including the Stronger Together Across Traditions and Greater Concord Interfaith Council (GCIC) Cooperation Circles, have stepped up to participate in this campaign in their local arenas.
Each week they have worked to elevate current topics into view, to bring people together to increase awareness and support for these issues. In addition to speakers and rallies, there has been an intense email and letter writing campaign to all the local and national representatives responsible to the people they serve.
The organizers of the Poor People Campaign in New Hampshire also delivered letters to their governor and legislative leadership. Just like ICCCC, they have a strong sense that New Hampshire lawmakers have failed to address a host of issues that affect the state’s low-income population. There is an overall feeling that people in poverty are suffering in many more ways than just being “poor.” Inadequate health care, environmental issues in certain areas and even basic rights, such as voting, are made more difficult for certain groups of people -- these issues and more are being brought into the spotlight with this campaign.
Rev. Jason Wells, Executive Director for the New Hampshire Council of Churches is also very fervent about the Poor People’s Campaign. He is a member of Greater Concord Interfaith Council (GCIC), a Cooperation Circle in Concord, New Hampshire, and one of the Poor People’s Campaign chairs in the state.
“Our [New Hampshire] campaign principles say, ‘We are rooted in a moral analysis based on our deepest religious and constitutional values that demand justice for all. Moral revival is necessary to save the heart and soul of our democracy,’” insisted Rev. Wells. “This campaign unites people of faith and people of no faith, advocates and impacted people. We share a moral vision founded on the love of our neighbor and the Golden Rule. Together, we challenge the immoral voices that blame the poor for their own suffering.”
Several members of GCIC have gotten personally involved in the activities in New Hampshire to share that message of unity. There is a rabbi from the Jewish tradition; pastors, rectors and ministers from the Episcopal, Methodist and Lutheran Churches; and two reverends from the United Church of Christ that have attended weekly events for the Poor People’s Campaign.
And three thousand miles away, ICCCC began their local efforts in one of the poorest parts of our country, focusing on a different issue each week.
Rev. McGarvey heatedly described his frustration with the situation in his community, “We have to address all of the systems that...keep people poor to make a real difference. No one can be left behind, so we have to address child poverty, the disabled, wage stagnation, environmental degradation, veterans, the LGBTQ community, health, jobs, clean air and clean water -- access to helping programs all have to be addressed to lift the boats of the …people... that our economic and political system intentionally forgets or leaves behind.”
ICCCC will culminate their efforts on June 23 with a large rally that will be duplicated in cities and towns all over the United States. Rev. McGarvey plans to have 10 to 12 people speak at this rally about their personal hardships and the effects of poverty in order to help others truly understand their plight.
Bringing these people's stories to life will help the movement grow in Rev. McGarvey's mind. He believes strongly that the Poor People's Campaign season of nonviolent resistance will evolve into a national annual event until the issues have been resolved.
These URI’s Cooperation Circles are working for the same cause even though they are separated by thousands of miles. These organizations have set into motion the ideals and purpose that align with URI’s Principles for action on behalf of the common good, connecting people across religions and cultures in the service of peace and justice. If you are interested in getting involved, the best way to find out about these opportunities and to get engaged is to connect with the Poor People’s Campaign chair in your state.
This piece was written by URI North America Storytelling Intern Robyn Lebron. You can read more of her work here.