The Poor People’s Campaign & Grays Harbor County

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Hank Adams of Grays Harbor County (second from left) at the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign

These are my remarks from our “State of the Streets” event held in Westport WA on July 14th 2016 when Chaplains on the Harbor announced our official endorsement of the New Poor People’s Campaign.

Almost fifty years ago, The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. started organizing a campaign he called the Poor People’s Campaign. It was the last campaign of his life, and the one he died working on, but we don’t hear too much about it when people talk about Martin Luther King today.

The Poor People’s Campaign was for people of all races who were facing poverty issues like hunger, failing schools, unemployment, bad housing conditions, and mistreatment by the police. King spent years doing important work for the civil rights of Black people but even as he saw changes being made there, he saw that poor Black people, who made up the majority of the Black community, were being left behind. He put it like this: “What good is the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford the price of a hamburger?”

So he started studying and speaking out more on this question of poverty. He realized that it was such a large problem, impacting so many people across the country, that he would have to bring a large group of people together to fight it. This is why King called for a Poor People’s Campaign. He traveled to cities like Detroit and New York but also to small towns in rural states like Mississippi and West Virginia, and he got in touch with poor Blacks, poor whites, poor Latinos, poor Natives, and poor Asians who were all facing the same fundamental problems and trying to make change.

King asked for these leaders to come together– to travel from around the country and meet up in Washington DC. He was assassinated in Memphis TN just one month before they had all agreed to gather. The rest of the people involved decided they had to move forward with the campaign, that it’s what King would have wanted, so they converged on Washington DC in May of 1968. When they got there, they set up a tent city on the National Mall.  They stayed for over a month, three thousand of them, banging on the doors of all the politicians’ offices, telling their stories and demanding change: they demanded the government set aside $30 billion to fight poverty, full employment, guaranteed income, and the construction of 500,00 units of low-income housing every year. They also set up their own internal structure– they had an education tent, a childcare tent, a health care tent, a food tent, a psychiatrist and their own city hall. Together, in that camp, they were able to make a better life for themselves than most of them had back home. They called their tent city “Resurrection City” and said it was “the city where you don’t pay taxes, where there’s no police brutality and you don’t go to jail.

Resurrection City lasted six weeks until the police came and tore it down. Without Martin Luther King around, many of the other leaders struggled to come up with clear plans and work together. But we’re coming up on the fiftieth anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign soon, and there are more groups than ever around the country facing these same issues. There are about 1 million more poor people now than there were in 1968. So we, here at Chaplains on the Harbor, are getting together with people we know to help plan a New Poor People’s Campaign for today. We don’t know what it will look like yet– we don’t know if it will be a tent city in Washington DC or something different. But we are ready to try, we are inviting you all to be part of it with us, and tonight we are taking the first and most important step in that direction, which is speaking out and telling our own stories about this stuff.

It’s hard to think about yourself as a leader when you are poor, when you are struggling. It’s hard to imagine yourself as the next Martin Luther King. But the thing to remember is: Martin Luther King didn’t do any of this alone. In fact, he wasn’t even around when they finally got this thing off the ground. It was poor people who made it happen. Some of them could not read, some of them were disabled, some of them were sick, and many of them had been to jail. It’s them that made this thing happen, and here in 2016, we believe it’ll be those same people who make things happen. There was a group from Washington State that went to the Poor People’s Campaign, and there was even a guy from Grays Harbor County who went. He’s still alive, his name is Hank Adams, he’s a Native guy. He grew up on the Quinault reservation and went to high school in Moclips. I sent him some fan mail last year but haven’t heard back from him, so if any of you know him, put in a good word for me! But he was there. When he was only about 25 years old, he was one of the key leaders of the original Poor People’s Campaign. So if you’re struggling to make it in Grays Harbor County, this is already in your DNA. This is already part of your story. The original Poor People’s Campaign was for and by people like you and the New Poor People’s Campaign is your campaign.

I’m done talking. Let’s get some of you up and talking now, right after Bishop Rickel explains the ground rules for us.

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Sermon: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost 2016

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“Famine of the Word”

Text: Amos 8:1-12

This is a strange equation we find in Amos today. The Lord is so angered at those who have exploited the poor that God promises not only to bring bitterness and mourning, but also withhold the Word—so stingily that it will be, as the passage says, like a famine. A famine “of hearing the words of the Lord.”

