Poor People’s Campaign Delegation to the Vatican

By The Rev. Dr. WIlliam J. Barber, II, President & Sr. Lecturer of Repairers of the Breach; National Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call For Moral Revival; Pastor, Greenleaf Christian Church; Member of College of Affirming And Accepting Bishops

The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II with Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and other moral leaders at the US Capitol building on Jan. 9 2017, following a #MoralMarch and protest against the nomination of former Sen. Jeff Sessions for US Attorney General.

Along with our sister Mary Kay Henry, International President of the Service Employees International Union, Roz Pelles, Bishop Tonia Rawls, Charmeine Fletcher, the Rev. Shryl Uzzell, Yara Allen, my wife, mother, eldest son, and I traveled to the Vatican’s international conference of trade unions over the American Thanksgiving weekend as a delegation from the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.

We had heard Pope Francis declare that “solidarity, understood in its deepest sense, is a way of making history,” and we sense, as the Scriptures say, that deep calls out to deep when we hear the Holy Father proclaim good news to the poor. Sadly, the tragedy in Egypt interrupted our scheduled audience with Pope Francis last Friday, but we were grateful for our time with Cardinal Peter K.A. Turkson, who delivered greetings from the Holy Father. “I hope that this Congress will produce a synergy able to propose concrete lines of action,” Pope Francis wrote, “starting from the perspective of workers, ways leading to human, integral, sustainable and fraternal development.”

I was grateful for the opportunity to share with workers and faith leaders from around the world the line of action we have committed ourselves to here in the United States. Theo-musicologist Yara Allen, my colleague at Repairers of the Breach, led the Congress in singing “Somebody’s Hurting My Brother, and It’s Gone on Far Too Long.” There was, indeed, a synergy of the Spirit. People from all over the world took off their translation ear pieces, stood and sang together.

We will conclude our four month listening tour on Monday as representatives of our national steering committee and 25 state steering committees join the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis and myself in Washington, DC, for the official launch of Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Join us from wherever you are on livestream and sign up here to receive regular updates as we move into the next phase of this work.

Below is the full text of my remarks to the Vatican Congress:

We are gathered together as faith leaders and trade union leaders because the Holy Father, Pope Francis, has diagnosed the moral crisis of our time as a divide in the human family which is exacerbated by social and economic forces.

• The concentration of income in the hands of a few has become a conspicuous trend in the global economy.

• People “discarded” by our economies hardly interrupt the naïve optimism of the “trickle-down theory.”

• Poverty grows alongside developments in technology that could reduce mortality rates, while hunger increases alongside possibilities of food production at lower costs.

• Personal isolation and anonymity are far too commonplace amidst a plethora of social networks and communications.

• Misery has become the norm for far too many who live in the midst of obscene opulence.

• The super-rich arrogantly praise the market while governments are increasingly unable to impose regulations needed for the common good.

In the context of this moral crisis, Pope Francis has made a global appeal with the encyclical Laudato Si’ “to bring the whole human family together to seek sustainable and integral development.” In his call for the care of our common home, he confronts neoliberalism and its economic theories. He contrasts community with isolated individuals; integrated development (state-society) with the absolute rule of the market; solidarity fellowship and care for each other with hedonistic, consumerist and profligate individualism.

Rightfully, the Pope has noted at the start of the twenty-first century that religious leaders must play a leading role in the struggle for justice in dialogue with all social and political actors. We must articulate a way of thinking that brings together the complexity of the current situation and proposes an action strategy for the construction of a just society. Not only is democracy at stake, but the wellbeing of world itself.

Certain greedy oligarchs in society care only about money now and not death later. They are pouring pornographic sums of money into the campaigns of strong men and strong women with the goal of creating government for profits, not for people. In this context, trade unions must deal with new issues that go beyond just the labor issue.

Trade union organizations must become key factors in the inclusion, participation, and full integration into society of those who do not have “land, roof, and work.” The monumental contribution of Pope Francis framing in Laudato si’ is his clear call to frame work and labor rights in moral terms. This framing merges our most fundamental religious, human, and progressive values. It helps us views the common good as a divine call and moral demand of God to be implemented in the world and worked out in the public square. This reiterates the message at the heart of Jeremiah 22:1–5:

God’s orders: “Go to the royal palace and deliver this Message. Say, ‘Listen to what God says, O King of Judah, you who sit on David’s throne — you and your officials and all the people who go in and out of these palace gates. This is God’s Message: Attend to matters of justice. Set things right between people. Rescue victims from their exploiters. Don’t take advantage of the homeless, the orphans, the widows. Stop the murdering!

Furthermore, the Holy Father’s call reminds us that Jesus in his first public proclamation challenged elitism and the unjust stratification of Roman society by giving a preeminent place and concern for the poor, the broken hearted, the bruised, the oppressed, and all those made to feel unaccepted and denied full participation in the jubilee of justice that God requires.

Pope Francis’ call for solidarity in the movement on multiple social and political battle fronts also challenges the labor movement to have a broader conception of movement building than just fighting to protect industry-based labor rights, as seen though the narrow lens of job sustainability.

