The Poor People’s Campaign: A Vision
Earlier this week, I had a meaningful experience participating in the Poor People’s Campaign. Perhaps you’ve heard about this?
The Poor People’s Campaign is a revival of a movement launched by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. In the wake of his assassination, however, the campaign did not move forward. Now, fifty years later, the Poor People’s Campaign is being revived and reconfigured for this era. Its formal title is, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, as it seeks to address the wrongs of
-the war economy, and
Right now, the Poor People’s Campaign is taking place in 30 states in an effort to change the moral narrative, leading ultimately to care of neighbors and tangible policies to address and further dismantle these entrenched realities. The Poor People’s Campaign has crafted 40 days of direct action from May 15-June 23. People are traveling to state capitals; holding rallies that lift up the voices, perspectives, and humanity of people who are directly impacted by immoral policies; and engaging in direct action through civil disobedience. People are visibly placing their bodies in public to advocate for neighbors, and some are willfully risking arrest.
Voices of Directly Impacted People
On Monday, I drove with some friends to Lansing, and I had the gift of participating in this movement. We started with a rally in a park. Many clergy were there, and we stood behind people who are directly impacted by systemic racism, mass incarceration, the removal of DACA protections, and risk of deportation. These individuals lifted up their voices and told their stories.
When organizers invited clergy forward to stand behind these powerful speakers, I was very moved to look to my left and see the Rev. Edward Pinkney next to me. A long time organizer in Benton Harbor, Michigan, Rev. Pinkney was targeted unjustly and falsely accused of altering dates on a recall petition for Benton Harbor’s mayor, James Hightower. The recall was prompted by the mayor’s continued support for tax evasion by the Whirlpool Corporation, which is headquartered in Benton Harbor.
With the smallest amount of evidence, and perhaps even more alarming — the use in court of Rev. Pinkney’s activism as evidence itself (i.e. making an argument that he would be the type of person to do this through his political perspectives alone) — Rev. Pinkney was sentenced to ten years in prison. This drew the attention of organizations like the ACLU, concerned that Rev. Pinkney had been targeted as a political prisoner. He was moved around to several prisons in Michigan, and at one point, confined in a cell that had black mold. While all of this was unjust to him personally, Rev. Pinkney spent several years lifting up the abuses and indignities faced by all prisoners in Michigan. I am pleased to say that his case was formally overturned at the beginning of this month. It was so meaningful to see Rev. Pinkney present at the Poor People’s Campaign, continuing to lift up his voice for the needs of many who are harmed within Michigan’s prisons.
Direct Action and Civil Disobedience
After we had the rally in the park, we marched collectively to the Constitution Hall, a location where many state offices are held. For hours, many marched in a circle in front of the building, articulating a different moral narrative and calling attention to injustices. This took place while some chose civil disobedience and blocked the entrance of the building. They wanted to call attention to these needs by risking arrest.
Eventually, that’s what happened. Some were arrested by the Lansing Police and the Michigan State Police. When people were walked in handcuffs by police to their vehicles, the larger crowd of participants formed an aisle and stood on either side to applaud loudly, giving thanks and adding encouragement to those who chose to be arrested. I noticed that many of the arrested participants were older women. Later, I learned that some of them were Roman Catholic nuns.
Joining with others in 30 states, we will do it all again next Tuesday, May 29, this time calling attention to the militarism, the war economy, and gun violence. You are invited to get involved too wherever you are.
Those who are doing civil disobedience have all gone to mandatory training. They know before they arrive what they are choosing to do. If you feel called to that vision, training events are still happening. But you can also do direct action in support by attending the rallies and/or marching to where the civil disobedience is happening. All tactics for the Poor People’s Campaign are purposefully non-violent. When you show up with your presence, you will learn, and you will bring visibility to these necessary concerns in our nation.
Want to get involved? You can go to this link to sign up, and someone will contact you. You can also search for the Poor People’s Campaign Facebook pages in your state and your local area. (In my local area, here is the Michigan Page and here is the Washtenaw County Page).
Ian and I were sitting at the dinner table a few nights ago, when we had this conversation:
Renee: During the years of the Obama Presidency, I think lots of people in this country became more racist. Beyond unconscious bias, I mean. They consciously became more racist.
