by RJ Lucchesi -
On a balmy Tuesday evening in South Central Los Angeles, it was hot in the church. Throngs of southern Californians descended onto McCarty Memorial Christian Church, filling the pews and spilling out into the aisles to hear Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and many other religious and community leaders speak at a mass meeting called “The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival”. We were all there to hear these leaders preach a word of justice, unity, and action in the name and spirit of a revived Poor People’s Campaign sweeping thru our nation’s progressive arm of the church.
Taking up the call of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s civil rights era movement, the Poor People’s Campaign is a interreligious, secular, moral movement that “chooses community by showing up and questioning the system in which we live. A team of “agitators, organizers, and educators from around the country” have re-ignited Dr. King’s vision for a united front of the “dispossessed of this nation” to organize against the systems and structures that continue the legacy of racism, poverty, environmental degradation and the war economy. Rather than a “helicopter leadership” approach, the Poor People’s Campaign affirms the importance of indigenous community leadership yet with the “mutual support and collective action that can bring us together to solve those problems.” The gathering at McCarty Memorial was one such event, a binding together of those tossed away by the powers and principalities, and the convergence of grassroots organizations that support these communities from within.
This is the event I found myself at after pulling into a full parking lot behind the church, nearly two hours before the doors opened. Arriving so early, I had the opportunity to explore the Gothic Revival space as the buzzing energy of the evening slowly grew. I eventually ventured into the belly of the church where I found many Disciples of Christ leaders breaking bread and fellowshipping with other denominational and community elders. It was a sacred experience to sit and listen amongst some of southern California’s – and indeed the nation’s – foremost proponents of justice, who seemed to share the inner knowing that a burgeoning movement was gaining speed in the era of unhooded Klansmen, and that the evening ahead was a spear point in the fight ahead. Moving out of the bowels of the church, I found that the towering sanctuary space was no longer buzzing but fully percolating, rolling to slow boil as people looked for the few remaining seats amongst the pews. Around a thousand people had filled the space within minutes of the doors opening, and excited chatter full of both angst and hope swirled amongst those gathered. Finding a seat between an elderly African-American lay couple who had been members at McCarty years earlier and a white Lutheran priest wearing a Pride pin, we shared who we were and why we were there as we waited in anticipation for the event to start. As we sat together, people with fans emblazoned with the words “Internet for All” cooled themselves off as the air in the room grew warmer.
The event opened with the organizers embodying the essence of Dr. King’s movement, creating space for all by intentionally incorporating prayer in several different languages, while also supplying childcare and affirming the presence of children as integral to the movement. It was proclaimed, that state to state, “we stand together, because we stand together,” as those representing the range of America’s diversity were called up to the front to represent those present. Movement songs from the original Poor People’s Campaign were sung together, as the words “everybody’s got a right to live, and before this campaign fails, we’ll all go down to jail” filled the space, interchanging the word “live” with work, love, and learn, followed by the declarative “Aint gonna let nobody turn me around.” The intentional invocation of the civil rights movement spirit was as palpable as it was inspiring.
The City of Los Angeles as a land of sacred resistance was affirmed over and over by the prayers and charges of religious and community leaders who followed – from Chicano activists, to Episcopal Priests, to Rabbi’s, to songs sung by indigenous elders, to McCarty’s own Disciple Reverend Eddie Anderson. These leaders all pointed us towards a liberating movement built around the solidarity that emerges from the righteous anger of living under oppression, sounding a call from the ghost of Bonhoeffer to “drive the spoke into the wheel of injustice,” and culminating with Rev. Anderson’s inquiry to the crowd, “Can these dry bones live again?” with the defiant answer “Yes e can! – Si se puede!” One of the co-conveners, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, citing the economic hemorrhaging of so many Los Angelinos called for the massive need for ambulance drivers to “blast thru the red lights of racism, poverty, war, pollution, mass incarceration, homelessness and environmental degradation.” We were asked to drive these ambulances to ensure this movement did not only exist as a moment. Fans in the room picked up speed as the call settled in the space.
A collective inward breath was taken as Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II walked in from the left of the chancel. Although not coming out to speak just yet, Rev. Dr. Barber was creating space for a change in the program and publicly acknowledged the cultural artists who were being moved to the end of the night, as well as taking a moment to edify his co-convener Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis. Having the privilege of hearing Barber – whom in the media has been likened on more than one occasion to the Rev. Dr. King – speak several times, this is something I have seen repeatedly. This is a man whom despite clearly commanding the space, always finds a way to make room for the whole at the table, both with his energy and actions, affirming the presence, gifting, and importance of all those around him. If there is anyone in our modern era who can simultaneously command and make space, it is our own Disciples Prophet Rev. Dr. Barber.