Fifty years ago, Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., viewing the world and the cause of justice from a holistic, moral perceptive, declared the need to simultaneously address racism, poverty, and militarism in a Poor People’s Campaign. He called for the labor moment and the civil rights movement and the human rights movement to see themselves as one movement. Sadly, there were those who wanted to limit his vision to civil rights. Many in the labor movement as well as the civil rights movement and the church broke away from him. King called for a global solidarity among blacks, poor people of color, and trade unionist as the only hope for society. He launched the Poor People’s Campaign to unify poor people and moral leaders. He foresaw a movement that could combine empirically-based criticism of systems with mass nonviolent civil disobedience to shock and revive the heart of sociert. But he was shot down while leading a march with garbage workers in Memphis, TN.

I believe Pope Francis’ call for a moral vision of the common good connected to a call for solidarity within the labor union economy and ethos is most important. I join you today as President of Repairers of the Breach and Co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival in the United States. We have identified five areas — five moral diseases that must be addressed if we are to be a people able to address the common good, promote the general welfare, and ensure the common defense, with liberty and justice for all. We must address systemic racism, systemic poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy, and the immoral narrative of extreme religionism.

To address systemic racism, we must unpack the history of chattel slavery in America, sanctioned by the government that rendered individuals solely on the bases of color as subhuman. This was done in order to use their free labor to build an economy that today still impacts the whole world. Without chattels slavery, there would be no America. America would not be the richest nation in the world and it would not have an imprint across the world.

We must address systemic racism as a system rooted in white hegemony and white supremacist polices, not merely in interpersonal relationships. For instance, voter suppression is systemic racism. In our movement we have found empirically that labor cannot be disassociated from the fight for the fundamental right to vote. Every state in the US that has policies of racialized voter suppression also has high poverty rates, low access to labor unions, and the most aggressive attacks denying living wages and health care. Racism is used to divide black, white, brown, and yellow people who should work together.

Where I come from, 250,000 people die each year from low wages. In the richest nation in the world, one out of every two adults make less then and living wage. Beyond just the United States, one-half of the world’s population — more than 3 billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day. One billion children live in poverty, and more than 22,000 die each day because of poverty. We must address poverty as a human scandal, not a divine necessity. Too often our world treats corporations like people and people like things.

We must also address ecological devastation. The number of storms and natural disasters are increasing at alarming rates. And the Roosevelt Institute notes that areas with the highest levels of poverty make the greatness impact on ecological devastation.

And we must address the war that is consistently perpetuated by the military industrial complex. In America alone 54% of all discretionary taxes collected by the government each year goes toward war, not health care, living wages, or public education.

Finally, we have a public morality that has been distorted by extreme religionism, which attempts to hijack our deepest values and suggest that we blame the poor for their problems because of personal failures.

These five areas must be address within the context of a movement both in the United States and around the world. Pope Francis’ call for solidarity and a unity approach is critical in this moment. Labor and trade unions must embrace what we call a “fusion movement” approach.

We must challenge inter-locking injustices with an intersectional approach. It is an ecology of the society that dares to see anti-racism, anti-poverty, pro-justice, living wages, labor rights, environmental and ecological justice, educational equity, critique of war mongering, fair immigration laws, universal health care as a human right, voting rights, and access to the ballot as one movement. Our response has been to build a Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which will include 40-days of solidarity with the poor, with moral leadership from clergy, labor, advocates, and academics in twenty-five US states and the District of Columbia. This movement aims to galvanizing a thousand people in each state — twenty-five thousand in total — who will engage in issue and agenda-based nonviolent civil disobedience in state capitals and the nation’s capital to shift the moral narrative. Until our moral narrative is shifted, the agenda for our society will be limited and uninformed.

We must have in every nation a Poor People’s March rooted in the goal of subversive hope that gives people the power to challenge the despair of injustice. There can be no prophetic implementation without revolutionary, nonviolent movements that birth prophetic imagination. Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ further inspires the effort. But even before the current Pope, God sent a Prophet named Amos in a time of greed and narcissistic leadership to summing the people to action.

Amos 5:14–17

Seek good and not evil —

and live!

You talk about God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,

being your best friend.

Well, live like it,

and maybe it will happen.

Hate evil and love good,

then work it out in the public square.

Maybe God, the God-of-the-Angel-Armies,

will notice your remnant and be gracious.

Now again, my Master’s Message, God, God-of-the-Angel-Armies:

“Go out into the streets and lament loudly!

Fill the malls and shops with cries of doom!

Weep loudly, ‘Not me! Not us, Not now!’

Empty offices, stores, factories, workplaces.

Enlist everyone in the general lament.

I want to hear it loud and clear when I make my visit.”

God’s Decree.

If we desire to change injustice, there must be a remnant of people who dare to see the struggle for our common good as a moral necessity. God’s Decree requires us to put our bodies on the line in the streets, but it also comes with a promise: when we cry out in the malls and streets, God will visit us.