In 2016, right before summer I embarked on the Poor People’s Campaign’s Midwest Tour. It was planned for months, and took twelve days. On that first day drove from New York City to Toledo, Ohio. During that time we embarked on a journey that would take us across the rust belt. After Toledo we went west to Chicago Illinois, Back east to Elkhart Indiana, north to Detroit & Flint Michigan, and then South east to Cleveland Ohio. It may not have been the epic of the Odyssey but it would change my life forever. And it started with intention.
We had a 15 passenger van, newer, sleek rental. Seven of us were there the whole time and we picked up delegates along the way. And during the trip, others from the various poor people’s movements joined us in their own vehicles. We saw what happened with police militarization of Chicago and pollution of the great lakes, the apocalyptic suburbs of abandoned homes in Detroit, to the mostly automated factories of Ford motor, and water crisis of Flint and Detroit.` We had panels which delegates from New York and the Midwest heard the struggles of the poor. We knew that our struggles were interconnected and many ways had the same story. We heard what happened with the original Rainbow Coalition which started in 1968 the year Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated and before Jesse Jackson, when the black panthers allied with young patriots, poor whites who had moved to Chicago from Appalachia because coal mining became more automated and they looked for work. The young patriots ironically wore the confederate flag on their denim. Both Panthers and Patriots each with pistols and defending each other in their militant protest. In addition they had local Mexican, Korean and American Indian groups apart of the coalition. We heard the struggle of the union of autoworkers in Detroit and Flint, we heard in Elkhart from the Peoples history of Elkhart who had poor whites, blacks and latinX community, and support from the Mennonites. I heard from some local groups, I asked about the occasional local UU congregation, and they said how helpful they were to host meetings and stand in solidarity with them. Every time we had a panel delegation discussion or educational meeting we sung, we ate, we hugged, we let each other know that we had each other’s backs. These were almost ritual, these were done intentionally, we were able to plan most things out, and it took lots of work from lots of people.
I say this story because I believe intentionality is essential to any spiritual practice, whether a daily discipline or justice making. Spirituality requires intention, two types of practice and a spiritual maintenance schedule which I promise to break down. My primary spiritual practice is justice making, and my other is singing. If I could I would join all the choirs. A plan or a goal is useful for intentionality, but if not one must be mindful. Like Rev. John says, intention is the bridge between being and doing. One must be intentional with their spirituality, even if we have a go with the flow spirituality, we must be intentional about it. We of the Poor People’s Campaign made sure that whenever an event happened, there was at least connection and awareness practices
When I refer to connection and Awareness practices, the two types of practices essential to spirituality, I refer to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. They say, to be holistic, one must have at least one connection practice and one awareness practice. They have a great depiction of a tree, with “branches of spiritual practices”. The awareness practices include things like vigils, marches, pilgrimages, petitionary prayer, Sabbath, altar making, deep listening, journaling, rituals/ ceremonies, and storytelling. The connection practices include centering, sitting meditation, martial arts, walking meditation, singing, chanting, and sand mandala. For me the Poor People’s Campaign provided both spiritual connection and spiritual awareness.
Sometimes, in my mind I think of it as an inward and outward conversation. There is the relationship with self and the inner divine, and outward the community and global voices of the divine. It’s why I like the poem by Rev. Jan Thaddeo, that talks about the three things you must do: discover your life given gifts, know the needs of the world and bridge the two. This requires self-care and spirit searching to discover those gifts, and it requires knowing what is needed so you can. The needs of the one and the needs of the many are in balance. My connection practice was singing, my awareness practice was being part of About Face: Veterans Against the War and the New Poor Peoples Campaign. They are now calling themselves A New Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. And this trip, this journey, this pilgrimage across the rust belt was a spiritual practice for me. Never did an event go by that didn’t have singing, people talking to each other, praying, and education; as we paid homage and respect to the poor and oppressed. And it was one big pilgrimage. Each day nowadays, I make sure I sing, whether shower or driving. And I make sure to keep up to date on issues of justice. If needed I pray. With my eyes open when I drive down the Merrit Parkway. Oh MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD!
