Poverty and Politics: What Does Religion Have To Do With It ?

presented on February 29, 2004

by Tom and Judy Turnipseed

On January 30th of this year, just 5 days before the first Southern presidential primary, 175 grassroots groups and faith communities came together in Columbia, South Carolina – our home town and the capital city of our state -- bringing thousands of people from across the country to attend the Peoples Agenda for Economic Justice.

It was a first, but I am confident it will not be the last. And it was not just a two-day affair, but the beginning of a collaborative effort in our state and our country to make profound changes in our way of doing business. Together the planners and participants intend to lift up economic justice issues and the plight of those in poverty in this country. We want to help empower poor people and victims of economic injustice everywhere. We want this nation to truly face and solve the problems of affordable housing, living wage jobs, access to health care and quality education, the lack of which prevent some of God’s people from living and flourishing to their full capacity. But we must make some changes in our system to make it so.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has found the United States to be the most unequal society of all industrialized nations. The very rich are getting richer, while wages, benefits, and working conditions for workers at the bottom continue to decrease in comparison. The top 1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 95%. Bill Gates alone has more wealth that 40% of the US population combined, or 120 million people. And as Lloyd Dunham reminded you last week, 35,000,000 people live in poverty in this, the wealthiest country in the world.

A Coalition of the nation’s largest and most influential interfaith, ecumenical and denomination organizations, together with national and local grassroots organizations such as our local ones, the Carolina Peace Resource Center and Fair Share and the national ones such as the Center for Community Change, ACORN, and the Gamaliel Foundation have begun a $15,000 million project of voter registration, voter education, and voter mobilization which will focus on poverty issues and by registering and mobilizing two million new low income voters, will make the poor into the “soccer mom’s of the 2004 election” and offset the impact of the NASCAR dads.

And so they came. Early on Friday morning in front of the Adams Mark Hotel, the march began. Taking part in this first event of the weekend were a phenomenal number of social-political activists, young people, seminarians, religious leaders, entertainers, and hundreds of poor people, all singing, shouting, lifting up banners, carrying on conversations, moving to the Township Auditorium for their chance to be heard !

Megan Joiner, intern in the UUA Office of Advocacy, Washington DC. was one of the marchers. Here’s what she wrote in her journal on the UUA website:

At times during the two days we were there I felt like an interloper – didn’t want anyone to know that I lived in DC, was a member of the gentrification of the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Didn’t want them to know about my white walls, that I can’t really afford to, but I do, write that rent check every month by the tenth. I didn’t want people to know about my parent’s house in Cincinnati, about their jobs or my brother at Yale or my diploma sitting in the now guest room from Wesleyan. I wanted to blend in. And I forgot, until I remembered, that no one really even noticed me. It was not about me. It was not specifically about my family’s house, my apartment, my higher education. It was about the system of privilege inherent in our society, about where other people live, where they work, or don’t, about their families and their struggles…….. That sounds narcissistic; and then I realized…..the conference on economic justice wasn’t about me. Oh my God !!! I want to point out the uneasy feeling I had of meddling in business that is not mine. I have not been familiar with economic injustice. I come from a place of economic privilege. For those reasons it was important for me to be there. I realize that my responsibility is to learn from that place, to listen, and to participate in the work toward equality, toward a more level playing field. It is my responsibility to facilitate the work.

Inside the auditorium now filled to capacity, with marchers really pumped up and excited, the event participants became witness to another unique experience. All of us had been asked to invite and bring with us folks for whom suffering poverty was not theoretical or ideological, but real and who were willing to talk about it, representing the millions who could not be there. . And so the second event of the day’s agenda was a live 90 minute televised conversation between the individual presidential candidates on stage one-at-a- time and people struggling daily with real issues, weighted down in economic distress.