How are we supposed to move forward in times when our world has so fallen, that God is withholding the Word as punishment for the abuses of the powerful? Why, when we need guidance the most, would God deprive us this way?

While God remains present, perhaps the Word itself—that is, God’s living teaching, or the spirit of wisdom that leads us toward acting in loving kindness—perhaps the Word itself is withheld from us when we blow it in big ways. When we have arrived as individuals and as a society to the point at which we will buy “the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals,” there is something that has broken inside of us. We cannot crawl out of that pit trusting our own judgment. No. It is our own judgment that has brought us down in the first place. To return to the Word we must look beyond our own position and our own need for self-justification.

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Sermon: Fifth Sunday in Easter 2016

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Press conference of Chicago’s “Rainbow Coalition”: Black Panthers, Young Patriots, Young Lords

“Fred Hampton’s Jesus Movement”

Text: Acts 11:1-18

Among other influences, I was trained in organizing by a few leaders who came out of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. One of my mentors, Willie Baptist, came of age during the Watts Uprisings in Los Angeles. He describes this as a critical stage of his formation—watching his suffering community step up and reclaim its own streets. Several times he’s told me the story of witnessing the local neighborhood drunk, who was usually passed out in a doorway, on his feet in the middle of an intersection directing traffic during the Uprising. This is one of the images I picture when I think about resurrection, and why we bother to fight for it.

Willie has been one of the people most strongly encouraging our organizing at Chaplains on the Harbor, a mission station of this diocese in Grays Harbor County, where our constituency is rural and 70-80% white. Willie’s enthusiasm for our work with poor whites sounds strange to a lot of people because the legacy of the Black Panthers is still poorly understood in this country. From the beginning, the Panthers—while building infrastructure, self-defense, and dignity in poor Black communities—also built alliances with other poor communities across racial lines. This was not a soft, rose-tinted neoliberal form of “celebrating diversity.” It was a series of gang alliances. It was Black Panthers visiting Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, home to poor white Appalachian migrants, to lead popular education workshops and find common ground in their shared experiences of slum housing and police violence. It was twenty-one year old Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton’s ability to organize a multiracial coalition with the Puerto Rican Young Lords, the Chicano Brown Berets, the Chinese-American Red Guard, and the white Young Patriots. The Panthers did this work because they sought to end poverty, and to end poverty, they knew they needed a massive coalition of poor people—that they could never ultimately end poverty in Black communities without recruiting help and solidarity from other poor communities. The fight was and is too big for one community to wage alone. Continue reading

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Sermon: Third Sunday in Easter 2016

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“Real Hope”

Text: Lessons appointed for use on the Third Sunday of Easter, Year C, RCL

Good morning! I’m so glad to be here with you today. I want to thank Rev. Stephanie and Rev. Danae for the privilege of sharing this pulpit, to tell you all a little bit about the work we do at Chaplains on the Harbor. My name is Aaron Scott. I am the Organizer at Chaplains on the Harbor, which is a mission station of this diocese in Grays Harbor County. People don’t always know what that means—are we social service providers? Are we a non-profit? The answer to both of those questions is no. We are a church. We are a congregation. Like St. Stephen’s we are a network of people who take care of each other, worship together, eat together, pray together, study the Word and the world together, dream of ways to transform our community together, and then take action for that transformation together. We are a church. Chaplains on the Harbor is a church. We have that in common with you.

Here is where we are a little different from St. Stephen’s: we are a congregation made up almost entirely of poor and homeless people. Westport, where our church building is located, has an official unemployment rate around 10% but when you add in the number of people living on disability and the number of people who are no longer actively seeking employment, about 70% of adults are out of the work force. In a town of roughly 2,000 people, over 400 people have active warrants out for their arrest—overwhelmingly for poverty-related offenses like failure to pay traffic fines, petty theft, and other crimes of economic survival committed in the absence of legitimate employment opportunities. As the timber industry pulled out of our county and the fishing industry has dwindled with warming ocean temperatures, the primary replacement industry has been an expansion of prisons and jails. Much of our congregation has done time. Nearly all of our young people—my generation, millennials—have felony records. Continue reading

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Sermon: Fourth Sunday in Lent 2016

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“The Prodigal Son: Undoing the Criminalization of Poverty and Youth”

Text: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

“All the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

So Jesus told them this parable…

 

Jesus told them this parable about a younger son who, under the rules set out in Deuteronomy to prioritize first-born sons, inherits one-third of his father’s wealth. His older brother inherits two-thirds. This family has animals, land, and slaves—and also relies on daily hard labor of family members side by side with slaves to maintain themselves (near the end the older son says to his father, “For all these years I have been working like a slave for you”). Don’t think the older son is exaggerating in this complaint: under the Roman Empire, male heads of household had legal jurisdiction over their family members that paralleled a master-slave relationship.

