Martin of the Poor

The last major speech Dr. King delivered, four days before his assassination, was on poverty at the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968. Dr. King´s sermon was entitled “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution” containing the quote below:

“There is another thing closely related to racism that I would like to mention as another challenge. We are challenged to rid our nation and the world of poverty. Like a monstrous octopus, poverty spreads its nagging, prehensile tentacles into hamlets and villages all over our world. Two-thirds of the people of the world go to bed hungry tonight. They are ill-housed; they are ill-nourished; they are shabbily clad. I’ve seen it in Latin America; I’ve seen it in Africa; I’ve seen this poverty in Asia; I see this poverty in the United States.”

Poverty is a reality in Massachusetts where I live: According to the Massachusetts Coalition for the Homeless http://www.mahomeless.org/advocacy/basic-facts 728,514 people live below the poverty line; in 2013 19,209 people experienced homelessness; in the 2012-2013 academic year 15,812 students were homeless; on Nov. 25, 2014 4800 families with children were living in shelters. The level of poverty in this state is double what it was in 1990.

In the face of these daunting statistics, on this anniversary of Dr. King’s birthday what would Martin have us do?

photo Dr King marching

I think he’d encourage us to get involved in local initiatives like Family Promise. In my community Christians and Jews partner to house three homeless families at a time in our places of worship.

He’d encourage interfaith worship gatherings that reminds us to work together. In the town I live we will conclude our interfaith worship with a candlelight procession to a corner of our main street (Cabot Street). We will stand in solidarity with our neighbors who are homeless. For a few moments we will feel the bitter weather that accompanies those who camp in doorways and alleys.

Dr. King would remind us that beyond offering kindness to our neighbors we are to understand and confront the political, economic and social factors that push so many into homelessness and poverty.

He’d invite us to wrestle with these words: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin at a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Dr. King’s dream of a world governed by equality and compassion remains compelling and elusive. His words are rooted in the wisdom of Jesus who said, ‘whatever you do (or don’t do) to the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do (or don’t do) unto me.’

The dream continues to capture our heart and imagination. The opportunities to serve are on our very doorstep. Let’s get to work.

Note: If you live in Beverly, MA join us for interfaith worship January 19 2015 7 p.m. St Peter’s Episcopal Church 4 Ocean Street; First Parish and First Baptist Beverly partner to house 3 families with Family Promise January 25 – Feb 1 contact either church if you’d like to help. Beyond Beverly, find partners in your local community, religious and secular to make a difference.

Who is Your Neighbor?

I recently moved to a new community. The neighborhood I work in has a bustling downtown. Cabot Street features restaurants, coffee shops and boutiques that invite people to browse and visit. Often I cross paths with people I know, sometimes we offer a quick wave, often we stop and talk. One of the things I enjoy most about my neighborhood are the people I’m getting to know as friends.

Within the downtown are those less visible. They are our neighbors who are homeless. It is not uncommon for people to walk past the homeless as if they weren’t there. Perhaps we walk past because we think that their story is so different from our own? Perhaps we walk past because they remind us of our own vulnerability?

image of homeless

The church I serve has long been seen as a hospitable place for our neighbors on the street. We serve three meals per week for guests who are homeless or live on the margins. This past week we partnered with another church to house three families with ten children. Soon the winter weather will come and our most fragile friends will come seeking warmth,to use the restrooms or plug in a cell phone.

Providing hospitality isn’t easy. Some guests are active in their addiction or struggle with mental health issues. Sometimes we have to set boundaries for appropriate behavior.

Some churches lock their doors and see assistance as enabling. Some cities seek to criminalize the most vulnerable and force them into jails or to the next community.

I’m grateful for churches and communities that strive to provide a warm welcome and practical assistance. Gradually I’m getting to know the names and stories of my new neighbors on the street. I’m reminded that our stories have much in common.

Jesus in Matthew 25 says, ‘whatever you do unto the most vulnerable of my sisters and brothers, you do unto me’. Jesus identifies with the most vulnerable at the deepest of levels and invites us to do the same.

Recognizing one another as a neighbor has all sorts of implications. As we get to know and care about each other, we begin to see the complex issues that bring someone to the streets. We begin to explore what social services are necessary for a healthy community to provide, so that all our neighbors are treated with dignity. But it all begins by simply knowing each other’s name.

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