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Poverty. COVID deaths. Lack of healthcare. The need for immigration reform. Speakers at the Poor People’s Campaign Watch Night service touched on these issues and more while still seeing hope for 2022 as the campaign builds toward a mass assembly and march on DC in June.
“It is Dec. 31, 2021, and we made it, y’all. By the grace of God, we made it, because there are so many who did not,” said Francine Jefferson of the Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign. “In spite of the injustices tossed at us, God has still done some great things.”
She spoke at the service held by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival on New Year’s Eve. Watch night dates to at least 1862, when Black people waited to hear that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. President Lincoln signed the proclamation in September, but his decree declaring that enslaved people in the Confederate state were free took effect on Jan. 1.
Ms. Jefferson’s words were all the more powerful because her sister–in-law, Clara Kincaid, was one of the early victims of COVID. Ms. Kincaid died in April 2020; her family believes she was infected at the chicken processing plant in Canton, Mississippi, where she worked.
“We are still fighting the power in Mississippi,” Ms. Jefferson said. “In Mississippi, the PPC movement has allowed us to build back better before Biden was even elected. … We’ve been sick and tired, but now we are tired of being sick so we educate, we mobilize and we organize and we build on this movement. God is so good.”
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will hold a Mass Poor People’s and Low-Wage Workers’ Assembly and Moral March on Washington on June 18. Faith and moral leaders will join with poor and low-income people to demand that this country lift from the bottom and help the 140 million people who live in poverty or are one emergency away from being poor.
During the service, Bishop William J. Barber II, co-chair of the PPC:NCMR, called for people across the nation to join the assembly and march to “put poor & working people at the center of American life and challenge all of us to reclaim the promise of democracy.”
This “is not a moment but a movement,” he said in prepared remarks. “This is not a day but a declaration: We mobilize to Washington and organize after Washington.
“We come to Washington to nationalize what is happening in the states. We go back home to organize moral fusion movements, grounded in a Third Reconstruction agenda that targets state legislatures, congressional delegations, governors and presidents by calling poor and low-wealth people to vote their power.”
Retired nurse Mary Jane Shanklin said people are mobilizing for June 18th in Kansas because the state “has no health care, basically, for poor people. My mother-in-law went into the hospital with a broken leg and came out with three other diagnoses: hypertension, diabetes and leukemia. And she died two months later. This is what poverty looks like in Kansas.
“As a nurse, I want to say that we have been screaming into the void, asking for healthcare for everybody because healthcare is a human right. We’ve been begging for healthcare for everybody for decades. We have watched as over 500 nurses have died from COVID, and it’s tearing us apart.”
The cries for action – the sound of the ram’s horn or the trumpet blast of liberty – are heard everywhere, from the teachings of Archbishop Tutu and the moral agenda and policy platform of the PPC:NCMR, said Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the PPC:NCMR.
And they’re also heard as she walks with her children “through the streets of New York City, while protests for just wages, housing, paid sick leave, papers not crumbs, and against racism and police brutality continue here. I hear it when I meet people who are tired, angry, and yet, miraculously enough, finding their political voices for the first time and getting involved in a movement for change.”
These collective cries “are a call and a declaration to join” the June 18th march assembly and march – and beyond, she said, “as we build the kind of compelling power to make those in power say yes to health care, voting rights, living wages, adequate housing, immigrant rights, anti-poverty programs when they have been saying no. Our cry is we have no scarcity of resources, just a scarcity of political will. Our cry is to fight poverty, not the poor. Our cry is to move forward together, not one step back.”
Oscar Pineda of the North Carolina PPC said he sees how hard-working undocumented workers are mistreated in the country because he is one.
“I have witnessed and experienced firsthand how hard people in my community work,” Pineda said. “However, regardless of how many hours we work or jobs we have” the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country still face discrimination and have no government benefits and no access to healthcare.
“Immigrants are essential to our communities and, in many cases, to the lifeblood of this country, and we demand meaningful immigration reform.,” he said.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council for Jewish Women, and Rev. Dr. Alvin O’Neal Jackson, executive director of the June march and assembly, offered the official Watch Night message.
Ms. Katz said that people forget that Moses wasn’t really alone when he demanded that the Pharaoh “let my people go.” He had a long people of people who had helped him along the way: midwives, his mother, his daughter-in-law, his sister and his brother Aaron, who became the spiritual leader of the Israelites.
“No great movement for liberation happens because of one single leader,” she said. “It always takes a great, holy community–a Beloved Community, as Rev. Dr. King would put it– to bring transformative change into being.”
She called on those gathered to be the ones to change the world.
“It is our turn, now, to find the courage and power to dismantle the systems of oppression that plague our nation,” she said.
In his prepared remarks, Rev. Jackson called on people to “holler” as they rise up against the pervasive sense of estrangement that runs deep in the country now.
This estrangement “has produced a sense of fear and resentment, an anger and rage, something ugly and evil that has been let loose in the land…it struts and prances unashamedly and unapologetically, boldly in the light of day,” he said.
It’s seen and heard “on airplanes, in school board meetings, on city councils and state legislatures, mob violence and insurrection on the US Capitol, a mob emboldened by hate and lies and racism, but not simply the violent acts of a few, but the spiritual expression of the deadly poison of a seriously sick society – a society whose systems have too often benefited the few and have left out the many.”
Referring to a story in the Gospel of Mark, Rev. Jackson said that while others tell the lie of scarcity, the country has plenty of food and money to pay for education, housing and health care.
“We don’t suffer from scarcity; there is over abundance. All we lack is the will to do what’s right.”
Bishop Barber also is president of Repairers of the Breach, and Rev. Dr. Theoharis is director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. The organizations are co-sponsors of the PPC:NCMR.