Testimonies from the coalition of those under the wheel of injustice followed this moment, cutting to the core of why the assembly was gathered there that evening. A representative from SEIU Local 2015, a long-term care workers union, spoke of the struggles of living on poverty wages, and that despite working full time, herself and fellow workers are faced with choices on which bill to pay, and which to allow to go default every month. A second witness started as an ally for housing justice, but found herself losing her home, health care and income all at once, turning towards those who had once been the constituents she fought alongside with. This time, she was the one in need of support and solidarity. Her personal testimony filled with the experiences and false capitalist truths that shaped her life brought the same hush that Rev. Dr. Barber’s appearance did, as her own cry in the wilderness rung sharp in the acoustics of McCarty. The temperature rose a few degrees more as I began to wonder if I was the only one feeling the heat of the moment. As a straight, white, fully able, educated male of relatively comfortable means, the further realization of my own complicity in oppressive systems brought my own internal temperature up along with the heat of the space. And yet, the heat of this moment was only that for me, a moment, as where these testifiers lived it every day. A personal reminder of who this movement is for, and led by.
In the air of these testimonies Rev. Dr. Barber returned to the pulpit after an introduction by Rev. Dr. Theoharis, and had us reflect audibly that “Somebody’s hurting my brother, and my sister, it’s gone on far too long, and I won’t be silent anymore.” Rev. Dr. Barber began by charging us as people of faith by words of the Quran, the Gospels, and the Hebrew Bible, continuing to echo the deep interreligious sentiment of the evening. Focusing in on the words of Isaiah read by Jesus in the synagogue, Barber cites one translation describing Isaiah’s proclamation as a “breakthrough”. For Barber, this breakthrough is needed for nothing short of saving the soul of this nation. He goes on to shift our focus from the outward displays of racism of Trump himself to the systemic history of racist oppression, poverty, war economy, mass incarceration, and the destruction of the environment that has been as much a part of America as apple pie. He minces no words when stating that none of this is a development of the past election, but has always been the motivating operant of the powers that be, the powers that are.
Trump is a “symptom of a greater moral malady” for Barber and the movement, citing the re-codification of racism into the laws of the land following reconstructionist policies of the 1870’s. This “call and response” – or movement towards justice and subsequent backlash – is the American way. To give greater context to move people away from what he calls “Trump-itis,” he states that whether it was Barack Obama or Hilary Clinton in office we would still be living in a nation where 37 million Americans are without health care fifty years after the first campaign of the same name. Therefore, Barber and the movement reinforces the need to be sustained and led thru the galvanization and voices of the poor, and it is our job to simply stand alongside. A strong focus of the Poor People’s Campaign is the lack of political capital enabled by a gutted Voting Rights Act, embodied in recent memory by the lack of any substantial debate in the past election cycle around this, poverty, and the devastation of the environment. Despite being in a perpetual filibuster going on over one thousand days now, there was zero representation in the dialogue. Barber’s specificity of knowledge does not just apply to history and the national conversation, but shifts to our own context in California, where he cites the official poverty rate of 15%, the 20% rate when considering the cost of living, and the overall rate of 40% when considering living in or near poverty. The crowd erupted when Rev. Dr. Barber named the sin of preaching a gospel of prosperity when one is not out on the streets fighting against the widespread injustice of poverty. Movements of affirmation amongst the bodies present in the room increased the kinetic energy of the space tenfold.
The Reverend went on, to a place where some in the crowd didn’t expect from the activist preacher. Citing disproportionate percentages of people of color who live in poverty in California – 30% of Latinos, 21% of African Americans, 17% Asian – he adds the 14% of whites that also live in poverty. And in stating in raw numbers, explains that there are more whites objectively living in poverty, yet clearly at a different proportion to the population. Objections from the nave are audible and consistent enough for Rev. Dr. Barber to acknowledge the frustration with “Amen sister, I’m gonna tell all of it, I aint no scared negro preacher now,” to the cheers and laughter of the room. The point he is driving home is that poverty crosses all lines, which for the Poor People’s Campaign is part of the ethos as it intends to build a coalition through creating an awareness that systemic racism fuels a narrative preventing millions of Californians from uniting for their own best self-interest. The point of entry for this movement in its dismantling of these systems that separate is something Barber circles back to – voter suppression.
