Poverty

Letters from a School Near MLK Street

Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

Illustration of schoolchildren crossing the road, Robert Adrian Hillman / Shutterstock.com

In my lifetime I’ve driven on three roadways named after Martin Luther King, Jr. One was a street, another a boulevard, and the third a highway. And whether by cosmic irony or human design, each of these roadways passes through communities of significant poverty and color, namely black. Around these roadways are boarded up storefronts, crack and heroin dens (think The Wire), condemned row houses, and inevitably, always – public schools.

From 2001 to 2006 I left the safety of the pulpit to teach in the schools of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., pursuing a call to care for the proverbial least of these (it’s always pained me to think how I might feel to be called this, as in hey, you least of these, can I help you with anything? – but that’s a reflection for another time). I left also the safety of a suburban megachurch, where all you needed to do to understand the socioeconomic standing of its members was to walk through the parking lot, and the familiar cultural context of my Korean-American upbringing.

This article, however, is not about me. It’s about beautiful, creative, energetic, and intelligent children — kids who, as the least of these, are too often treated as such. There is no limit to blame: from the mother who comes to school drunk, a prostitute, publically shaming her son (who loves her nonetheless and gets beaten by the other boys defending her honor); to the worn-out teacher who drags a “difficult” child into the bathroom, bruising her arms and threatening her with verbal vitriol and rage; to the administration that promotes student after student, knowing they are years behind, but too old to remain; to the system that maintains, protects, and worships a biblical truism, that for to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away (Mt.25:29).

Education as an Exercise in Dominion

Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com

Two schoolchildren wait for the bus, Nolte Lourens / Shutterstock.com

I remember the first time I ever got straight A’s. It was also the last time.

I was in Mrs. Becker’s 4th grade class at John Story Jenks School in Philadelphia. I was always good at reading, I LOVED science projects, and art class was fun — but math? Ugh. Math was my nemesis. In 4thgrade the times tables felt as insurmountable as that dang rope everybody else could whiz up and down in gym class. I just couldn’t figure it out. In fact, to this day, I haven’t figured the rope.

So, my father became my times tables drill sergeant and resorted to straight memorization tactics, making me write each one 10 times. Then he sat across from me at the dining room table and drilled me on the times tables until I said them in my sleep. It was brutal … and oddly, one of the fondest memories of my elementary school years. Not only did I master multiplication, but I also learned something much more important. When my report card came back that quarter with straight A’s, I learned that I could learn!

Reading Scripture Through the Shutdown: A Voice for the Silenced

Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Angela Kissel reads Scripture at the #FaithfulFilibuster last week. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Setting an away email with no date of return was almost as odd as leaving work and not and knowing when I’d be back. This unexpected time off gave me the opportunity to do everything on my to-do list and spend ridiculous amounts of time at the dog park. Naturally, it also gave me time to catch up on reading and visiting with other furloughed friends. But this past Wednesday I was beginning to feel a bit hopeless about the whole situation.

Scrolling through Facebook I noticed Sojourners updates on its #FaithfulFilibuster and it truly made me ashamed of my hopelessness. I was ashamed because I forgot who was in charge. I was ashamed because I forgot where my hope lies. And I was ashamed because I was so wrapped up in my own struggles of furlough I forgot about the families that were already struggling and now also dealing with a loss of paychecks.

On Thursday I saw another update from Sojourners, and despite the rain, I felt compelled to go check it out. I expected to do nothing but observe and admire faith leaders stepping out to reclaim hope and speak for the millions of silenced voices in this country. However, when I arrived, something different happened. I was asked if I wanted to participate, handed a Bible, and stepped to the podium to read.

How Can People of Faith Help Students Achieve Their Potential?

Dilapidated school, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

Dilapidated school, spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

Most Americans share a common understanding that many public schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t great. It’s rare that I engage anyone who doesn’t know this basic fact on some level. But what’s less common is a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. And sadly, even less common than that? Finding individuals who express a deep conviction that educational inequity can be eliminated. Faith communities are poised to add our voices to this much-needed conversation.

Fifteen million children live in poverty in the United States. Given poverty’s impact, many of these children already face additional challenges in their lives. For many young people, education can be “the great equalizer.” A high quality school can provide students with the necessary foundation to go to college and have a variety of opportunities opened to them. Poverty can become a thing of the past. But students growing up in poverty are more likely to attend low-performing public schools. In fact, only 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent receive college diplomas. And, not surprisingly, given our nation’s historical intersection of racial injustice and poverty, African American, Latino, and Native American students experience some of the nation’s biggest educational inequities.

#FaithfulFilibuster: A Vigil Under the Dark Clouds of Washington

Photo and illustration by Brandon Hook  / Sojourners

Jim Wallis at the Faithful Filibuster. Photo and illustration by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Editor's Note: Not in D.C., but want to join in the #FaithfulFilibuster? Click HERE to make your voice heard, and spread the word on Facebook by sharing HERE.

