I was born and raised in public housing projects in the South Bronx. My mother and father are Puerto Rican immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were 16 and 17. My father was homeless for a while, and then got a job as a deli man, a dishwasher, and ultimately moved up to becoming a maintenance man in the public housing projects we grew up in.
When I was growing up in the South Bronx, it was dark times. It was the ’60s and the ’70s, and if you know your history, you know that the South Bronx was devastated and burned. Later I learned that the fires were due to “planned shrinkage” and “urban renewal” plans, which proposed that if you closed down public services, ultimately you could come in and rebuild a community, but it didn’t work like that in the South Bronx. As a little girl, I’d be perched on my washing machine, looking out from my ninth-story window, watching my community burn.
Nevertheless, I had tremendous love for my family and community until the outside world began to tell me that I was poor, that I lived in poverty, and that I was a child of the ghetto. As a result, I was a whole list of “at risks.” I was at risk of violence, and at risk of dropping out of school, and at risk of getting pregnant. While I defined myself as a beautiful brown girl with beautiful parents and a wonderful family, the rest of the world would define me and the measure of my success not by how I lived and thrived within my own community, but by how far I could escape from it. In my 20s I made a successful career for myself doing other things, forgetting about the poor, and becoming a conscientious objector to my own story and to the story of my family. Despite the fact that my family was still in the South Bronx, I was in a nice apartment in midtown Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River.
God began to work in my life as God can do, calling me back home. For the longest time I had been taught that everything I had left behind was powerless, and yet everything that God began to speak in my life in that period said that I was climbing the ladder of success, but it was somehow up against the wrong wall. And so in my late 20s, I began to reconnect with my church and my South Bronx community, and I got involved in doing some work against drugs in the neighborhood.
The crack epidemic after the burning of the Bronx further devastated our community. All sorts of crack houses sprung up in the neighborhood. I was lucky to be raised in the Franciscan and liberationist Catholic social teaching tradition, which said to me that church was not a place to hide out in, or a place to simply pray to make it into heaven when all your neighbors were living in hell. Our pastor and the congregation had begun to do some organizing around drugs and crack houses in the neighborhood. I didn’t know what it was to be an activist or an organizer, but I became involved.
We organized a march one beautiful Sunday afternoon in November. A couple of hundred people showed up, and two weeks later drug dealers, in retaliation, torched our church. I went to the site and found a sea of people in the church weeping over a broken statue of the Blessed Mother, and weeping over the church. There were many more people there than had shown up for the march, and suddenly God said to me, “Why are you crying over this? I don’t live here. My real sanctuary is burnt every single day, desecrated in the bodies and minds and spirits of the poorest of the poor who live right outside these doors. When are you going to cry about that?”
When the media from around the country showed up, they were taking pictures of the people crying over the statues and something inside of me said, that can’t be the last image of who we are as people of God. So when they asked, “What are you going to do now?” I said, “We’re going to march again.” Two weeks later, we planned another march and I knew that the image had to be of us as a strong community, and it couldn’t be of us vilifying our own, because the people of the crack houses are my brothers and sisters and cousins and family members, like my own daddy who suffered from addiction. They belong to me.
So we went out and marched. People had been afraid because there had been death threats, not just against those organizing, but against the crowd. There were police officers on top of buildings with guns, and every attempt was being made to protect the crowd, but when I walked out that day there were 1,200 members of my community there.
Let me tell you something I learned that day. I learned what power was that day. And you know who I learned it from? A man who was homeless as a teenager, who was an alcoholic, who raised four children in the South Bronx, who was a deli man. A man who talked about how they used to make him work in the back of the deli. If he needed something, they had a little hole in the wall where he could ask, because they didn’t want to see the brown people in the front of the deli. A man who, when I was a little girl, washed urine off the elevator walls.
But on that day, this man, my father, taught me the greatest lesson about the poor and about power, because when I looked out at the crowd gathered to march, he was there. None of those people in suits that I worked with on Madison Avenue were there, but busloads of people from our community—single moms pushing their baby strollers, pregnant teenagers, young people, the elderly, immigrants, everyone that this nation’s paradigm of power had taught me to think of as powerless, including my daddy, the man who washed urine off of walls—they all came to this march. When I looked out at that sea of people, God said, “This is what power is.”
I'VE LEARNED SO many things walking with the poorest of the poor. I’m not a theologian. I’m a mom with two kids, a youth minister. I didn’t go to college. But someone once taught me something about the theology of the incarnation, and what they said was, you cannot redeem what you will not assume. We want to redeem the poor, we want to save the poor, because we come from a salvation tradition, but in order to do that we have to be willing to assume that mantle and walk with the poor, and allow the poor to walk with us.
Anthony Thomas is a young man I’ve worked with since he was 10. He’s 23 years old now. Anthony is a young man from a single-parent household who dropped out of middle school and high school. But he became an extraordinary organizer for environmental justice in the South Bronx. Anthony Thomas eventually got into college on a full scholarship to Hampshire College. After his first semester, he e-mailed me his grades, and in the subject line of the e-mail, he wrote, “He Called Me Mr. Thomas.” There were comments by each of his professors next to his grades, and in one of his professor’s comments, Anthony was referred to as “Mr. Thomas.”
God tells us in scripture, “I’ve loved you. I have called you by name.” Children like Anthony go through school every single day and are invisible. No one ever calls them by name when they’re stopped and frisked on the street corners. But Anthony had an experience of power that wasn’t attached to his grades; it was attached to the fact that a white, middle-class, educated man called him with respect, called him Mr. Thomas.
You see, there is great powerlessness and brokenness that comes from years and years of no one ever calling you by name, of being invisible, of working hard and suffering and feeling like there’s nothing at the other end. When Isaiah talks about us being “repairers of the breach,” I deeply believe that we are called to bridge this chasm between the haves and the have-nots. But there is another chasm in the soul of the poor that we must work harder to repair. This chasm of the soul is a brokenness and powerlessness that can only be healed when we create the conditions where people like my father can stand at a march, and where people like Anthony Thomas can be called by name. Only then can they find their own power and their own voice.
Alexie Torres-Fleming is executive director of Youth Ministries for Peace and Justice (ympj.org) in the South Bronx. This article is from her acceptance speech for the Amos Award at Sojourners’ 2009 Mobilization to End Poverty.