It’s been a miserable week. Monday morning at 6 am it began at the Poor People’s Campaign rally with someone reminding me that the Trump administration would that day confirm the transfer of the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In protest of the provocative change in U.S. policy and the conditions of their virtual incarceration in Gaza, over sixty Palestinians were shot and killed and 2700 wounded by Israeli troops on the border. Official U.S. response was to condemn the Palestinian support for Hamas as their true representatives followed by opposition to any U.N. investigation of Palestinian unarmed civilians being shot down by the Israeli Defense Force.
As the week ends, the first death from the ebola virus is confirmed in Mbandaka, Democratic Republic of the Congo where I lived more than two years and have many friends. Monday a friend had posted on Facebook that in the town of Boyeka where he pastors 14 persons, 11 from the same family, had died from ebola back in January and February. Rev. Prosper Elombe’s reports of the deaths to Congolese government health officials had gone unheeded.
Another friend, Dieudonné Boleko, who works in the Disciples of Christ headquarters in Mbandaka wrote on Facebook of Rev. Elombe’s efforts, “No one paid attention to your cries of distress. Finally (with the deaths in the more populated Bikoro area) the national government has awakened and declared the cause to be an ebola outbreak.” On Monday Boleko commented further, “I remember well your warnings and you should now be considered a hero. It’s a disgrace that the health services of the State did nothing.”
Alarmed by the disease’s potential to spread in the city of one million people, international health agencies have now sent equipment to protect those treating the ebola victims in Mbandaka’s Equateur Province. The Disciples Church administers 6 hospitals, 9 maternity centers and 42 health clinics in the Province and its first hospital, established in Bolenge over one hundred years ago, is located only fifteen kilometers from Mbandaka. To educate the populace on ebola’s symptoms, precautions they need to take, and to avoid the overwhelming of the health services by those wanting to be tested for the disease, Dieudonné Boleko is coordinating a team to present information at churches, schools and markets in the Mbandaka area.
The week concluded with the news from Texas that 10 more children had been shot and killed – by a classmate this time – and 10 wounded. As I sat down to write this, I was distracted by thoughts of how the epidemic of mass shootings had become our ebola crisis in this country. As I compared the response to the scourges challenging our two countries, there was little doubt that Congo was far ahead in stemming the spread of ebola. In this country, those favoring the absurdly dangerous proliferation of sophisticated weapons have halted any progress on diagnosing the cause of the U.S. epidemic of mass killing. As a result we lag far behind in agreeing on and implementing measures of prevention or cure.
One diagnosis and cure for the illness afflicting the U.S. has been offered through the leadership of Rev. William Barber and others organizing the nationwide Poor People’s Campaign. I celebrate their reminding us all of Martin Luther King’s diagnosis in 1967: “A nation spending more on weaponry and armaments than on services for the poor and disadvantaged is approaching spiritual death” King declared. As for the cure, King called for, and Barber emphasizes today, the need for “a revolution in values” in this country.
A story told of Dorothy Day casts light on a life dedicated to the “revolution” King envisioned. On inquiring where she might be found in the Catholic Worker house in lower Manhattan, a journalist was told she was in the kitchen. As the writer approached the small gray headed woman helping wash oversized pots, Dorothy Day asked if he wanted to speak with her or the shabbily dressed, homeless man next to her. On recalling the story this time I realized it is not about Day’s humility. In the context of mourning and concern for the devaluing of human lives on display in our international interventions and current U.S. domestic policies, Day’s respect and love for the worn down man with her stood out. Her love for all human beings, all children of her Creator, that drove and shaped her whole life shines forth as the cure we all need.
Respecting the privacy of my Congolese friends, I have changed their names for this blog posting.
“It is not too late to restore our position in the world and recapture our sense of who we are as a nation. Widening and deepening inequality is not driven by immutable economic laws, but by laws we have written ourselves.”
– Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel Prize winner in Economics and Chair of the 2009 U.N. Commission of Reform of the International Monetary and Financial System
It was my last time to read with second grader Jalen at his School at 24th and Prospect in Kansas City. It was my last opportunity to praise an eight year old whose energy and hunger to learn had inspired in me great expectations. The week before, during his spring break, Jalen had visited his five month old brother’s grave. This week, tears streamed down his cheek as he assured me his brother was in heaven. Before I could leave him with some words of encouragement, some troubling questions came to mind.