Ian: But folks have always been like that.
Renee: Oh, for sure.
It’s clear that the Obama Presidency brought people out of the woodwork who were emboldened when they had a President to “Other” in that way. And the Trump Presidency brought even more people out of the woodwork who are emboldened in their racism.
But I guess I mean this: During the years of the Obama Presidency, White Christian America began to feel as though they were tangibly losing influence, so —
Ian: — Why not then become more Christian?
Ian anticipated what I was going to say, which was that White Christian America doubled down on protecting its whiteness. But if Christians were worried about losing influence, why not become more Christian? In word? In deed? In message? In collective action?
I should say that by “White Christian America” I mean something specific. This is the terminology of Robert P. Jones and the Public Religion Research Institute. In his book The End of White Christian America, Jones argues that changing demographics are impacting the nation in these areas:
1) racial ethnicity in the United States (population trends indicate that by approximately 2045, those deemed as ‘white’ will no longer be a majority of the U.S. population)
2) religious disaffiliation (approximately 22.8% of Americans are no longer formally affiliated with any particular religious organization)
These have paired to raise anxieties among white Christians and their leaders.
Jones argues that in the wake of losing cultural and political influence, White Christian America began to assert its whiteness further and work tangibly to protect it.
Ian’s question has some grief in it. Worried about losing influence. . . ?
Why not then become more Christian?
. . . think about the personhood of the one before you.
Find ways to talk to neighbors. Find other ways to resolve conflict.
I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that it’s rather rare for a sermon to get passed around the way Bishop Curry’s has over these last few days.
After Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, preached the homily at the Royal Wedding on Saturday, his sermon has been shared all over social media. It has made its way into articles for a large number of magazines (also shared on social media), and it has been featured in a lot of prime time news slots — temporarily, I might add, displacing the person who seems to dominate television around the clock.
Bishop Curry preached about the power of love — not just the love between a couple, but the calling to love our neighbors — and he invited those listening to imagine a world where humanity had learned to harness the power of love. It was hopeful and inviting. It was empowering.
I love that Bishop Curry’s sermon brought together massive amounts of people who are not typically a community – that is, the 3,000 or so who were present and the many millions who were watching on television. At the very same time, he dared to be remarkably subversive. Both of these were so moving.
Fred Rogers used to say, “I’m so convinced that the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground. And what we put on the television can, by the Holy Spirit, be translated into what this person needs to hear and see. . .” I think a sense of holy ground was created as 29.2 million people watched and felt a sense of connection with one another. People were moved. Lots of folks who are not overtly religious shared this sermon and spoke to the power of it.
And make no mistake, this sermon was subversive as well. Throughout the sermon, Bishop Curry represented and referenced Black liberation theology as he was in a space historically associated with colonialism, white supremacy, and subjugation. He quoted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and he referenced the influence of enslaved people in the United States. The sermon was powerful for all these reasons too.
This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church in Saline, Michigan and was focused upon the story that is told in Acts 2:1-21. The audio recording is above and a written manuscript is below.
I hear that word weaving its way throughout this entire story. It’s a word that is big, expansive, and at times, remarkably surprising.
It’s right there at the beginning, in the very first sentence of the story: When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. The disciples of Jesus were all in a house together. The twelve disciples were there, likely with other men, women, and children who called themselves disciples too. We don’t know exactly what they were doing when the great, surprising moment of the Spirit came, but we do know that they were together in community. We do know they were all in one place.
They had been doing this together for a while in a season of waiting. Now surely, they couldn’t have anticipated the full power of this moment in all its details, and most likely, they wouldn’t have necessarily expected it to happen that very day. They couldn’t have anticipated this in its entirety, but they were waiting purposefully.
After Jesus died and showed himself unexpectedly raised to new life, he spoke to his disciples, saying, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
So when the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. They were waiting purposefully for the promises of God. But in any given moment, could they have anticipated that the time was right upon them? I bet they were just as stunned as anyone else was that day.
Suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.
I’m sure they were startled.
Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.
What strange, wonderful details.
And that’s when we hear the word again. . .
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
Could they have possibly anticipated this holy moment and what it would be like?
