Everyone has a right to live. That statement, the focus of this week's Poor People's Campaign rally in Washington, D.C., on June 11, prompted powerful speeches, drew signs with a number of different calls to action around jobs, income, the right to organize and housing, resulted in more 100 arrests in the streets in front of the U.S. Capitol and spurred several clergy members to put their bodies on the line on the steps of the Supreme Court.
The Rev. Damaris Whittaker, senior minister of Fort Washington Collegiate Church in New York City, drew attention to the thousands of American citizens in Puerto Rico still in crisis following Hurricane Maria. New data shows the death toll from the storm is much higher than originally indicated.
"Everybody has a right to live, including the American citizens in Puerto Rico," Whittaker said. "Following the storm 179,000 people left because there were not enough jobs, housing, clean water. We are now in an education crisis as well. More than 266 schools have been closed. I have been there walking the streets and going to the schools and it's the most vulnerable children - those who are hearing impaired, those who have physical needs, those who are physically challenged - they are the ones left without a contingency plan for their education. I am here standing, saying everyone has a right to live including the people in Puerto Rico."
Cheryl Leanza, policy advisor for Office of Communication Inc., the UCC's media justice arm, wanted to call attention to the need for a free and open internet. "On June 11 the repeal of Net Neutrality took effect," she said, noting that O.C., Inc, and the members of its Faithful Internet campaign continue to protest the repeal and were attending Poor People's Campaign events around the country. "Net Neutrality is essential for social justice efforts like the Poor People's Campaign, and Net Neutrality is necessary to be sure everyone is treated fairly online--no matter the color of their skin or money in their pocket."
Staffers of the UCC Washington, D.C. office, accompanied by a group of advocates from First Congregational Church of Rockford UCC in Rockford, Mich., joined the witness to hold lawmakers accountable for changing government policies that impact vulnerable people.
"Every day, it seems, there is another wave of attacks on the poor and vulnerable in our country. Recently proposed restrictions on food stamps, public housing and health care are the tip of the iceberg. Enough is enough," said Sandy Sorensen, director of the UCC D.C. Office. "In this 50th anniversary year of the Poor Peoples Campaign, we must once again stand in the breach and push back against inhumane policy decisions."
More than 100 people were arrested for blocking traffic in front of the Capitol during the rally. The Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior pastor of Plymouth Congregational, in Washington, D.C., and two clergy from Fort Washington Collegiate Church, the Rev. Rob Stephens, Minister for Congregational Life, and Rev. Hershey Stephens, were among nine faith leaders arrested while praying on the steps of the Supreme Court, calling attention to how Court rulings impact 'the right to live.' They were protesting to draw attention to the Court’s Husted decision, which upholds voter suppression, and the looming Janus decision, which would be an attack on the poor.
Linda Goossen, one of the five advocates from First Congregational, said her group was working in visits to Michigan lawmakers to speak out about the disparities of health care access. "You need to take care of people's health. It's more costly to not have access to health care," she said. "Our laws govern how we treat people, so if you want to impact social justice you have to impact the root cause."
The focus on equity for those who have less than other Americans will continue next week, and on June 23, when the Poor People's Campaign culminates with a Global Day of Solidarity and Sending Forth Call to Action Mass in Washington, D.C.
"Joining together in solidarity across the intersections of issues, we can become that "new and unsettling force" for change that Dr. King envisioned," Sorensen said. "Let's stand together in Washington on June 23 and send the message that we won't step back. Forward together!"