How often does he find a rat in his bedroom as he searches before sleeping every night? Why has he been so tired recently? Would there be someone to read with him this summer? Would eviction or domestic strife force a move away from the neighborhood before school resumes? Would this second grader reading at a much higher level get the financial help he likely will need to continue his education beyond high school?
If the trend continues of cutting taxes on the wealthy while underfunding our public education system, Jalen may well be one of thousands of American children left behind. More questions come forward. Why has our political discourse now seemingly abandoned progress in bringing about the American ideal of equal opportunity for all children? Why are we as a society more concerned about the effects of tax cuts on our crumbling infrastructure of roads and bridges than we are about the effects on the lives of American children and their parents.
The fact is we haven’t heard much about the poor in recent years. In our latest presidential campaign the major party candidates focused our concern on the shrinking incomes of “the middle class”. How often did you hear a candidate mention the twenty per cent of the population (and some say nearly twenty five per cent of the children) living below the poverty line? Programs in education, health care, housing, and job training providing more opportunity for the poor have been reduced or eliminated in the drive to cut taxes, shrink government, and privatize services.
In the late 50’s and early 60’s, reports on the living conditions of the poor in the U.S. during an era of unprecedented wealth and economic growth resulted in new political and policy priorities. The book by Michael Harrington The Other America: Poverty in the United States was widely read in the Kennedy Administration and helped to lay the ground work for the legislation focused on creating “the good society” through a “war on poverty”.
Today we are all suffering the effects of what Rev. William Barber and others have called the shift from a “war on poverty” to “a war on the poor” since the days of Reagan Administration policies. The focus on our individual self interest and a bogus definition of freedom as represented by a deregulated economy in which every person is out for themselves now prevails over the view that my freedom is bound up with your freedom and your liberation is tied to my own.
In choosing to participate in this spring’s revival of Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign I am not just demonstrating concern for those left behind by the rampant individualism, racism, militarism and economic exploitation of these times. I am marching also with those crying out for sane gun control measures, humane prison conditions and judicial sentencing reform , immigration policy reform, and curtailment of the misguided war on drugs. Rev. Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of Union Seminary, the lead organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign wrote recently, “There needs to be a new moral discourse in this nation – one that says being poor is not a sin but systemic poverty is.”
In the disastrous grip of big money’s influence on our American political and economic life, we must make our concerns and values known in between elections. When the top one per cent of the population receives 52 % of the country’s growth in income, and use their bloated wealth to rig the political process, the only way we save democratic rule by the people and make our system more fair is public protest.
Fifty years ago in leading the organizing of the first Poor People’s Campaign, Martin Luther King called for a revolution in the nation’s values pointing out that “a civilization can flounder as readily in the face of moral and spiritual bankruptcy as it can through financial bankruptcy”. He would certainly agree with those religious leaders today whose recent joint statement lamented the nation’s “political crisis” and declared “if our gospel is not ‘good news for the poor’ it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ”.
Before leaving Jalen this past week, I told him I had high hopes for his future. I also told him the twin of the baby who died is lucky to have him for his big brother. Jalen will do his best to help care for that baby brother who survived. But he will need my help and yours too.
For Further Reading:
Article on the “moral agenda” of the Poor People’s Campaign by Rev. Barber and Rev. Theoharis:
U.S. religious leaders’, including Fr. Richard Rohr’s, statement “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” go to: reclaimingjesus.org
Excellent article by Dr. Joseph Stiglitz “Inequality is not Inevitable” in the NY Times:
Organizers of the Poor People’s Campaign in Missouri are planning demonstrations every Monday from May 14 through June 11 both in Kansas City and at the State Capitol in Jefferson City. For info of what the Poor People’s Campaign is planning in other areas of the U.S. go to:
In the face of Trump administration efforts to roll back or repeal U.S. legislation and government actions to reduce economic inequality, further civil rights and protect the environment, the words and courageous life of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have taken on added weight and importance. Here in Kansas City, this January’s King holiday celebrations of his life and message have been especially well attended. The public gatherings also served this year as an opportunity to call on people to resume the Poor People’s Campaign begun by Dr. King the year of his assassination fifty years ago.