Could they have possibly known how deeply empowered they would become without a moment’s notice?
When the Holy Spirit suddenly entered that room, God empowered them to become witnesses to proclaim this great message of love, liberation, forgiveness, and renewal for the people.
They spoke good news about all these things, and initially, all those who heard them were stunned. Pentecost was an ancient, annual festival of the Jews. People from many different nations were present during this holy moment. They were Jews who lived in other places. They came to Jerusalem from every nation to celebrate this great festival of the harvest.
When the people heard all this sound and these words of love, liberation, forgiveness, and renewal they were shocked. They said, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? So how is it that all of us – all of us, wherever we have come from – are hearing these words in our own languages?” They were stunned by this. The story says, All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, ‘What does this mean?’
So often, when we enter our own celebration of Pentecost and remember this holy moment, we think of this story as a miracle of tongues. Certainly it was, for in this story, the disciples were speaking languages previously unknown to them. But Eric Law, an Episcopalian priest and author, frames this moment in another way. He says that this Pentecost moment was a miracle of the ear. Suddenly, people divided by language, national origin, and cultural upbringing were connected, and all were able to understand one another.
This is a miracle of God, bringing people together so that this message of good news may be known.
This is what they understood:
Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and said to all of them, People of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. (And I love this next part). These people are not drunk as you suppose. It’s only 9 in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel.
And listen as the word all weaves its way through Peter’s speech.
In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.
And Peter closes by saying,
Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.
All who call on the name of the Lord, leaning in the direction of this vision,
shall know love, liberation, forgiveness, and renewal.
That’s what happens in this moment of Pentecost.
Beyond the portion of the text we read today, Peter continues in his speech. He talks about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He talks about love, liberation, forgiveness, and renewal. Peter shares all of this with the people, for God is providing all of these for the people.
And after they heard all of this, the story continues, saying that they were cut to the heart. They said to Peter and the other apostles, “What should we do?” Peter invites them to repent — which means to change one’s mindset — be baptized, and receive the Holy Spirit.
And they do. The story goes on to say,
Those who welcomed his message were baptized, and that day, about three thousand persons were added.
So this day of Pentecost –
the day we are living together –
I keep thinking about this word All
and the power that is within it.
I marvel at the power and the beauty of the large, expansive vision of God.
I marvel at the power and the beauty present
when we are all gathered together,
not simply living a mundane moment,
not simply living one of 52 Sundays on the calendar,
but being present this day and waiting upon God.
I marvel at the power and beauty that takes place
when all are empowered, including those beyond our sanctuary,
perhaps to do things that have seemed impossible.
I marvel when all are able to understand each other,
especially in this world where see so many divisions —
our races and ethnicities,
our class structures,
our political divisions,
our expressions of culture,
our expressions of church culture. . .
What a miracle it is when we are all able to understand one another and our neighbors, and recognize that the Spirit of God can be found in and among all of these human lives.
I marvel at this word:
And it makes me wonder. . .
When we are gathered together — when all of us are in one place — do we expect very much from that experience?
Do we think that anything transformative is possible? Or do we see this gathering as just another run-of-the-mill routine in our lives?
Do I expect very much? Or do I assume that yes, I’m going to be guest preacher, and step into another pulpit, and speak for a while. Go home. . . have lunch. . . and continue in a run-of-the-mill day? Sometimes, I think that way.
Or might we expect that God will show up and expand our vision, our thinking, our understanding of ourselves, and indeed the whole world?
Might it be possible that the love, liberation, forgiveness, and renewal of God might be present, on display, and transformative in ways that are surprising and uplifting? Might that presence of the Spirit help us expand the ways we view our neighbors and understand how we are called to love — breaking open all those ways in which we limit our understandings of who we are and who our neighbors are, ways that we sometimes reduce ourselves or our neighbors?
My goodness, do we think that the Spirit could change us? Even today? Even this very hour? Do we?
I wonder. . .
Yesterday — you might have heard about this — the world had a Royal Wedding. Lots of people in the world, depending on where they live, woke up early or stayed up late to watch this wedding take place live.
And during the wedding, Michael Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopalian Church in the United States, preached the homily. Maybe you heard about this too, because all day long, I saw social media feeds on Facebook and Twitter filled with his presence, as people shared his words and praised the moment. How often these days do we sermons shared so broadly on social media?