This was not, nor was any other part of the two day’s events, a partisan affair. All of the organizing and participating groups have 501© 3 tax exempt status to protect. It was not about recommending or endorsing the candidates but about giving the poor access to the decision makers who can so affect their lives, coaxing enough people out of the shadows and into the democratic process to bring change to a government that barely acknowledges their existence. So all the candidates were invited. Gephart had dropped out and did not come; Lieberman accepted the invitation but did not show up; Bush did not respond to the invitation. All the others were there and participants in The Candidates Dialogue With America’s families. Maybe you saw it on CNN or MSNBC. They ran it several times.

Our friend Elaine Johnson, a factory shift worker from Orangeburg SC, brought with her a picture of her son Darius, who, unprepared for college, and unable to find a job, joined the military as his only option and was killed in Iraq in November. Her question to the first candidate was about what he would do to create jobs, so that young black men like Darius would have true options and could join the military by choice, not out of a desperate attempt to escape poverty.

Lucille Tucker, a Native American from Montana, wanted answers about health care. Her grandson committed suicide, she said, because insurance would not cover medication for his bi-polar disorder.

James Holloway, a black retired textile worker from South Carolina, wanted to know from another candidate how people in his small town could survive with so many manufacturing jobs moving overseas.

The candidates were quite nervous in this unusual arena (my friends backstage tell me they were pacing, sweating, and literally shaking - but maybe they do that at all the debates) Each was attentive as they listened to the moving testimony and attempted to respond in a meaningful way. If you have listened to any of their rhetoric in debates and speeches or read issue statements since then – I am sure that you have noticed, as we have, that the issues of poverty and of the disparity of wealth in “the two Americas” has begun to take a more central role in the national debate.

After the lights went out and the camera crews left, the real work began – the work that will continue throughout the year and up until November 4th and beyond. Folks loaded up in busses and went to selected low income precincts for some hands-on voter registration and get-out-the-vote work. Most of the 50 volunteers and attendees from our local congregation had never actually done this kind of work, certainly not in their capacity as a church member. They didn’t even know you could. Until preparing for that weekend, most of them thought it was work for the political parties. One of them registered a 70 year old man who has never before voted, and she understood in a new and personal way what participating in democracy meant.

The last event in the evening of an exciting day was the wonderful Interfaith service, where the nine faith traditions represented in Columbia, came together to celebrate our differences and to share a commitment common to us all, to care for the poor, to do justice.

To me doing justice is holy work. It is the place where I find the answer to the question posed in the title of our talk – poverty and politics, what’s religion got to do with it? Our faith calls me to do justice. That can mean caring for the poor with soup kitchens and clothes drives or creating temporary transitional housing, but more importantly it means to work for change in a system which favors some over others, and holds people down, and which limits people from realizing their full human capacity. Our democracy is build on the idea that all are created equal, and not that some have special privileges, special access, at the expense of others. Working for change means to make sure all are full participants in our democracy, that they register to vote, vote, and get others to do likewise, and (especially in Florida and here in Volusia County) monitor the system to ensure its fairness, all so that elections are a true reflection of our democratic society. We hope to make "low voter turnout" a thing of the past. Working for change means insuring access to elected officials for all so that they can hear the issues. It means organizing people. It’s hard work. And I don't believe our work will be over till all God's children have "real" equality of opportunity.

Resources abound. The Interfaith Alliance has published a book recommended by the UUA called 2004 Election Year Handbook, Project Vote has a Guide to Faith-Based Voter Registration and Turnout; the UUA has sent to each congregation information about its voter work called Faithful Democracy.

Bill Sinkford in his fall 2003 Pastoral letter called for UU involvement:

“There is work to be done. I’m not talking about simply affirming the importance of voting, nor of simply promising to vote ourselves. I’m talking about mobilizing to get out there and work to prevent the travesty of the last election from recurring. We want to see this nation’s promise of democracy restored, and to do what we can to ensure that everyone’s vote gets counted.”

With the strength of what we have learned and the connections we made with likeminded grassroots organizations and faith communities and the resources available to us, we in South Carolina are ready to roll up our sleeves and begin the real work.

Are you?

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