On our way over to the Capitol, I re-read the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. I was struck by the phrase of those building the tall tower "we'll become famous." That sounded a lot like lawmakers and politicians in Washington — it seems that they all want to become famous. In the story, the people were confounded by speaking different languages and their words went past each other. The words of the politicians and pundits are going past each other and their words are not really meant to be understood. They're not meant to find solutions or common ground. These are words that are meant to fight. To win. To defeat. Even, it seems, to foster hate.

The words we're hearing are of politics and punditry, meant to divide and not to unite. The words coming from the top have consequences for those at the bottom. And like Babel, these words are just babble.

We're hearing lots of babble at the Capitol, but across the street, we're trying to hear the word of God — what God says about the people, families, and children who will suffer the most because of Washington's babble. These words aren't just directed to churches and charities about what we should do with the poor. They're about the obligations of kings, rulers, and government to protect the poor.

Join the Chorus: #FaithfulFilibuster's Message to Congress

Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Faith leaders gather to pray at the Capitol Building on Wednesday. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Thursday marked the tenth day of the government shutdown and the second of the #FaithfulFilibuster — A Vigil for the Poor. People of faith, both across the street from the Capitol Building and across the world on social media, are reading through the more than 2,000 Bible verses that deal with poverty and justice as a witness for those the shutdown is affecting the most. 

The rain didn't deter the prayers, as leaders from Sojourners, Bread for the World, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Salvation Army, and more gathered once again to call on Congress to end the shutdown and stop hurting the poor.

They are asking people of faith to reach out to Congressional leadership. Join along with them to Tweet at those members of Congress with your message to them and hashtag #FaithfulFilibuster.

#FaithfulFilibuster — A Vigil for the Poor

Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

Jim Wallis flips through more than 2,000 highlighted verses on poverty & justice in Bible. Photo by Brandon Hook / Sojourners

It’s time to end this shutdown. I’m standing in full view of the Capitol Building with a group of clergy and faith leaders who are here to offer a “Faithful Filibuster” of the government shutdown – and we’re going to keep talking until things change.

We know that this shutdown disproportionately affects the most vulnerable in our society. So our words will not be wasted diatribes or placements of blame. Rather, we will use God’s own words – reading the more than 2,000 Bible verses that speak to God’s justice for the poor and vulnerable – until this shutdown ends.

And while we recite the verses to bear witness for those suffering, we want to make sure that every single member of Congress can read them too. It is our goal to send each member a copy of the Poverty and Justice Biblewhich highlights each of those 2,000 verses. Our elected officials need this reminder now more than ever.

Shutdowns and Shootouts – My New Hometown Normal?

Washington, D.C., skyline, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

Washington, D.C., skyline, Orhan Cam / Shutterstock.com

It’s a rough month to be a Washingtonian.

My morning bike ride past the Capitol Building is leaving me less with the sense of inspiration I used to feel at being so close to the heart of democracy, and more with a creeping sense of disgust. Sometimes it’s tough to live in a city whose very name is a synonym for Congress. “Washington” recently decided to cut off all funding for national parks, health research, and, oh yeah, programs that serve poor Americans.

Thanks to Congress, poor women might not get help from the Women, Infants and Children program to feed their babies. Head Start preschool programs have been canceled, leaving parents unable to work. People who need the SNAP program to feed their families could be left with nowhere to turn, while sick and elderly people who get regular visits from Meals on Wheels volunteers are worried about where their food will come from over the coming weeks.

There are about 40 members of an extremist ideological minority who are ruining the reputation of the place I live and work, and taking the poor down along with them.

Federal Workers Deserve A Living Wage

By Poco a poco

Capitol building in Washington, D.C. By Poco a poco

WASHINGTON —  “All labor has dignity.” That’s what the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said 50 years ago, and it’s still as true today.

Yet too many working men and women are unable to live with dignity in a world where the fastest-growing jobs are the lowest-paying ones. Just and living wages are a moral imperative, and workers must earn enough to afford the basics for themselves and their families. That’s why we have come together to support those fighting for a living wage.

As it turns out, the largest low-wage job creator in the country isn’t Wal-Mart or McDonald’s — it’s Uncle Sam. Through federal contracts, loans, and leases, the federal government employs about 2 million low-wage workersacross the country — sewing military uniforms, cleaning the bathrooms at Washington’s Union Station, serving Big Macs at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, and hauling federal loads on trucks. Too many of these workers can’t even afford rent and food, they work without any benefits, and often are forced to rely on economic safety net programs like food stamps, Medicaid, and Section 8 housing vouchers to meet their basic needs.

Making matters worse, many of these workers are not compensated for overtime work and are actually paidbelow minimum wage. It’s illegal, but it happens. As faith leaders, we have visited with many of these workers and have asked President Obama to meet with them too.

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