by Joe Paparone, Poor People’s Campaign (New York)
We were concluding a short-term mission trip in Poipet, Cambodia when I asked our host, the full-time medical missionary, what he thought the next five years there looked like. “When we travel in the US, everyone wants us to talk about conflict between Christianity and Buddhism, but that’s not what’s capturing people here,” he said. “What’s capturing people is capitalism.”
It was in Cambodia that we first witnessed people being denied healthcare because they lacked the ability to pay. We witnessed a young boy who’d been assaulted by police, allegedly for stealing mangoes. We learned how wealthier people could take property by simply building a wall around what they wanted, and their poorer neighbors had no recourse.
Then I traveled for 15 hours and thought about what that meant for a suburban, wealthy, white church in Upstate New York.
In New York, as we attempted to translate these experiences to our own neighborhoods, we began to encounter similar stories, and simultaneously, a resistance among our church family to engaging these issues at home. A church that was willing to donate thousands of dollars and use their vacation to travel overseas for several weeks, was less willing to volunteer a few hours to serve a meal at the city mission, and certainly less willing to consider the systemic reasons why nearly all the people we served at the mission had one skin color and everyone at our church had a different one.
Our church was wonderful at being gracious and compassionate with our neighbors, when they were people mostly like us. We didn’t realize it at the time, but the hurdles we were encountering were race and class differences.
Jump forward a few years, and I’d completed seminary, continuing to wrestle with questions of systems and violence and justice, and finding there was no place for me in the denomination I had sought to serve in. I still knew I was called to ministry, but I didn’t know what that meant.
On April 2, 2015, in Albany (NY), Dontay Ivy was walking home late at night when he was racially profiled, stopped, harassed, chased, assaulted, and murdered by police officers. In the months that followed, I was part of an organization that held marches, rallies, and education events, organizing and mobilizing the community to speak out against this injustice and demand accountability. We were dismissed by the police and more “respectable” members of the community, like many pastors of local churches, who pursued minor and ultimately meaningless reforms to police practices.
While we were unsuccessful in our pursuit of justice for Dontay, I believe that work was sacred. Our role as disciples of Jesus is to pursue justice, even and especially when it is elusive.
Jump forward a few more years, and now I work for an organization helping to build a new Poor People’s Campaign, following Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church of the Poor” – a new and unsettling force building unity among poor and working class people to challenge systemic racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation.
In my work with the Poor People’s Campaign, I’ve had the privilege of joining with poor and working class people who’ve struggled their entire lives – not only with material deprivation, but with the cultural and psychological lies that tell them their struggles were their fault and their fault alone. That there weren’t entire systems set in place to keep them poor and isolated from one another. Instead, we’ve begun to join together, learning and taking action together, singing songs and building power to confront the forces that oppress our communities, our country, and the world. To bring freedom to captives, food for the hungry, healing to the sick.
If that isn’t good news for the poor, I’m not sure what is.