The Common Good
December 2004

Rolling to Overcome Poverty

by Jim Wallis | December 2004

The 7-year-old's poster said, 'Every Life is Sacred. Stop Poverty.'

The children from St. Luke's School in St. Paul, Minnesota, came out to give us water bottles and display their handmade signs about Catholic social teaching on poverty. It was the first stop on Call to Renewal's "Rolling to Overcome Poverty" 15-city, 12-day bus tour, and we were marching with hundreds of people from Minnesota's diverse faith communities on a four-mile "people's pilgrimage" to the state capitol.

I was immediately drawn to the kids who were about the same size as my son Luke, so I found myself among the first- and second-graders. A 7-year-old girl held up the brightly colored poster she had made, which said, "Every Life is Sacred. Stop Poverty." When I smiled at her, she looked up at me and said, "Thank you for doing this." That kept me going for days.

She had given us the theme for the bus tour, and the next stop on the march gave us the national context. We stopped at the House of Hope Presbyterian Church, where an overnight shelter took the overflow from a city shelter; the night before, three families, with 11 children under the age of 6, had stayed there, and they would again that night. "Overflow" became the watchword for the tour as we encountered countless shelters, food programs, and faith-based ministries seriously overextended in a country where the poverty rate has risen every year for the last three years.

The next day we stood under the dome of the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison as those in prison ministry told stories of life at the bottom, within earshot of the state’s political leaders. In the afternoon we heard the success stories of formerly homeless children in Baptist-run, affordable family apartments, children whose grade point averages went from 1.2 to 3.2. None of them dropped out of school and all went on to college. Stability, security, and opportunity help poor kids to succeed. Imagine that.

In Milwaukee, the director of the Hunger Task Force seemed very tired as she spoke of all the food pantries and food lines trying to meet the growing needs of hungry families, and we wondered together why these programs put into place a generation ago as "temporary" measures have become our permanent way of dealing with poverty.

In Chicago, we learned the average age of a homeless person is now 9 years. A broad cross section of church people and leaders came together at North Park University to do something about unacceptable poverty in the Windy City—that night, 800 people signed a "covenant." In Grand Rapids, Michigan, their Republican member of Congress said the crisis of poverty had to break into the busy lives of his colleagues, and the independent mayor of the city called for nothing less than "a national agenda to eliminate poverty." But the prophetic word of the evening to the packed church came from an immigrant mother who apologized that English was her second language before saying, "We are children of God—that should count for something." She got a standing ovation. Almost every evening service or rally featured the testimonies of people struggling with poverty, and their stories changed the nature of all the events.

IN MY hometown of Detroit, I visited a walk-in center with hundreds of homeless and hopeless people making Third Street look like a Third World city. Two weeks before, a poor, confused woman at the center had plunged a knife into the back of a staff member she had never met, and killed him. His name was Fernando Garcia; he had been homeless himself, and now he leaves behind a wife and kids who will miss their father. I wondered how we have allowed so many people to simply get lost, and I remembered the words of Jesus, "As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me."

A midweek gathering in a church basement in Toledo again drew a large and diverse group of religious leaders determined to do something about poverty. The service in an activist black church in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood felt like a justice revival. Cleveland is now ground zero for poverty in America - the poorest big city in America with an appalling 47 percent of its children below the poverty line. But the city’s religious communities are seeing that as an opportunity to unite in "Greater Clevelanders Together Overcoming Poverty." In nearby Akron, the stories of those who had lost jobs were devastating, causing people to "live in fear." And, said the director of a jobs center, "This fear is not from a foreign threat." We heard similar stories in Pittsburgh.

While we were on the tour, an astounding new study by the Annie E. Casey, Ford, and Rockefeller foundations - "Working Hard, Falling Short" - revealed that 9.2 million families, including 20 million children, now make such low wages that they are barely able to survive financially. At every stop we passed out the "Isaiah Platform," drawn from Isaiah 65, which speaks of God’s vision for a good society with good wages, good health, good houses, and safety and security for all God’s children.

The tour ended the way it had started, with a march - this time through the streets of Philadelphia - and a service at Philadelphia Cathedral. I told tales from the road and reflected on what we had seen and heard. We saw amazing ministries without which, I believe, the nation would fall apart in about 48 hours. We also saw models of concrete answers to the problems of poverty that offer islands of hope in a sea of despair and show the way forward if we have the political will to invest in real solutions. And all along the way, there was talk of movement in the air. It’s time, I preached, to shift our thinking from "ministry to movement."

"Poverty is a religious issue!" we proclaimed across the Midwest. The cry of the poor rings from cover to cover in the Bible; God hears the cry of the poor - do we? In most tour cities, newspaper stories, radio reports, and even some television coverage helped put poverty on the agenda as we had hoped.

We thought the election would be the focus of the "Rolling to Overcome Poverty" bus tour. But after a few cities, we realized the possibilities were much deeper. The faith communities we met were more interested in November 3 and beyond, and they made it clear that no matter who won the election we must be at their door the next day with a faith-based movement that finally demands real action and solutions to overcome poverty in America.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners and convener of Call to Renewal

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