Barber comes to this conclusion is his discourse via the study of maps and data, clearly showing that the states with the worst offenses in the areas that this moral revival opposes are also in the states with the highest rates of voter suppression. In overlaying the mapped data, a direct correlation is found in this systemically oppressive – legislated! – practice. This is the ills of white supremacy, an ethos embedded into the laws of the land since the era of slavery, again emphasizing to the clustered crowd that this is not about Trump, as despotic and racist as he is. White supremacy is something larger than Trump, something older, something more established, something that has been in the DNA of this nation since before its inception. Barber gives the room a long history lesson to establish this critical point. From the backlash to reconstruction, to Woodrow Wilson and Birth of a Nation, to the commissioning of Confederate monuments in 1917 as symbols of White supremacy. Like Woodrow Wilson, Trump is now a modern sympathizer for the veins of white nationalism in this country.
White supremacy is also something that although being defined by racism, reaches beyond racial oppression and into economic, foreign, and environmental categories as shown by the voter suppression data. For the Poor People’s Campaign and its leaders, changing the laws around voting rights strikes a deadly blow to these evils of white supremacy that still run strong in the lifeblood of this nation. Barber describes how white supremacists are against immigration, they are against voting rights, they are against public school systems, they are against safety nets for everybody, they don’t believe in wages that support life, or health care that supports life, and they support war against black and brown nations. Barber makes it crystal clear in his announcement that the policy of elected officials reflects their propping up of white supremacy in this nation, which is met with loud applause in the space. Barber’s knowledge of history accentuates his persuasive rhetoric, challenging us all up and down the spectrum of politics, calling out progressives who emphasize equality over equity. While to many a position that on the surface seems harmless, in the context of a people that endured three hundred years of slavery, another century of Jim Crow, and continued murder at the hands of the state, is a white supremacist notion itself. Equity, not equality is the answer.
Barber goes on to describe the dismantling of poverty as another key to dismantling racial oppression, citing their co-morbidity through the numbers, and how economic inequality spreads across all contexts. He does this by again giving the raw numbers of poor whites. In doing this, he emphasizes how the narrative of white supremacy separates people from all contexts, even those who share the same economic struggle. All to simply divide and conquer. Barber paints an effective picture of how racism and racializing policy is the most effective tool of white supremacy, who in turn hold many of the keys of economic power in this nation. Naming the distinction of the Affordable Care Act as “Obamacare” is the perfect example for this racialization of policy that keeps poor white people voting against their own self-interests, explains Barber. This extends into the sphere of religious leaders as well, who hide behind religious symbolism and language, but prop up policies that lead to the deaths of thousands. “Don’t call yourself a Christian if you’re not following” he proclaims loudly. The crowd affirms the Reverend with raucous applause as his own energy mirrors the heightened room.
Barber continues to rise the temperature in the room by directing righteous ire at the politicians who deny climate change, but now show their faces in the mainstream media asking for protection for their states who have been wracked by super storms powered by the warming of the ocean. Once again, the people who get hurt most by these cataclysmic storms are the most economically vulnerable he states. As these politicians continually ignore the realities of climate change, they also ignore the economic hurricanes their constituents have been living in for years as well. Barber continues to speak the necessary truths that all in the room need to hear with a visceral, liberating rawness. We must deal with economic and ecological devastations says Barber, as he holds his hand to his cheek and lowers his voice, because the poor, the black, the brown, and the white are all stuck under this wheel.
The American war machine is another target of the movement Rev. Dr. Barber speaks straight to. He describes how since 2001 the American taxpayers have shelled out $8.36 million every hour for our several wars. Every hour, we pay $117 thousand for the war in Iraq alone. By the time it is finished – if ever – estimations are in the several trillions. This a movement that criticizes all responsible, and destroys the false narratives that force impossibly bad choices in the US budget. Barber understands, as many do, that in the absence of our relentless lust for defense spending, we as a nation could essentially solve our health care, educational, and infrastructure crises. And the only way to do this is to shift the soul and culture of our nation around our collective war mongering practices. Proclaiming to political leaders and the room at the same time, he asks collectively, “Are we bullies, or builder?” It is clear where he stands on the agenda of our administration, which he describes as likening righteousness to destruction, describing who he sees in office as a Caesar, an idolater. “We’ve got to have a breakthrough” he proclaims.
