"OK to all those attacking Tavis and Dr. West and me for hosting the Poverty tour, can you get off your Hating a second to look at todays latest report: POVERTY is at its highest record in American History!!! People are Dying out here! Don't care what you think of Tavis, Cornel or me, but PLEASE PLEASE care about our Brothers and Sisters who have been made to feel invisible and disposable!"
-- Rev. Michael Pfleger, pastor of the Faith Community of St. Sabina, a Roman Catholic parish on Chicago's South Side, in a posting on his Facebook page Wednesday morning.
Pfleger's friends, talk-show host Tavis Smiley and Princeton University professor Cornel West, who together host the radio program "Smiley & West," embarked on a national "Poverty Tour" last month, a road trip "to highlight the plight of the poor people of all races, colors, and creeds so they will not be forgotten, ignored, or rendered invisible during this difficult and dangerous time of economic deprivation and political cowardice."
In an August 25 guest Op-Ed in the New York Times, West wrote:
"The recent budget deal is only the latest phase of a 30-year, top-down, one-sided war against the poor and working people in the name of a morally bankrupt policy of deregulating markets, lowering taxes and cutting spending for those already socially neglected and economically abandoned. Our two main political parties, each beholden to big money, offer merely alternative versions of oligarchic rule."
The Poverty Tour sparked considerable controversy, as the duo not only aimed to focus attention on the plight of America's poor (more than 15 percent of the U.S. population in 2010 -- the highest poverty rate in 18 years -- according to census bureau data released Tuesday), but also as occasion to criticize President Obama, who they say has been too passive in working on behalf of the "least of these" among us.
Huffington Post reporter Trymaine Lee described the backlash against Smiley and West this way:
"They have been labeled as self-promoting, self-serving Obama haters. They have become pariahs in some circles. The blowback has even become personal and nasty, with the comedian Steve Harvey recently calling the duo "Uncle Toms" and the Rev. Al Sharpton and radio personality Tom Joyner taking various shots at them."
For his part, Smiley told Lee that the poverty tour had accomplished its goals.
"The tour did everything it was supposed to do," he said. "And its not just about raising awareness, it's about starting a dialogue about poverty and the poor in this country. I don't get intimidated by haters. Not only are we not intimidated, if we had more resources and time, we would extend the tour," Smiley said. "The question that I would pose to the critics is not why are we doing what we are doing or saying, it's 'If you care about poor people, why aren't you doing anything?'"
Pfleger, 62, who is white and has served as pastor of St. Sabina's, a predominantly African-American parish in one of Chicago's poorer neighborhoods, for most of his nearly 40 years as a priest, is a longtime social justice activist and no stranger to controversy himself. Pfleger, Smiley, and West have been close friends for many years.
Listen below to Pfleger's appearance on the "Smiley & West" radio show earlier this year.
Cathleen Falsani is Web editor and director of new media for Sojourners. She is author of the new book BELIEBER!: Fame, Faith and the Heart of Justin Bieber.