For nearly a decade, the ministry of Julian “J.Kwest” DeShazier has been an exploration in the relationship between music and faith. As artist, this Chicago native has used his unique rhythm to tell stories of deep meaning, inside and out of the church. A 2007 Holy Hip Hop Award winner, his song, “So Blessed,” was featured on the Grammy-nominated compilation Holy Hip Hop: Taking the Gospel to the Streets, and J has been celebrated as “Living Black History” by Urban Ministries International.
In 2012 he and his group, Verbal Kwest, were featured in the Sojourners, OXFAM, and Bread for the World-produced documentary The Line, providing a critical voice against poverty and violence in the U.S. A graduate of Morehouse College and the University of Chicago Divinity School, Julian currently serves as senior pastor of University Church in Chicago, and is a regular contributor to Sojourners, UrbanFaith and Kidult publications.
Editor's Note: There may be some objectional language in the beginning part of this about hour-long interview.
When I was a 17-year-old senior in high school, I was in several Advanced Placement courses. As the school year drew to a close, I wanted to take the AP test that would allow me to attain college credit. The AP tests, however, were very, very expensive. I went to my guidance counselor. She said that they could waive the fees for the exams if I qualified for the school’s free lunch program.
I had avoided the free lunch program for years. I had been on the free lunch program in elementary school and middle school but was always embarrassed by it. So when I got to high school, I didn’t apply for it. I picked up a part-time job so I could pay for my own lunch. But now, I wouldn’t be able to take my AP exams if I didn’t fill out the free lunch program form.
So I agreed to fill out the form. Later that day, my guidance counselor sent a student aide with the form to my social studies class room, where in front of the entire class, she declared that I needed to fill out the free lunch form. I remember the shame of not only my classmates laughing at me that day, but my high school teacher bursting out in laughter as well.
On a conference call with people from across the nation who held screenings of The Line, you could hear frustrations mounting from people struggling with the challenge of reducing poverty in America.
How do you engage people in rural areas, asked one woman. Why were Native Americans left out, asked a man from Minnesota. A priest who has worked on housing the homeless for a lifetime expressed the exasperation of someone who has devoted much time and seen little progress.
The battle against poverty is a long slog. That’s why it was good to hear some of the comments of folks gathered last week at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis. (just outside Madison) after the opening night showing of The Line.
Tomorrow night is the first presidential debate. It will undoubtedly be an important moment in the campaign for the highest office in the land. But, whose lives will it be important to?
Certainly, there will be a lot for pundits to discuss and dissect. They will analyze phrases and statements, and will compare them to polling data and focus groups in swing states. Super PACs will record gaffes by either candidate, ready to turn them into multi-million dollar commercial buys.
But, as a person of faith, what I want to know is: how will the words that are said and the positions that are staked out affect the 46 million people in our country living in poverty? What does it mean for the hardworking families who can't put food on the table? Or the 1 in 5 children for whom poverty is an everyday reality and opportunity seems to be an illusion?
Tonight is the world premiere of a film that puts those questions front and center. The Line is a new documentary film from Emmy award-winning writer and producer, Linda Midgett. It tells the stories of real people struggling to make ends meet but still falling below the poverty line. These are stories far too common in our country today and should be a central topic of this debate.
It’s annoying, isn’t it, how American political debate ignores the pressing issues and instead focuses on the trivial? I’m talking about pressing issues like the recently released poverty numbers – nearly 1 in 6 Americans lives in poverty, and the child poverty rate is even higher. That’s 46.2 million people living on less than $23,021 a year for a family of four.
Those are sobering numbers. Here’s another: a new study by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting shows that of the 10,489 news stories on the campaign this year, just 17 of them addressed poverty in a substantive way. That’s a whopping 0.16 percent of coverage devoted to issues of poverty.
We need to get poverty back on the public agenda. In the richest country in the world, numbers that high should be seen as a moral crisis.
With the Republican and Democratic National Conventions having taken place over the last two weeks, we can officially say that we’re entering the election season (i.e., that time when the general public begins to pay attention).
A couple of friends who pastor churches in non-D.C. parts of the country asked me if we feel the need to address politics at The District Church, being in the very belly of the beast (my words, not theirs). Specifically, they were asking: Given the intense polarization and often-unproductive arguing that we see around us, even in the church, about the need to address how we interact with those who disagree with us.
So far, we haven’t needed to. In our church community, we have Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and yes, even people who don’t care about politics; we have Hill staffers, White House staffers, activists, advocates, lobbyists, policy wonks, and more — and we’ve all come together as the body of Christ, recognizing that our allegiance is first to Jesus before any party or even country.
Even so, every four years (or every two, if you pay attention to mid-terms; or all the time, if you’re even more politically engaged), posts about politics pop up with increasing frequency on social media, eliciting often-furious back-and-forths that usually end up doing nothing more than reminding each side how right they are and how stupid the other side is.
So I figured I’d try to offer a few suggestions on how we can engage with one another on matters of politics in healthy ways.
Matthew 25 doesn’t say, “As you have done to the middle class you have done to me."
What it records Jesus saying is, “As you have done to the least of these, you have done to me.” Chances are that will never be the central message of political conventions during election years.
But every four years for the last 40 years (even before we were called Sojourners), our community has done what we can to lift up the issue of poverty during presidential elections. While political party platforms have changed, our commitment to the least of these has not.
So it is with that spirit, this election year, that I am proud to present a new short film called The Line.
Written and directed by Emmy-award winning producer Linda Midgett, it chronicles the very real stories of four real people struggling with real poverty in America today.
You’ll meet a banker in the suburban Midwest who used to earn six-figures a year and now, after the economic collapse, must go to a food bank to feed his three kids; a fisherman on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana who has watched his livelihood and his culture wash away in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a devastating off-shore oil spill; a blue collar guy in North Carolina who worked hard his whole life but lost his job, became homeless, and started over as a restaurant bus boy; and a single mom in Chicago who battles daily to ensure that her son is safe, healthy, and has the opportunity to go to college.