We need to have connection and awareness intentionally in our lives. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks certainly did. They prayed to the God of Liberation, and prayed with their feet as they marched. They talked to people to see what their issues were, listened deeply, and co-created solutions with them. They went to church every week, they sang, they marched.
I cannot help but hope and aspire to be like them. They are two of my greatest heroes and legends. I intentionally explored my spirituality to see what common ground there maybe, and what was different. All three of us intentionally reflected on our experiences. We, the delegates from New York City in the Midwest tour, all seemed to love the scripture from Christian gospel Luke 4:18- The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. This was an echo from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah which were opening words. And no, I don’t think God is a man or Lord. God to me is the universal spirit of love and equality. God is the Force of creation, creativity, and balance. I do not think of God as good, or evil. But a force who went from the big bang of two elements, to a whole periodic table, from inanimate to sentient life. While I believe in liberation theology, and believe, as we are all God, that God experience’s our struggle by virtue of being the whole universe. God is the wonderful sunrise and sunburn. I believe that God want us all to be equal, each with the opportunity to grow in liberty, with community, to grow in knowledge, with love. Robert Solomon, the author of Spirituality for the Sceptic, says that love is compassion, trust and reverence. I thought it so powerful that it became permanent scripture to me, ask me later about my tattoo. I believe personally that we have a sacred duty to bring balance to the universe, starting here on Earth globally, especially, in our local communities. And so the Gospel of Luke speaks to me, as I feel balance will happen when we get rid of poverty, when we let the oppressed go free and decriminalize the poor, especially the mass incarceration of black people and poor whites. So we see the intention Jesus had in preaching to the Ancient Jews, using scripture they held sacred in critique about empire, as he read from the Hebrew Prophet Isaiah. The majority of UUs are humanist and/or do not believe in God. But I ask you dearly beloved, what is God to you? How does God play into your intentionality? Into your connection and Awareness, whatever form the holy takes, however your spirituality has formed, and regardless of what the God of others may have given you pain or suffering.
We need to have connection and awareness intentionally in our lives. In the book Everyday Spiritual Practice, one contributor Arvid Straube- recommends a spiritual maintenance schedule. Fun fact I found out that he is Rev. John’s spiritual advisor! Small world! He advises, as part of a spiritual maintenance schedule to do your spiritual practice for at least 10 minutes a day, take a Sabbath day of spiritual practice weekly, meet monthly with a group, and each year take ten days for spiritual practice. We interrupt your scheduled broadcasting to remind you that we have 12 groups on our small group ministry that meet monthly, and can make more, a fifth of our members are a part of one and you can be one too, please see us afterwards for more information. (WINK) We bring you back to your scheduled programming.
Imagine that time that would be dedicated, how much life could be improved. Both intellectually, and emotionally. And yet that would have a physical effect and a social impact as well. Both relationally with those you are close to but society as well. Taking the time daily to connect with oneself and some time to be aware of the world, taking time weekly to connect with people and be aware of the world. Imagine if society allowed for more time off, what a yearly ten day spiritual retreat would do for your spirit.
My life has been made so much different when I take time to do these. In 2016 when I went on Midwest tour, it was the only time when I intentionally went on a ten day spiritual retreat, granted it was a movement building, truth commission style, and activist organizing trip. To me, in retrospect, it was in fact a pilgrimage rooted on connection and awareness, versus traditional ideas of isolation and retreat. And it changed my life. It anointed me, to help continue that work of “bringing good news to the poor and oppressed”. When I looked at the tree of spiritual practices, I saw how many of each things, I did and would enjoy doing. I am fairly busy, but I do the best I can, after all it only helps.