In his sermon, Bishop Curry did some things that were unexpected. And who can know all the ways the Spirit might have unexpectedly impacted human hearts in that moment, in his words, and in the particular thoughts and unfolding callings of people around the world? Because millions upon millions of people were watching, all gathered in one place.
Bishop Curry brought the influence of Black liberation theology into the Royal Family, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. and uplifting the witness of American slaves. And Bishop Curry talked universally about the power of love, inviting us into its power. “There is power in love,” he said again and again.
He spoke about fire, and all that has been possible — health, migration, science, medicine, technology — because humanity has harnessed the power of fire. He asked us, What might be possible if humanity began to harness the power of love?
Yes, what might be possible? What unexpected, transformative good news might be possible — for our neighbors, for ourselves, for the whole world? What love? What liberation? What forgiveness? What renewal?
And friends, how can we be a part of it?
Isn’t that one of the questions that is before us today on Pentecost — a day so surprising and wonderful? How can we be a part of this?
So let’s close in the same way we began,
with that opening sentence of the scripture made present to us now:
When the day of Pentecost had come, the people of First Presbyterian Church of Saline were all together in one place.
 I found this image here.
 Eric H.F. Law shares this perspective on Pentecost in his book The Wolf Shall Dwell With the Lamb: A Spirituality for Leadership in a Multicultural Community.
To watch Bishop Curry’s sermon at the Royal Wedding, please click here.
We’ve passed Mother’s Day, I recognize. But I still find myself pondering questions around it all — in part, because I know the day can be acutely painful for many, even as it can be authentically celebratory too.
Though I am writing five days after the date itself, today I want to 1) raise some questions — what might be possible if we opened our frameworks for family much wider? — and I want offer 2) a very powerful prayer voiced by the Rev. Krystal Leedy, my friend and colleague. I believe these words are an example of opening those frameworks, and they represent the array of emotions that are felt on days like Mother’s Day. If the day was challenging or grief-filled for you, I hope you will find this post comforting.
First, some questions. . .
Last Friday, I offered up a post in a Facebook group of young clergy. Because of the context of the group, I raised questions about how we might talk about Mother’s Day in churches. There are a variety of ways to open up frameworks for family and belonging, of course — that is, not only using Christian language — but I wondered if the language of theology might be especially helpful in naming the array of experiences and emotions of Mother’s Day, ultimately expanding the frameworks for family and belonging themselves:
TL:DR Family-of-Choice; The Kin-dom of God; Queering Family; What if we just totally expand what family and belonging can mean this weekend?
Each year in this online community, we have some important posts around this weekend as we approach Mother’s Day. People are wise to name the array of feelings and experiences that folks may bring into our sanctuaries – celebration, longing, grief, connection, estrangement, adoption, birth, infertility, pregnancy, and more – and I know that lots of us ponder how to make space for all of it, because we’re ultimately trying to create an inclusive posture and avoid opportunities for exclusion, especially if people are already feeling pain.
I’ve also appreciated that in other social media spaces this year, people (nod to Layton E. Williams!) have raised questions about why we tend to voice some of these experiences and feelings *only* on Mother’s Day – like, what do we create if we only speak and pray about experiences like infertility on Mother’s Day itself? Of course, we shouldn’t leave such things out, but how might a one-day-per-year mention itself be hurtful? And what might be possible if we talked and prayed about these things at other times of year too?
Along with these good questions and ponderings, I’d also like to raise another set of conversations as well:
What might be possible if found ways to open up what family and belonging look like in the first place? I mean, isn’t that a major piece of our shared faith?
– At times, we use language of the Kin-dom of God.
– We hear Jesus say things like,
“Who are my mother and brothers? Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
“Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age — houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields. . .”
When Jesus saw his mother, and the disciple whom he loved standing near, he said to his mother, “Woman, behold, your son!” Then he said to the disciple, “Behold, your mother!” And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.
– We also see Jesus receiving and blessing children as if they are his own.