 

With this background in mind, there is a way we can interpret the younger son not as a pampered kid throwing a hissy fit but rather as a rebellious slave. Slavery in this empire, in Jesus’ time, was brutal but less static than in our own nation’s history—debtors and prisoners of war often cycled in and out of slave status, getting their freedom by working off debts. This younger son’s act of demanding the smaller portion to which he is entitled, setting off on his own, and spending it without concern for respectability—rather than working side by side with the elder brother and the enslaved members of his father’s household—might’ve been understood by the crowd around Jesus as the younger son giving his middle finger to the law and social order of their time.

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Sermon: Last Sunday after Epiphany 2016

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“Christ the Necromancer”

Text: Luke 9:28-36, [37-43a]

What we find in today’s Gospel, in the story of the transfiguration, strikes me as simultaneously trippy and mundane. Trippy because, as the text clearly indicates, this is Christ the Necromancer Sunday. Dazzling harder than Edward Cullen in a Twilight movie, Jesus is reunited with his long-dead friends: Zombie Moses the Murderer and Zombie Elijah the Rainmaker. Or maybe they’re not zombies, maybe they’re just ghosts. Either way, trippiest of all to me is Peter’s total nonchalance in witnessing this—“Hey guys, great to see you all, let me help you pitch your tents.” Conjuring is obviously no big deal for Peter.

On the flip side, I sometimes have a pretty trippy job. So reading through Luke 9 doesn’t sound all that different from what I might overhear on any Tuesday night swing shift at the low-barrier shelter between serving dinner and scrubbing toilets. I recently finished a book called Wanted: A Spiritual Pursuit through Jail, Among Outlaws, and Across Borders. It’s written by Chris Hoke, a young pastor to prisoners and gang members in Skagit Valley, and it’s got a lot of overlap with my line of work. He writes,

“For some time I’ve imagined all of us having a fragile nerve inside of us, like a spiritual antenna deep within our core. Some people, I’ve thought, simply have an abnormally large antenna inside—poets, prophets, psychopaths, your slightly crazy aunt who’s drawn to the paranormal, who some days is more compassionate than anyone you know and other days is aggressive and convinced everyone including the government is conspiring against her. In my work both behind jail bars and the years I continued with homeless youth on the streets of downtown Seattle, I’ve met a number of young people with schizophrenia. I’ve wondered, when talking with them about some of the abuse and trauma they’ve survived, whether the internal antenna-nerves of some people are damaged. Maybe they could be exposed, jutting out like a bone from a broken arm, picking up way too much of the otherwise faint spiritual frequencies coursing through this world—from ‘beyond’ as well as from the person across the room. I’ve wondered whether some of these people slam heroin or meth or any street medicine they can find as a way of jamming cotton into their spiritual ears. 

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Sermon: Chaplains on the Harbor Inaugural Christmas Party

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“King Herod is a Liar”

Text: Matthew 1:18-2:23

I used to live in New York City. I used to go a little church there, around the corner from where I lived, called St. Mary’s Harlem. New York is a big city but the neighborhood around St. Mary’s always felt, to me, more like a small town. Everybody knows each other’s business, for better or worse. People say “Hi” to each other on the street. St. Mary’s church is an important part of this feeling of community because it’s one of the only spaces where people in the neighborhood can come hang out for free. It’s a poor neighborhood. It’s a neighborhood where the police bother people a lot—especially young people, especially homeless people. We think of Harlem, of New York City, as a place that’s very different from the Harbor. But they’re facing a lot of the same problems and dreaming a lot of the same dreams as we are. St. Mary’s called themselves the “We-Are-Not-Afraid Church.” And they meant it. They were never afraid to talk about hard stuff—about the ways they were struggling, about all the powers and principalities they were up against as a community of mostly poor and working Black people. And even in the middle of their own troubles, they never turned their backs on other poor folks.

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