North Carolina Religious and Community Leaders Galvanized by Struggle to Forward a Truly Moral Platform Across Left and Right in Era of Growing Poverty and Inequality.
by John Wessel-McCoy, organizer for the Poverty Initiative
“Our preaching and teaching must address the injustices of poverty, domination, inequality, and denial of health care that still impacts our social reality.” – Rev. Dr. William Barber, II
On Monday, December 9, a small delegation from the Poverty Initiative and Kairos Center for Rights, Religions, and Social Justice (Larry Cox, Colleen, John, and Josephine Wessel-McCoy) attended the Moral Mondays / Forward Together Movement briefing in Raleigh, NC. By 10 AM, the fellowship hall of Martin Street Baptist Church was crowded with people from all over the country ready to learn more about Moral Mondays. Rev. Barber called the room to order, and handed things over to Ms. Yara Allen, who led us in song. Together, we lifted our voices singing “O Freedom” and “My Heart is Fixed.” Already we were learning the first lesson from Moral Mondays–the centrality of artistic, cultural, and religious expression rooted in a history of faith and struggle for our movement today.
Early in Monday’s program, Rev. Barber, president of the North Carolina NAACP, set the moral framework as the foundation of Moral Monday’s work. The Moral Mondays leaders speak in terms of moral imperatives, and firmly ground their vision of justice in faith. The concern for justice – what God requires – is a public matter. As Rev. Barber puts it, “It is not about right or left; it’s about right or wrong.” Their ranks are diverse in terms of race, class, sexuality, and religion. Politically they have not just won liberals and progressives, but conservatives as well. Leaders have emerged out of North Carolina’s urban centers, rural communities, and everything in between.
From the original 17 arrested at the state capital on April 29, 2013 the Moral Mondays arrests have surpassed 900 to date. In a document entitled “Why We Are Here”, Moral Mondays / Moving Forward describes itself as follows: “North Carolinians who choose nonviolent civil disobedience in the face of an avalanche of extremist policies that threaten healthcare, education, voting rights, especially the poor, African-Americans, Latinos, women, seniors and students.”
It is important to emphasize the indigenous character of Moral Mondays. Ironically, its opponents have accused Moral Mondays of being nothing more than the work of “outside agitators”, when in fact it is more accurate to say that the right-wing perpetrators are marching to orders coming from outside the state. And while Rev. Barber has come to be the face of the movement, he is not a lone prophetic voice and the North Carolina NAACP is not the only leading organization. The struggle has gone much further to bring people together. A clear, competent, and committed leadership has emerged from every section of the state.
The political landscape of North Carolina reflects larger realities in the South and the nation at large. Its social makeup is increasingly diverse and dynamic. New waves of immigrants are part of this new reality. Young people do not share many of the views of their elders in terms of social issues. As North Carolina changes, it brings into question the future of “Plantation Politics”, to borrow a concept from W.E.B. Du Bois, where whites are united across class against blacks (a.k.a. the “Solid South”) to the detriment of all but a few.
Yet, it would seem, based on the political power currently dominating state politics, these old divides have not gone away, and in fact, appear to be growing in strength. Today there is a super-majority of Tea Party influenced conservatives occupying the governorship and the state assemblies.
Injustice against the poor is alive and well today in North Carolina. The Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Acts has opened the floodgates in North Carolina to discriminatory voting regulations – local mandates that would have otherwise been restricted by federal oversight. The current state political regime has shored up its power through an obscene and anti-democratic process of gerrymandering districts along racial lines. Public education, workers’ issues, healthcare, and programs for the poor have all been targeted by this extremist government. And the public debate is polarized – framed along racial lines, the deserving versus the undeserving poor, and Big Government versus privatization and free market “solutions. Figures like the North Carolina-based billionaire Art Pope, a scion of the Koch Brothers, bankroll the whole thing on the Right.