Because here is something I feel most years when I walk into sanctuaries, not only on Mother’s Day, but on any of the days we tend to uplift family relationships in worship —
I am immediately reminded that in church, we tend to frame family relationships in the same traditional frameworks as folks do in pretty much every other space. And I know this can hurt.
Alongside our families of birth, there are times when our wider experience of family simply does not fit a lot of these traditional frameworks. For instance — not only in church, but in general — we don’t really have adequate shared language around family-of-choice. How do we make space to celebrate those relationships? Especially when this is actually a very natural and central piece of our faith tradition? I mean, church could actually take the lead on this in some ways.
On traditional family holidays, I think we do a good job at trying to make space for the variety of feelings around family (grief, celebration, etc) but we don’t necessarily do much to open up those frameworks for family themselves — the variety of ways we are connected in kinship, including in the Household of God (I like that the NT uses household language for church!)
What if we did find more ways to open things up?
With all of this in mind. . .
I spent Mother’s Day at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, Texas, and I absolutely loved the Prayers of the People voiced by the Rev. Krystal Leedy. These words, adapted from a prayer by Amy Young, voiced the huge array of emotions that people feel on Mother’s Day. Along with that, the expressive language of the prayer expanded frameworks for family and belonging, even opening wide the word Mother itself. This prayer is spacious. I hope you find yourself in it. With permission, I offer it below:
Let us pray:
God, who like a mother hen gathers all of your children under your wings, hear our prayer on this Mother’s Day, where we experience a wide array of emotion. We know that you are our creator, who continues to form and shape us to be like you, who protects and teaches us to be more like you.
Teach us now on this day to care for those who take on the roles of mothers, for there is no one right way to be a mom, and hear us now as we pray for them and how we may best serve them:
Teach us to celebrate with those who gave birth to a child this year.
Teach us to mourn with those who lost a child this year.
Teach us to appreciate those who are in the trenches with children every day, wearing the badge of food stains, forgetting the sippy cup on top of the car, lifting up little ones to smell their diapers, and comforting humans both little and not so little who cry without reason.
Teach us to mourn with those who experienced loss this year through miscarriage, failed adoptions, or running away.
Lord in your mercy.
Teach us to walk with those who must take the hard path of infertility, fraught with pokes, prods, tears, and disappointment. Forgive us when we say foolish things.
Teach us to thank those who are adoptive moms, foster moms, mentor moms, and spiritual moms for they carry extra.
Teach us to celebrate with those who have a close relationship with their children.
Teach us to sit beside those who have distance from their children for we know their hearts ache.
Lord in your mercy.
Teach us to grieve with those who have lost a mother this year.
Teach us to pray with those whose mamas are sick.
Teach us to acknowledge and respond to those who experienced abuse at the hands of a mother.
Teach us to honor those who live through driving tests, medical tests, and the overall testing of motherhood.
Lord in your mercy.
Teach us to listen to the mothers of Scripture, even if they don’t speak. As we read your word, help us to stand in the shoes of the mother of Jesus, the mother of Peter, the mothers of the Twelve, the mother of Matthias the forgotten, and even the mother of Judas.
Teach us to stand in the midst of grieving and rejoicing with those who have become “empty nesters” this year.
Teach us to anticipate joy with those who are pregnant with new life.
Teach us to be an empathetic friend to the Reh family, and the mother country of Burma that nurtured them for as long as it could. And to be an empathetic friend to Mama Reh who birthed children in a refugee camp in Thailand. Though we cannot imagine, help us to try to put ourselves in her shoes.
Teach us to be a mother to these children of the church that you have entrusted to our care, to teach the faith even when we don’t feel like we know it well enough.
Lord in your mercy.
Teach us to be a good enough Mother Church,* whom you love deeply, in all of our circumstances, and teach us to care as you care for us. Teach us to take good minutes as a church, not because it’s what we’ve always done but because we cannot bear NOT record the good that you are doing in the world. May our notes be a living scrapbook of your goodness. Because in all of these circumstances, you celebrate and stand and grieve and walk beside us. For your life’s example and your saving act of love, we thank you.
*This language was influenced by the Rev. Ted Wardlaw, President of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, in a commencement sermon.
Here is some good news: We can open up these frameworks for family and belonging all the time, even more than one day per year. I hope you find yourself within it.