James 2:1-10, 14-17
Rev. Michael Livingston; Director of Public Policy, Interfaith Worker Justice
Delivered at the United Methodist Chapel at 100 Maryland Ave NE Washington, DC on September 5, 2012
I’ve got a new friend. Her name is Vernell Livingston. I met her last October at the fall mobilization for Fighting Poverty with Faith. It’s an interfaith effort to eliminate poverty as soon as possible—to engage people of faith across the religious spectrum in understanding the dimensions of the problem and more importantly—doing something about it. There is always a “Take action” component: You know, like the text—“Faith without action is nothing.” The focus of the mobilization was on hunger and we decided to issue a Food Stamp Challenge, to people of faith across, the congress, to religious leaders. The center of the event was an experience shopping at the Capitol Hill Safeway grocery store.
We invited members of Congress, religious leaders, and a White House representative to shop with food stamp recipients in the District of Columbia on the $31.50 for a week of groceries provided through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—that’s what we call food stamps now. So, I met Vernell. We talked first about the coincidence of having the same last name and tried to figure out if we were related but her North Carolina clan didn’t seem to have any connection to my Louisiana/Texas bunch. It was instructive watching her make decisions about what to buy based on what she had already and calculating what she’d need for other necessities during the month. That’s no longer my reality.
I got in touch with her after the event wanting to write an article about her, telling her story. So we talked by phone and we met and I got to know her better and I learned about her life. Vernell was one of the oldest of 12 children in South Carolina. What were you doing at 12? I was playing little league baseball and learning the Clarinet; I was in the Boy Scouts and praying the Lakers would one day beat the Celtics and Elgin Baylor and Jerry West would win an NBA championship. Vernell was picking cotton and tobacco alongside her father in sweltering heat. After he suffered a debilitating stroke, Vernell’s fate was sealed. She never went back to school and spent what would have been her junior and senior high years in those fields inhaling the deadly fumes of tobacco plants and pesticides sprayed with farmworkers in the fields. She’s not much older than I am.
As a young woman she was sent to Washington DC to keep the children of an aunt while the aunt worked and she soon began domestic work in DC homes and that led finally to work as a maid in the motel industry in for most of her life. Disability following hip replacement surgery ended her days on her knees cleaning bathtubs and toilets and dusting under beds in motels and she lives today in government subsidized housing on $885 a month Social Security. Earlier this year her nearly $200 a month SNAP benefits were cut, without explanation, to $31. She’s still trying to understand what has happened.
What has happened? It is a good question for all of us. We listen to lie upon lie from candidates running for every political office and that has become normal discourse barely commented upon by mainstream media and fodder for ridicule on cable stations that reach a few million people a night. Our great (?) nation has the most unequal income distribution among all major industrialized nations on the planet. In the last 40 years our economy doubled in size and yet the average income for 90% of us fell by 6% while annual income of the top 1/100th of 1% grew by nearly $20 million. We’re talking about 16,000 households here. Vernell’s isn’t one of them.
What has happened here? Forty-nine million Americans living in poverty; 12 million of them are children. There are only two congressional districts in the entire nation that have had a statistically significant decrease in poverty since the recession began in 2007. 145 have stayed the same 388 have seen a significant increase in people living in poverty since 2007. And we keep electing people to congress who don’t work to lift people out of poverty. Dr. William Barber is the President of the NAACP in North Carolina. A friend sent me a video of his remarks from their recently concluded annual gathering. He put words in the mouths of political candidates today: “Elect me and I’ll take your health care, I’ll take your voting rights, I’ll take your social security, I’ll re-segregate your schools, I’ll ignore your poverty”—and he said, “…they still get votes.”
What has happened? Workers are fighting to bargain collectively, to be paid fairly, to afford health care, to send their children to college and hope they graduate without crushing debt, to expect that they will be able to afford to live comfortably in the last years of life. Labor Day is a hollow shell, just another not so long weekend in a hard year. President Eisenhower said in 1956 that the right of workers to organize would be a permanent part of the platform of his administration and that anyone who opposed it would be, his word, “stupid.” Times change.
This text from James has been the occasion for the ages old debate—what is more important, faith or works? There is no choice here and I think James makes that clear. This is not just about remembering the poor in our prayers, not about having our consciences pricked or raising the level of our awareness. This goes beyond sending money to organizations that serve the needs of the poor. It is more than sophisticated political advocacy on Capitol Hill of the kind we are engaged in here. It includes but is deeper than addressing the root causes of poverty, the structural impediments to a fundamentally just society that is vigilant in its opposition to racism and effectively guards against the unfettered greed that so infests our system, turning corporations into people and money into speech while grinding real people into dust.
All of this is essential; we had better attend to it, but not at the expense of missing the deeper truth. Wherever we are on the spectrum of human life, whatever our age, level of education, whatever our status, class, place of work, sexual orientation, age, race, color, or creed; if we don’t have a job or a safe place to sleep, if we’re the elite of elites or the last among the lost, whether we’ve inherited riches or are rich in our humanity alone– We are all one people; all in this together. No one is better than any other, more worthy, closer to wherever heaven might be. James reminds us that building relationships of mutuality and respect, that treating people—whether rich or poor is the measure of our grasp of the divine among us: the image of God on every face.
So James says “If Donald Trump comes in your church and a poor person in dirty clothes comes in and you seat the Donald and make the poor person stand—your mind is poisoned with sin and the whole weight of moral law falls on your head.” We know that in early Christianity in Syria, this teaching took root. If a poor person showed up, and no seats were available in the congregation, the bishop had to give up his seat.
We are living in a nation at a time when the wealthy get all the good seats: Jack Nicholson on the floor at the Laker games, the Royal Box at Wimbledon, the legacy admissions at top colleges…and on and on and on. James says: Vernell gets the best seat in house, and doesn’t she deserve it? Amen.