To create this breakthrough, we need a moral revival. An interreligious faith can be used for good in this movement, but it’s not a necessity. Barber invokes the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in proclaiming that “the promoting of the common good and general welfare,” is needed to put “our house in order, and the dispossessed of this nation, both white and negro need to come together” to lead it. He goes on to self-identify as conservative, changing the cheers to silence from the crowd. Following a short joke about how he knew he wasn’t going to get an amen for that statement, he goes on to clarify the difference between the essence of what conservative is versus its hijacking into something it’s not. Barber explains that he means he is conservative in the sense of the former, meaning “to hold onto the essence of,” and in relation to Hebrew and Christian sacred texts there is nothing that can be conserved more than the two thousand scriptures relating to the care and positive treatment of the poor and the least of these. So, to be a conservative is to conserve a tradition of commitment to the poor. And yet, those who call themselves this ignore this conversation, “saying so much about what God says so little, and saying so little about what God says so much.” Last time he checked the Reverend says, Jesus was not an original member of the NRA. The essence and measure of our faith for Barber and many of us who follow the first century brown-skinned Palestinian rabbi, is exactly how we stand in relation to those suffering, and especially those suffering in poverty.
Being the historian that he is, Barber traces the roots of this watering down of mainstream American Christianity as a backlash to the growing social gospel movement of the 1930’s. In 1935, a preacher in Los Angeles named James Fifield led his organization – the conservative free market Spiritual Mobilization – in this dilution and corporatization of Christianity in the United States as a countermeasure to the social gospel. This man sought funding from corporations who felt their own heat from the influence of a growing Jesus ethic in society, and received in droves what he sought. These economic powers were intelligent and manipulative enough to study polls and find where much of the influence sat when it came to swaying culture, in the pulpits. But the problem for them, was the prevalence of the social gospel. The question of “what would Jesus do” challenged American capitalism and those who held sway. James Fifield, with his money, had nineteen thousand pulpits bought within ten years’ time, started a radio program, and laid the seeds for the moral majority movement of the Falwells and the like, who we see praying with 45 as he preys on the least of these.
Barber’s voice begins to rise as he states that they would have never gone after the pulpits of justice and those preaching the word of Jesus if it did not hold the power it does, and that we need to take this power back in the public square. A transformative, moral, constitutional movement that influences our society in the way it can and should is needed now more than ever. As the organ hits, Barber preaches it’s not about left vs right but right versus wrong! Issue after issue, Rev. Dr. William Barber dismantles this false dichotomy, as the organ punctuates each necessary moral truth. The truth is never popular and never swallowed easily, but it is what we need to move us collectively into a precise, targeted, and influential moral movement. Proclaiming from Amos, the heat of the church is visible on the preacher, as he dabs sweat from his brow, and as organs continue to play, Barber begins a rising call, calling for a breakthrough from the current narrative, saying loudly “we gotta breakthrough the money, we gotta breakthrough the silence, we gotta breakthrough the bad theology, we gotta breakthrough the hate, until every child is educated, until the sick receive health care, until the poor are lifted and not pushed down, until voting rights are secured, we want a democracy that protects everybody, it’s time for a breakthrough!”
Many of the clergy that were sitting below the church in anticipation earlier in the evening were now up on the chancel, locking arms with one another amid the evenings charismatic crescendo of call after call for breakthroughs in all areas of society. With arms raised around my neighbor’s shoulders, we witness together the rising clergy, the rising people, the rising voices, we can feel the coming of the rising breakthroughs in the heat of the moment. The Rev. Dr. William Barber proclaims in pure charismatic fashion that we are the children of all the moral leaders who have come before us, who are all now dead, so there is no one to take responsibility but all of us present. He is calling, over and over for us to respond to God’s call, the universe’s cry, the cry of society, the cry of the poor, to stand up and move in this moral revival. Calling for a season of civil disobedience, that at least ensures we did not abdicate our responsibility in the process of this breakthrough. Hallelujah and Amen punctuates the expulsion of every breath from the preacher’s lungs.
Sweating, we all committed to the practical call asked at the conclusion of this sermon, laid out on cards, asking for our varied involvement in this movement, from resource support, to social media promotion, to participating in civil disobedience, to organizing communities to action. I am not sure if there was anyone in the room who did not check at least one box on that card. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if most signed up for it all. After concluding with asking for the blessings of the old and young present in the room, and coming together in worship with the music, dance, and spoken word of several cultural artists, the hot bodies poured out into the street, bringing the heat of the Spirit with them and into the world, another mustard seed now planted, and growing in the heart of southern California. With God luring us into righteous action, these seeds will grow into mighty trees that provides a home for the commonwealth of God to nest here amongst us as sacred humanity, on our sacred earth. And we will have taken back what has been taken from so many.
You can commit to support and/or action with The Poor People’s Campaign @ www.poorpeoplescampaign.org
RJ Lucchesi is a second-year seminarian at Claremont School of Theology, and preparing for ordained ministry with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). His academic interests include process thought, biblical hermeneutics, and the intersection of ecology & theology. He lives in San Diego with his wife Andrea, and their cat Sadie.