What to make of an anti-poverty event that could easily cost participants $500-$1000 or more, depending on how far they traveled, where they slept and what they ate? I ask the question not as a criticism, but because it influenced my one day experience of the Mobilization to End Poverty gathering, and my early exit from it.
The recommended hotel cost $245 a night, an amount higher than any I have ever paid for a hotel, even when my husband earned a six-figure income. I might have stayed at a hostel for $50 if I had acted early, but instead I camped alone for $16 a night at Greenbelt National Park in nearby Maryland. A late model German station wagon served as my “tent.” For dinner I prepared Trader Joe’s noodles with a cup of hot water that I grubbed at McDonald’s. I covered my interior windows with $9 worth of “made in China” tablecloths I had purchased at a nearby dollar store. They quickly filled my abode with the suffocating smell of formaldehyde. (How toxic must those factories be?) As evening wore on, I tried to read the 100th anniversary edition of Walter Rauschenbusch’s Christianity and the Social Crisis, but felt vulnerable, alone and foolish for setting up camp in what passes for a DC suburb.
What little sleep I got was periodically interrupted by the sound of sirens in the distance. Looking put together and professional after such a night is a challenge I don’t care to repeat. It’s a challenge I’m not sure I could endure with grace on a daily basis. By the time I arrived at the convention center, I felt unkempt. Inferior. Apart from attendees I imagined could afford to comfortably lobby and talk about poverty—even though I’ve spent the past six months working hard to gain access to tax-payer funded mental health services for an uninsured and currently uninsurable family member. I rejoice in care of questionable quality because it is something and it’s cheap.
From this vantage point I assessed day one of the Mobilization to End Poverty.
The speakers were inspiring—more consistently inspiring than most on the poverty circuit, according to a couple Sisters of Charity from Leavenworth, Kansas. Biblical mandates flowed freely, and startled when they too closely resembled mandates anointing a different political agenda that had been roundly and rightly criticized from these quarters.
Activists were enthused. A couple expectant Presbyterian fathers from Bradenton, Florida, were there looking for inspiration. They had flown into town, but were staying with friends in the suburbs. One is a church youth group leader; the other a board member of his local chapter of Habitat for Humanity. At the close of day one, both had gained renewed enthusiam for themselves and their ministries. The investment was clearly worth it to them.
A Lutheran attendee from Pennsylvania said he was excited to be there talking about something other than abortion and gay marriage. Yes, but why must we denounce? The rigor of the abortion debate was appropriate to its time and is evolving in ways appropriate to our time. The gay marriage debate is one worth having. We should applaud it, and add to it, not shirk from it. Ambivalence on this issue dare not speak its name and that’s not good. What does it require of me to oppose hunger or affirm health care reform? Certainly nothing as gauche as meddling in other people’s sex lives. Unless of course one deigns to get their hands dirty with real people—people like my grandfather, who produced six children and then abandoned them.
It’s easier to meddle in people’s money, especially with an economic crisis and an unpopular war that create convenient platforms upon which to build our case. On Monday afternoon, no less than former CEO and current World Vision president Richard Stearns compared the 2009 economic collapse to the 1989 fall of communism, saying unrestrained capitalism had been found “bankrupt” and “inadequate” in the same way unrestrained communism had twenty years ago. He spoke truth to the choir.
So let me meddle. In addition to denouncing corporate greed, how about, as longtime urban minister Rudy Carrasco suggested to me, we lobby business for its support in the same way we lobby elected officials? Doing it already? Fine. Then don’t dismiss the interests of business.
Instead of comparing and contrasting one pro-life cause with another, as Monday night’s preacher did, how about we make Obama accountable for his promises to support responsible fatherhood, adoption and abortion reduction?
In my husband’s work as case worker and pastor to homeless men at Double R Ranch in Warner Springs, CA, one of his responsibilities was to help men re-enter the lives of their children. Often this meant getting them to see beyond themselves and their own histories of failure to the welfare of others. The process began with caring for the ranch’s 40+ horses and other animals. It also included requiring them to contribute a portion of their minuscule incomes to the support of their children and facing the women who were busy cleaning up their messes.
Last year, I emailed my elected representatives to ask them to vote for the Paul Wellstone-Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act of 2008, a bill that requires insurers that offer mental health coverage to do so equitably. A bill that President Obama sponsored as a senator and that President Bush signed into law. It’s a pro-life issue I heartily supported as the mother of a child who died by suicide and whose birth was ensured by the advocacy of notorious pro-lifers like the late Jerry Falwell.
I realized this week that I cannot afford face time with my legislators in Washington right now, but I can make a difference. First by caring for my own family members and others within my sphere of influence, second by contributing tax revenue to fund sources of support upon which my loved ones currently depend, third by advocating for a wide variety of pro-life causes and, finally, by challenging my peers.
So let me close with this reflection: It’s great to rally the troops and celebrate our victories, as long as we don’t become the thing we despise. Don’t become the thing you despised Sojourners. You have friends of all political and theological persuasions.