What is Moral Mondays fighting for? At one point in the day, leaders described the process of evolving from a resistance movement (a struggle against) to a movement with an alternative vision and a program (a movement for). In their words: “We lifted up five principles that we believed were bigger than Democrat or Republican but good for the whole:
1. Economic sustainability and ending poverty
2. Education equality
3. Healthcare for all
4. Fairness in the criminal justice system
5. Voting Rights”
This December 9 briefing was their first attempt to engage with folks outside of the state, and the focus of the briefing was largely geared towards how people might replicate Moral Mondays back in their states. One gets a sense that, as they struggle to resolve problems in their own state, they don’t quite know what to do with the tremendous enthusiasm they have inspired in people outside of North Carolina. Martin Street Baptist Church’s fellowship hall was filled with people who have found inspiration and are looking for direction from North Carolina. There is only one thing Moral Mondays asked of us in terms of supporting the North Carolina movement. They invited us to come back on February 8, 2014 for a mass mobilization in Raleigh at the state capital. The Kairos Center and Poverty Initiative are eager to be there and hope you can be there, too.
Micah 6:8 “What does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.”
This past Summer Poverty Initiative fellows Shay O’Reilly, Dan Jones, and Lenora Knowles were learning and working with several different organizations from our network that are involved in important front-line struggles around poverty. Read more about their experiences below.
Shay O’Reilly at Vermont Workers Center in Vermont State
Lenora Knowles at Congregations for Children at Moore Community House in Biloxi, Mississippi
Back in 2005 and even until today, Hurricane Katrina has had a great impact on the local economy and local residents alike. Despite the lack of coverage from the national media companies, the hurricane hit Biloxi straight on. Driving or walking the streets of Biloxi one can see green open fields where homes once stood and people once lived. In the midst of east Biloxi, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Biloxi, sit the pale yellow buildings of Moore Community House. Moore Community House is a Methodist mission agency located a few blocks from Boom Town Casino, which floats on huge water barges just a few blocks to the north. Just a couple of blocks to the east are the local housing projects that have given many, including the elderly a place to live, after the great storm. To the West, just a distance is Keesler Air Force Base, which has dominated a great tract of land in the middle of the city since local officials made a deal with the U.S. Army Cops in 1941. The center, now headed by Rev. Carol Burnett, has been a positive force in the area since it was founded in 1924 to serve poor and low-income children of the community.
Moore currently runs two main programs. One of these programs includes a free early head start education program for kids from ages zero to three years. With all the funds going into rebuilding the coast after the hurricane, Moore decided to take advantage of the moment and began a unique program that offers skilled construction job training to low-income women. Such a program as offered competitive and quality job skills for good paying construction jobs on the coast. Burnett is also the executive directory of Mississippi Low Income Childcare Initiative (MLICI). While housed in the same building, MLICI takes a more policy-oriented approach to the issues of child poverty and poor families. This organization works to “improve quality, advocate for investments, and build grassroots support for a statewide network of early childhood education and development providers.”
Congregations for Children yet another conception of Burnett is a reemerging program of Moore Community House which more specifically seeks to garner and organize the support of people of faith to support and/or fight against various efforts and legislation that would have a real impact the important issues of childcare, healthcare, education, and employment for poor families—“issues” that translate to the survival and quality of life of so many poor families in Mississippi. While I got to know a little about all of the initiatives coming out of Moore Community House I spent majority of my time with Congregations for Children. With Congregations for Children I had the wonderful opportunity to study the rich history and current the social, political, and economic contexts and organizing strategies of Mississippi and the South more generally. I was particularly humbled by the opportunity to travel and meet with elders of the movement who have been fighting the good fight for black and poor communities across the state for decades. As Congregations for Children gears up now for the 2014 legislation season, I helped Congregations for Children with the tedious work of organizing a database in great need of some order. In addition, I got to meet with the leaders of ally organizations to get informed on the upcoming legislation and conspire about the possibilities for collaboration.
On May 17, members of the Poverty Initiative’s Poverty Scholars Program presented a workshop on “Responses to Poverty and Hunger: A Faith Perspective” at the annual agency conference of the Food Bank of the Southern Tier (FBST) in Owego, New York.
