I spent the past few days at the US World Meeting of Popular Movements. This was…
“An initiative of Pope Francis, the World Meeting of Popular Movements’ (WMPM) purpose is to create an “encounter” between Church leadership and grassroots organizations working to address the “economy of exclusion and inequality” (Joy of the Gospel, nos. 53-54) by working for structural changes that promote social, economic and racial justice.”
I was surprised how I already knew quite a few people there and I met a lot of new rad people. There were a bunch of Bishops and priests there… it’s a natural reflex for me to target clergy, so I had a great time with that. It’s usually pretty easy for me to catch their attention (particularly the clergy who focus a lot on social justice issues) because I point out that when people think of homelessness they think of charity, not justice. But without justice, there is no charity. I tell them there are no faith-based group organizing on the social justice side of homelessness in SF… and that I would be surprised (and thrilled!) to hear they had one. This seemed to catch their attention.
I handed them the executive summary of our “Punishing the Poorest” report… and I explained that this research is studying the impact of the criminalization of homelessness. I acknowledge that the study is of SF, but it’s relevant to them because the very same thing is taking place in their community as well… it’s a nation wide issue. This was shocking to all of them (awareness is so low on this!)… the executive summary is short and quite compelling, so I hope they will give it more thought.
Before I went to the conference I received the agenda… as I anticipated based on my past experiences of meetings with organizers in faith communities, homelessness was not on the agenda. “Housing and work” was on the agenda, but that’s different (although connected) than homelessness these days because the crisis has gotten so bad. I reached out to the organizers and expressed my concern. The agenda was already packed, but they provided us an opportunity to present for 3 minutes… they asked for us to have someone who has experienced homelessness to share their story.
I’m assuming they were expecting more of a fluffy story about how bad the experience of homelessness sucks, but we are organizers so we don’t provide fluff. The fluff is why people think charity, not justice. We were in a room full of organizers… having a fluffy story without speaking truth too would be neglecting the actual work we do. Bilal is a dynamic speaker so I asked him to present. I read him the request I received from the organizers… and I asked him to make sure to bring attention to the charity vs. justice aspect… he knows well about my efforts to organize in faith communities. To prep him I told him what I tell everyone I organize with… “Speak your truth.”
This was a rare moment homelessness was being talked about in a real way. The reality is that with only 3 minutes there is no time for real dialogue, there is only an opportunity to disrupt. Those of us at the Coalition on Homelessness know how to disrupt because we have to. We have to be agitators among agitators.
Well, Bilal disrupted (like Bishop McElroy was telling us to do)… he had the room on their feet cheering! If Pope Francis and the Bishops want to hear the truth about what’s going on and what people are saying… they got it. We organize in SF so this is what we can speak to specifically when we are telling our story, but the message is relevant to communities across our nation.
Here is an overview of what Bilal said…
There are 3 positions people take… there are people who take the position to make things happen, there are people who take the position of watching things happen and there are people who take the position of “what the hell happened?!”.
He said the church in San Francisco is not in the position of ‘making things happen.’ What he was speaking to was that there are no faith-based groups (not just Catholic, but faith communities in general) who are organizing on the social justice side of homelessness in the City. He said…
“When 300 families are waiting on the shelter list… it’s time to change positions! When 3,300 children are homeless in San Francisco, that can fill 10 classrooms… it’s time for the church to change its position! They talk about sanctuary cities… but if you are undocumented worker or immigrant and homeless in SF, there is NO damn sanctuary! It’s time to change positions! When African Americans make up 3% of the population in SF and make up 30% of the homeless population… it’s time to change positions! When African Americans make up 3% of the population in SF and make up 58% of the jail population… it’s time to change positions! When 19% of the homeless are elderly and that number is climbing… it’s time to change positions! When the City of SF annually spends 20.6 million to criminalize homelessness and not building houses… it’s time to change positions! When the response to homelessness is handcuffs, not house keys… it’s time to change positions! So I’m encouraging the church to move into that first position because it’s time to change positions! When St. Mary’s Cathedral in SF follows a policy by the church and installs sprinklers to put water on homeless people so homeless people won’t seek refuge at their church, it’s time to change the damn positions! Lets prod the church. Lets prod the church to move into that first position… that position of making things happen!”
I think some people misunderstood part of what he was saying. This wasn’t just about San Francisco… because this is an issue across our nation. The intent was not to single out the archbishop or target him… this message was directed to all people of faith because the same thing is happening in their communities too.
Bilal mentioned the sprinklers at the Cathedral… which have since been taken out and they apologized for it. But what he was saying wasn’t so much about this particular incident because similar anti-homeless strategies are commonplace. Faith communities may not have sprinklers on their buildings, but if you pay attention you will see that ‘No Trespassing’ signs are commonly found on the doors of churches. If you pay attention you will see there are gates and/or security guards to keep away people who are seeking refuge at their doorsteps. These are the same tactics as the sprinkler. These tactics are sending a clear message to poor and marginalized people… that they are not welcome… that they are the “other”… that they are not part of the community. This is wrong!
So Bilal’s speech was challenging me… he was challenging all people in faith communities… to step up and push harder…. to make things happen! We need to disrupt! It’s time to change position! It’s time to disrupt and rebuild. #USWMPM