I wasn’t sure what to expect heading to Schenectady for a Truth Commission on Poverty in New York State, one of several to be held across New York and in other states in an effort to find reconciliation of the current glaring disparity in the distribution of wealth in our country. The concept is suggested by the example of truth and reconciliation commissions held South Africa to seek new unity when apartheid came to an end and a just democracy led by the majority was established.
I must count myself among the fairly well privileged. Although I may not have a whole lot and have had some real financial challenges in the past, I don’t worry about a safe and secure roof over my head, or how the utility bills will be paid, or where my next meal will come from.
Speaking of meals, that’s how the evening began. Several of us from my home church, First Presbyterian Church of Albany, from other FOCUS Churches and parallel groups, made the trip to Schenectady for a memorable evening. Joyously the interest was so great that the event had to be moved from its originally planned venue, the IUE-CWA union hall, to the First United Methodist Church. There in the fellowship hall, all gathered in easy fellowship of feasting together in celebration of the notion that every friend was once a stranger. Around shared common tables, we gathered. Those who would be witnesses, those who would be “commissioners” to hear the testimony, organizers, and those — like me — who were just there to hear and to learn. Over dinner, it was nearly impossible to determine who fit into which category until getting into detailed conversation. We were white, or black, or brown. We spoke mostly in English or in Spanish or in some other language. We were one on one, face to face, brothers and sisters of one God, breaking bread together in unity at a very large table.
Subsequently the event moved into the sanctuary where a panel of “commissioners” was setup to hear the testimony of a number of witnesses. People, our neighbors, living and struggling in poverty, doing the best they can, seeking a better life, and getting knocked down again every time they get up, and frustrated with a difficult bureaucracy. These were people who are working hard, sometimes multiple jobs, trying diligently to hold it together. Yet so many in today’s society find it easy to criticize, failing to understand how hard it is to get to a PTA meeting when you work two or three jobs. How do you get to the interview for a better job in the suburban office park where the bus doesn’t run and you can’t afford a car and don’t have the credit to get one? How do you take the classes to become better educated when it would mean missing work and a paycheck for today’s bills? And the snarky reaction in the supermarket line for using food stamps to splurge on a birthday cake for your six-year-old daughter.
The evening was deeply moving. Joyce Bascomb from my own church had travelled with me and I was asked to drive another woman back to Albany, which I gladly did, dropping her off at the Westminster Presbyterian Church parking lot where she has left her car. And on the way back what a wonderful recap of the evening the three of us shared. We felt a sense of solidarity, and, as one of the commissioners mentioned in his closing comments, a great deal of anger. It is impossible not to be angry when the people you share a meal with then detail, at great length, their struggles of survival. We know that we cannot do everything, but we can do something. We left that evening further resolved to take our small part, and do more.
Learn about and be part of the Poor People’s Campaign by joining the upcoming Mass Meeting and Faith for a Fair NY Conference, October 17-18 in Binghamton. Click here to register today at 2017 Faith for a Fair NY Conference and Poor People’s Campaign Mass Meeting.