That Poor People’s Campaign mobilized people of many races against the scourges of racism, militarism and materialism and marked King’s expansion of his organizing from the civil rights of African Americans to the human rights of oppressed people world wide. The civil rights leader had long been inspired by the progress of persons overseas in claiming their rights, having early in his ministry made the connection between the struggle of U.S. blacks and those in Africa in opposing colonial rule.
Soon after the 1957 integration of public transportation in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King attended the festivities celebrating the independence of Ghana in West Africa. Ghana was the first English speaking African nation to achieve independence from European colonial rule and Dr. King drew inspiration and strength from this historic advance. One month after Ghana’s Independence Day, on April 7, 1957, he preached at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery on the new nation’s, and our own, march toward freedom and liberation.
“There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom. There is something deep down within the very soul of man that reaches out for Canaan. Men cannot be satisfied with Egypt. They tried to adjust to it for awhile. Many men have vested interests in Egypt, and they are slow to leave. Egypt makes it profitable to them; some people profit by Egypt. The vast majority, the masses of people never profit by Egypt, and they are never content with it. And eventually they rise up and begin to cry out for Canaan’s land.”
Dr. King briefly summarizes in the sermon the five hundred years of slave trading and colonial rule by Britain and the European powers across the continent of Africa. He then describes the struggle of the new nation’s first Prime Minister, Kwame Nkrumah, and the Ghanaian people against colonial rule. Ghana’s opposition to colonial rule and its similarity to the movement for civil rights of African-Americans in the U.S. made a deep impact on Martin Luther King. He shared his reaction with his congregation:
“When Prime Minister Nkrumah stood up before his people out in the polo ground and said, ‘We are no longer a British colony. We are a free, sovereign people,’ all over that vast throng of people we could see tears. And I stood there thinking about so many things. Before I knew it, I started weeping. I was crying for joy. And I knew about all of the struggles, and all of the pain, and all of the agony that these people had gone through for this moment.”
“After Nkrumah had made that final speech, it was about twelve-thirty now. And we walked away. And we could hear little children six years old and old people eighty and ninety years old walking the streets of Accra crying, “Freedom! Freedom!” They couldn’t say it in the sense that we’d say it—many of them don’t speak English too well—but they had their accents and it could ring out, “Free-doom!” They were crying it in a sense that they had never heard it before, and I could hear that old Negro spiritual once more crying out:
Free at last! Free at last!
Great God Almighty, I’m free at last! ..……”
When Dr. King wrote his last book in 1967 that experience was still fresh in his mind. In the book’s final chapter, which he titled “The World House”, he wrote, “What we are seeing now is a freedom explosion…..All over the world like a fever, freedom is spreading in the widest liberation movement in history. The great masses of people are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands……For several centuries the direction of history flowed from the nations and societies of Western Europe out into the rest of the world in ‘conquests’ of various sorts. That period, the era of colonialism is at an end.”
Like no one else, King knew that there were many people in the U.S. who are unaware of or who are opposed to the “freedom explosion” he celebrated in Ghana in 1957. In words as relevant today as when he wrote them in 1967, he declares, “Every society has its protectors of the status quo and its fraternities of the indifferent who are notorious for sleeping through revolutions. But today our very survival depends on our ability to stay awake, to adjust to new ideas, to remain vigilant and to face the challenge of change. The large house in which we live demands that we transform this worldwide neighborhood into a worldwide brotherhood.”
The leaders of the current administration in power in the U.S. not only goad and abuse people of color worldwide; they are trying to turn back the clock on the “freedom explosion”. Like Rip Van Winkles they have slept through “the widest liberation movement in history”. They may never wake up but we, in opposing, resisting and helping set a different course for our nation, we join the “great masses of people (who) are determined to end the exploitation of their races and lands”. And as Dr. King, our scriptures and world history continue to remind us, “the freedom explosion” ultimately will prevail.
Note: “The World House” chapter concludes Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Martin Luther King, Jr., first published in 1968