The "New Poor": Action within and beyond the Congregation

[You can expand the graphic of this flyer by clicking on it.]

Over the past few months, I have been sharing with you letters and stories from the “new poor” in America and in our own congregations, and ideas for how our congregations can address their suffering.  What can we—clergy and congregants concerned about the “previously poor” and the “newly poor” in our own congregations and in the nation—do about it?

There are two basic approaches, and we can undertake them both.

  1. Within the congregation, set up special funds and sub-communities to care for and share with people who are in trouble.  The most crucial pre-conditions for doing this are making clear that there ARE congregants in serious financial trouble, bringing that fact out of the closeted shame many now feel—and committing the congregation to treat the poor amongst them with dignity and caring, not contempt. As “We,” not “Them.”
  2. Within and beyond the congregation, taking action that addresses the underlying social, economic, and political imbalances that lead to mass disemployment and de-housing.

Let us look first at the internal-congregational steps we might take:

Devote clergy “discretionary funds” chiefly to helping congregants in deep financial trouble. Congregational leaders can remind and urge congregants to give to those funds. Then the clergyperson transfers the money to people in trouble.

Encourage what in the Jewish community is called a “gemach” from the initials of “gemilut chasadim,” acts of loving-kindness. They are storehouses of objects or gatherings of people where congregants can borrow items or services they need for a time, then return them, in good condition, to be re-used. Examples:

  • wedding garments for both genders and many sizes, to be worn, cleaned and returned
  • cribs, cradles, changing tables, intercoms, etc. 
  • maternity clothes
  • medical supplies needed temporarily, like canes, shower stools, risers for toilets, portable commodes, grabbers, wheelchairs
  • simple medical services (like helping a patient “eat” through a feeding tube when eating by mouth is impossible, as a group of neighborhood congregants did for me in the worst weeks after my treatment for throat cancer);

Make clear in congregational bylaws that no one will be turned away from religious school and similar commitments for lack of ability to pay. Carry this out in an atmosphere of caring, not suspicion or contempt.

Now let us turn to drawing on congregational action to move our society:

I took part in the national meeting in Oakland, CA, from March 20 to 22, of about 100 people from 16 Occupy Faith communities around the country.

The gathering came up with an action plan. The first part is already under way.

  1. Beginning during May—especially aiming at a public start-up Tuesday May 29 (after Memorial Day and the festivals of Shavuot and Pentecost)—and continuing through the rest of the year, congregations and Occupy Faith groups will carry out story-telling sessions to collect testimony about economic injustice in people’s own livesOccupy Faith will issue guidelines for gathering testimony and create a website so video of the testimonies can be posted. Stories might include people whose homes had been foreclosed, people who had been disemployed, people devastated by health care costs, students who can’t afford the new costs of public colleges or who are facing enormous debt burdens with very iffy job prospects, etc
  2. Beginning on July 4, if enough money can be raised,  there will be a bus tour around the country, focused on economic inequality and injustice, to hold live public hearings at local Occupations that can be video taped and collected, to link local occupations across the country, to grow local faith participation in the movement, and to drum up attention to the issue of economic injustice in local and national as the buses go. The tour would go into August, ending as the country’s attention turns to the national political-party conventions.
  3. On January 20-25 (Sunday, Jan 20, is Presidential Inauguration Day and Monday, Jan. 21, is Martin Luther King’s Birthday), in Washington DC, Occupy Faith would sponsor a public Truth Commission on Economic Injustice that would hold public hearings, would make publicly available the most pointed and effective of the tapes that had been collected throughout this process, and would issue a report on Economic Injustice in America.

  4. The Occupy Faith network would encourage the broader Occupy movement to consider mobilizing tens or hundreds of thousands of people to come to Washington  Jan 20-21 to address two demands:  Corporate/ Billionaire Money out of Politics, and Jobs and Economic Justice for All. To me, the meeting seemed both en-Spirited and intelligent.

I think the action plan makes good sense ethically, strategically, and tactically, since it involves local grass-roots communities as well as a national focus, and since it addresses the twin issues—the plight of the 99% and the undemocratic, overweening power of the 1% — that both the poor and the middle class are feeling and are conscious of feeling.

Moreover, by focusing on face-to-face story-tellings of descents into poverty, this process will help heal the secrecy, shame, and self-blame that is now a spiritual and emotional blight on the lives of many of the poor. This is a worthy spiritual mission for our synagogues, churches, mosques, and temples.

If the stories are presented well to the public, they will also help heal the spiritual disease of blindness or contempt toward the poor that now haunts and disfigures American culture. So they will lead to public advocacy and action.

The action plan will require both local energy from Occupy Faith groups and congregations, and nation-wide coordination. It will require raising money to make happen.

I hope that readers and members of The Shalom Center will consider it carefully and that we find ourselves able—with your help as thinkers, organizers, and donors—to take on this task. Click here for other letters, stories, and ideas about healing the suffering of the “new poor.”

I welcome your thoughts, your commitment to organize, and your gifts—see below. All three will help us keep doing this work. So far, we seem to be one of very few organizations to cry aloud about this—and we need help.


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