[This blog post was written directly after Willie and I visited to Bayou La Batre, AL where they met Ernest Montgomery. He passed away suddenly on April 2, 2013, less than two weeks after we met. Willie and I were deeply moved by the brief time spent with him. Ernest put Jesus on our minds with the love he showed for his community and the righteousness he embodied.]
Is Jesus on Your Mind?
[Quote from a billboard in Bayou La Batre, AL]
by John Wessel-McCoy
Wednesday, February 20, 2013 – Bayou La Batre, Alabama
On our fourth day of the Pedagogy of the Poor tour of the South (Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, & Tennessee), Willie and I started our day at the Bayou La Batre Waffle House meeting with Ernest Montgomery. The night before, Barbara Robbins and Zack Carter from Alabama Fisheries Cooperative organized a meeting at Greater New Hope Baptist Church in Snow’s Corners, Bayou La Batre. The meeting had the dual purpose of a Pedagogy of the Poor event and a gathering for the tenants of Safe Harbor facing rent hikes and evictions (more on that below). Mr. Montgomery attended the meeting, and we were so impressed with him as a leader, we asked him to have breakfast the next day.
The most important work we’ve been doing on these book tours is finding and developing relationships with the unsung saints out there, the people fighting and organizing in poor and struggling communities. At the hand of major media, their work is deliberately kept missing and mis-told. We were honored and humbled to have met Ernest Montgomery. Ernest is a real unsung saint living and working in the U.S. South – the Bible Belt – living his life in a truly Christian way. He represents the true qualities of leadership and poverty scholarship.
Bayou La Batre, AL, a town on the Gulf of Mexico, is an impoverished and struggling community despite the wealth of the oil and fishing industries. Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill have dealt crippling blows to what was already an economically struggling area. Bayou La Batre is a town made up mostly of poor and dispossessed whites, poor blacks, poor Asians, and poor Latinos.
Ernest Montgomery was born and raised in Bayou La Batre and will be turning 80 years old this year. Ernest’s life has been one dedicated to his family and his community, and at nearly 80 years old, he is tireless in his work. His life as a laborer has run the gambit from chopping cotton to working for the telephone company. He helped organize and lead the local volunteer firefighters for decades. At Christmas time, he and his son decorated the main street every year without pay. He leads the choir and serves as deacon at his church. He works with local farmers to provide fresh produce to neighbors in need. Recognizing the needs of the youth were not being met, he founded and continues to run the local Boys and Girls Club. He works closely with Alabama Fisheries Cooperative, especially around their work with residents at Safe Harbor – a post-Katrina government funded housing development now in the process of doubling and tripling rents beyond the ability of most tenants to pay. Several tenants have already been evicted. Ernest was a co-founder of the fisher and seafood worker coop , and he had been putting fishers in touch with customers, free of charge, who came to the boats and paid fairly (as opposed to the oppressive price given by the big boy processors). Ernest initiated the coop’s grass roots organizing at Safe Harbor. He hosted the initial Safe Harbor housing coop organizing committee meetings at his Boys & Girls last June. Over time, Ernest has won the love and respect of most of the town, notably across the color line. However, his engagement has proved threatening to local officials.
For several years, Ernest has been in a longstanding struggle with Stan Wright, the mayor of Bayou La Batre for the past four terms. Wright has an alleged history of Klan involvement. Wright’s tenure as mayor has been one filled with corruption. The Safe Harbors housing management is just one example. Wright has repeatedly blocked Ernest’s attempts at setting up the youth center. Over time, there have been members of the local Klan from whom Ernest has won trust and respect. In the words of Ernest, “There have been some of these men who have taken off the hood. They have come to me to tell me that what Mayor Wright has been doing (in attacking me) is not right – that they don’t agree. One former Klansmen’s told me that the understanding of his Bible has now made him realize that the same God who made him white has made me black, and that I am his brother.”
Ernest Montgomery embodies the principles of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign and points to the possibility and necessity of reigniting that campaign today. He is an example of what it means to truly “love thy neighbor.”
