Harnessing Our Pain and Putting Our Bodies on the Line for Moral Revival

Rev. Marie Alford-Harkey, President and CEO, Religious Institute

I’m the president of the Religious Institute, a multifaith organization that envisions a world where all bodies and spirits are free from oppression. We work particularly at the intersection of religion and sexual, gender, and reproductive justice.

Last week I felt compelled by our mission and my own Christian faith to participate in non-violent civil disobedience as part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The campaign aims to “nonviolently and morally confront the immoral policies of systemic racism, systemic poverty, the war economy/militarism, ecological devastation, and the distorted moral narrative of so-called Christian/religious nationalism.”

That distorted moral narrative has become a huge concern for me and many other people of faith. The thousands of religious leaders in the Religious Institute’s network know that it is precisely because of our faith that we are called to work for the common good and advocate for people who are pushed to the margins of our society.

As a national partner of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Religious Institute is particularly concerned with the ways poverty exacerbates inequalities and systemic racism against LGBTQ people and women, especially young LGBTQ people and women of color. We know that the majority of homeless youth are LGBTQ and that transgender people in particular are vulnerable to unemployment, poverty, and substandard health care.

As an organization that advocates for reproductive justice, defined as “the human right to maintain personal bodily autonomy, have children, not have children, and parent the children we have in safe and sustainable communities,” we are also concerned with the ways poverty impacts the ability to parent, access to health care, and the environments where we create families. We know that women of color experience are disproportionately affected by poverty. We are also aware of the ways in which Black and Brown bodies are targeted by state violence and regressive reproductive health care policies.

As we work on the Poor People’s Campaign and strive to address economic injustice, the Religious Institute embraces our sacred obligation to liberate the bodies and spirits of all people from the varying and intersecting forms of oppression they experience.

For these reasons, and because my Christian faith calls me to always be in solidarity with people who are being marginalized and harmed, I felt called to put my body on the line with hundreds of people who came together in Washington, D.C. for the kickoff of 40 Days of Moral Action with the Poor People’s Campaign. On Monday May 14, I joined with hundreds of others for non-violent direct action training in the morning. Then at 2 pm, we held a rally on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol. The leaders of the campaign, Rev. Dr. William Barber and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, exhorted us to action and then turned the mic over to people who are affected by our nation’s current disregard for the common good.

For me, the most moving of those testimonies came from Callie Greer, a Black woman from Selma, Alabama. Alabama is one of 18 states that have chosen not to expand Medicaid, leaving many poor people with no way of obtaining health insurance and therefore no affordable health care. Greer’s daughter died of breast cancer because she could not afford health care. At one point in her testimony, Greer said, “Okay, I’m going to strip myself naked. I’m like the woman in the Bible, and I’m wailing for my child.” She cried out from the depths of her grief, outrage, and pain. The emotion was palpable in the crowd around me. As I stood in the sun, looking up at this woman who was willing to share her pain with us, I felt convicted. In the richest country in the world, mothers should not have to travel to the capitol and wail in pain to have lawmakers acknowledge the necessity of providing health care to their children.

The rally ended and those of us who had been trained and were willing to risk arrest began to move toward the street, led by Rev. Dr. Barber and Rev. Dr. Theoharis. The plan was to engage in non-violent direct action and civil disobedience to draw attention to our cause.

As we moved from the grounds of the U.S. Capitol onto First Street, we linked arms. My linked group included a Latinx transwoman, Black clergy, white clergy, minimum wage workers, and a tall Baptist pastor from North Carolina. I was moved to tears once again by our solidarity. It’s not often that people with such diverse backgrounds put our bodies on the line together. As we stood in the street, watching the Capitol Police gather to respond to our civil disobedience, I was sweating, my feet were aching, and I wondered if I could really maintain my solidarity. But Rev. Dr. Barber reminded us that our “suffering” was but a fraction of what many people deal with daily.

And, so, we stood — together — very together, with our sweaty arms linked. We sang. We fanned out. We chanted. Eventually, because we were blocking traffic, the police led us away, one by one. They put bands around our wrists with an officer’s name and a number. The moved us in groups of twelve into pens set up by police barricades in the shade on the Capitol grounds.

There, again, we banded together. We sat (at last) on the ground, told our stories to each other, and waited to be processed. Those of us who were left at 6:30 pm or so were moved to shelter because of an impending storm, and the processing went on. My group was finally released around 8:30 pm. When I returned to our gathering place, I ended up sitting behind Callie Greer.

I tried to tell her how much her testimony had moved me and broken open my heart, but it was hard to find the words. She told me she wanted people to understand that suffering and pain were not things to be ashamed of; that’s why she “stripped herself naked” on that stage. She told me that her pain — the pain of having buried two children — was too valuable to be wasted.

I haven’t been able to get that sentence out of my head. “My pain is too valuable to waste.” Ms. Greer has gone through unimaginable pain, and she told me that she made the choice to use that pain to fuel her fight for justice. She also told me that she mentors and teaches other people to advocate for themselves back in Alabama.

Before I went to Washington, I told people that I was optimistic about the Poor People’s Campaign — that our solidarity and civil disobedience could help change the warped values in the United States. I am even more hopeful now. Surely we can prevail against the forces of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation, and the nation’s distorted morality. I invite you to join the Religious Institute, me, and our network in taking action for LGBTQ and reproductive justice during these forty days. Together, as people on the margins and people of faith and conscience, we can join together to bring about a true moral revival.