The life of the people on the Midwest tour, those delegates, panelists and members of the community were all impacted. While I’d like to think the message of the Poor People’s Campaign draws everyone in on principle, they were drawn in because they were desperate. They were not powerless, but certainly were in dire need of change. They were not dumb, but to hear stories, to see videos of the realities faced by others around the country, to feel what could happen, they could taste victory. Freedom from oppression. But we were not able to go to every town, in every state within the rust belt. Of the five states we visited, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Michigan, four of them voted for Trump. All because of supposed promises for better jobs, health insurance, and other things that would be a way out from daily misery and despair. I fear they never learned to pray with their feet. As Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who marched at Selma in the 60’s said “I felt my legs were praying.” In learning more about some of the intentional practices of Civil Rights American Jews and their experiences in Selma, I found an article in Duke University by Kate Collins. She talks about a few experiences. One in particular was in a Shabbat service, that Jewish group sang the Adon Olam to the melody of “We Shall Overcome”. A song usually sung at the end of Shabbat services, funerals, and in morning prayers, as well as on the eve of atonement. I asked Rev. Dr. Ed Thompson, if he knew how they would have done this, as I found no audio recording. He said it may have gone as such. (Singing time- Adon Olam a sher malach, b’te rem kol ye zir niv’ra). What a powerful display of solidarity to merge the Jewish Sabbath rituals with the black church liberation singing.
In Elkhart Indiana, the Poor People’s Campaign had a panel discussion with those who seem to constantly go from temp work to temp work. They go from job to job, no health insurance, barely making rent and paying for food, with no paid vacation. They were emotional because they knew a coalition was forming which did not blame them, the poor, but blamed the systems of poverty. A system that recognized it wasn’t an accident. They do the best they can. They recognized that they were not alone in the struggle, but felt part of a movement which organized across all lines of identity and differences, united in love.
Spirituality requires practices of connection and awareness. Joining the Poor people’s Campaign, now 50 years after it started, reminds me of the work it takes to heal the spirit, to live life with intention. Daily, weekly, and yearly. At Elkhart Indiana, when we toured the Poor People’s Campaign. The whole community got involved. The town had thousands of people, but we filled that gym with a few hundred. It was a powerful day, filled with the spirit of life. We continued the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and we did so with intention. We introduced the campaign, and the hope to end the tripartite evil of poverty, racism and militarism, we saw a video from another trip taken to the Gulf Coast, which impacted our spirits collectively. We all introduced each other and reflected on what the Poor Peoples Campaign could be, what would it have to be to include each of us, and what can we do to be a part of it. And afterwards, to conclude we sang, we beat drums, we clapped, some of us cried, some of us laughed, some did both simultaneously. Men women, transgender, of all races, ethnic backgrounds, various religious groups, all impacted by poverty, racism and militarism.
We Unitarian Universalists don’t believe, as a collective, in a God that will save us. And even for those of us who do, we believe we humans must work together to save the world. While I believe the universe wants balance, it acts through nature, and it acts through those masses crying out against oppression. The arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice, according to the Unitarian minister Rev. Theodore Parker, something which Rev. Dr. King quoted often. I believe that justice requires intention, and we must fuel it with our spirituality through awareness and connection practices. We UUs must be intentional as we live out the seven principles, especially as the third and fourth say, in our search for truth, in our acceptance of each other, as we encourage each other to spiritual growth. You have each other, you have us, do some proverbial soul searching. Awareness and connection practices can each take a multitude of different forms and variations. For us at the Poor People’s Campaign, we prayed with our feet, we sang with our hearts, we listened with our spirits. We made a pilgrimage, we continue even now to bear witness to suffering, and we will co-create what we feel are solutions so that the justice and love can prevail. I hope all of America joins the New Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and that it continues to spread around the world, especially Unitarian Universalists. The UU Minister’s Association has, and UUA President Susan Frederick- Gray have endorsed it, now it’s time for the congregations to all show their support. I pray this happens this year, in honor of Martin Luther King Jr, fifty years after his death. That we do so with intention, in our hearts, mind, in our collective spirit. Amen.