This year the Poverty Initiative commissioned nine young leaders who completed an intense year of study, reflection, and engagement with the struggles of the poor across the US
The Poverty Initiative Fellows Program builds the leadership capacity, skills and community partnerships of emerging religious leaders interested in moving beyond charity toward social justice. The program involves Masters-level students in a yearlong intensive program that provides training, space for theological reflection and practical community organizing experience. Below are a few pictures from this year’s commissioning as well as some of the remarks that Poverty Initiative staff members gave to recognize the achievement of each fellow.
Commissioning of Jill Beckman, by Shailly Barnes
We all immediately liked Jill when we met her, even before she accepted the fellowship position with us, there was something in her way and manner that really resonated with PI.
Over the past year, Jill has done an incredible amount of work on many of the best things we did this year – that might not be a coincidence – including, the Reels for Rights gathering in the fall, which brought together our vast network of grassroots leaders and the memorial and photo exhibit for two of our fallen leaders, Ron Casanova and Larry Gibson. I also worked with her on the Politics of Food course this Spring.
What really moved me, especially with the Cas and Larry memorial, was that Jill, without ever knowing who these people were, understood that they were widely loved and respected; in turn, she brought a degree of care and attention to the memorial that made it possible to honor their lives and work.
This attentiveness and integrity has been consistent throughout her year at PI and is reflected in her honesty and openness in listening to what people are saying and thinking about what that means for building a movement to end poverty. Jill has said that one of the things she’s taken away from this year is to always interrogate and question why we live in a world where we assume that things cannot be changed? Why do we think about ways to live with poverty instead of ways to end it?
She takes these questions seriously. In fact, the very notion that we’ve gotten to know her partner, David, and are eagerly awaiting the arrival of her latest project, shows just how seriously she’s committed to answering those questions as well as the kind of leader she is – one who is accountable to others and who, above all, knows and cherishes the value of life. Even her ability to ask these questions – and continually seek to answer them – marks the strength of her leadership. I’m honored to have worked with you this year, Jill, and look forward to what you will do in the years to come.
Commissioning of Shay O’Reilly, by Crystal Hall
Before I met Shay personally, he had already left an impression on me. Shay and I both attended the orientation for new students at Union this year. In the many rounds of introductions, Shay’s is the only one I remember vividly. He said he had recently hailed from Iowa, and been deeply involved in a housing cooperative there. I don’t remember much more of the content of what he said. What I do remember was wanting to be sure to talk to him after the event was over.
Thankfully there were many opportunities to continue the conversation as Shay became a first-year Fellow with the Poverty Initiative. We began working together on the Homeless Union History Project, a study-work project of the Poverty Scholars Program. Shay brings his investigative skills as a journalist to that collective. He unearthed a long-forgotten graphic novel describing the struggle of the homeless organizing in Tompkins Square Park right here in New York City, and has transcribed hours of interviews with leaders of the National Union of the Homeless.
Shay has not only captured the voices of leaders from our movement’s history, but has also lifted up the voices of contemporary leaders. He brought the same journalistic clarity to this year’s Poverty Initiative immersion course. He reported the struggles of Put People First, a statewide organization struggling for human rights in Pennsylvania.
Through his blog posts, he shared the stories of those he met on the road. He wrote, “The story of Wilkes-Barre is not one of despair. There is a solid determined hope, one that echoes through history in miners and reformers…Their story does not end when coal, or industry, or fracking, leaves. On this trip we will see the grim shadows of American society, but…we will also see glory in the people striving. The purpose of this course is, after all, to understand both the task ahead of us and how people rise to face it.”
This spring Shay brought this very experience in the community back onto campus right into the middle of an New Testament 101 lecture. I hope he will also find ways to bring his experiences with the Vermont Workers’ Center this summer back into the classroom. These stories represent a much-needed bridge between the campus and the community.
Shay, I commission you to the work ahead next year as a Poverty Initiative Fellow. As you so powerfully capture the stories of those you have met along the way, may you continue to make these stories your own story.