For the better part of three decades now, I have been involved in political advocacy on issues of homelessness and poverty in Philadelphia. The last few weeks have been particularly trying ones. Local anti-poverty advocates had been working on a few fronts, including fighting efforts by state legislators to impose voter ID requirements (more precisely, a “Voter Suppression Bill”) and trying to forge an effective response to Governor Corbett’s proposed state budget, with its numerous cuts to human services and programs for the most vulnerable Pennsylvanians (and tax breaks to corporations). A group of our advocates, including several formerly homeless folks, spent a day attending hearings and meeting with legislators and staffers in the state capital of Harrisburg, only to return feeling discouraged and frustrated.
At one recent meeting, we were poring over numbers and assessing the budget’s impact. We were also struggling with what kinds of organizing efforts might be effective. As I personally took in a sense of soberness at the tasks before us, I found an old memory stirring: Back in the 1980s, Philadelphia was the scene of an important event in the history of modern homelessness in this country: the formation of the first shelter started and operated by homeless persons. The group that started it called themselves the Committee for Dignity and Fairness for the Homeless (CDFH), and named the facility Dignity Shelter. The group would later launch the Union of the Homeless, a dynamic advocacy group which would eventually form chapters in several cities around the country.
One of the founders of CDFH/Union was Chris Sprowal, a tall and imposing former social worker and union organizer who had experienced the degradation of life on the streets and in shelters. Chris (one of my mentors) turned his own suffering and rage into action, with the realization that persons who were homeless needed to be at the forefront of the struggle for housing and dignity. As he sought to change conditions in Philadelphia, he demonstrated remarkable imagination and audacity in his political actions. He bathed naked in a public fountain to protest the lack of showers in city shelters. On a few occasions he organized dramatic “sleep-outs” to demand funding for shelters and service. And he spent no small amount of time in jail for civil disobedience.
Around 1990, Chris suddenly announced that he would undertake a fast as a response to the increase in street homelessness and the City’s decision to cut back on services. He camped outside Council chambers at City Hall for over a month diligent in his nonviolent witness. Obviously he garnered much media coverage, and daily supporters joined him for an ongoing protest and call for urgently needed resources. After over 40 days of fasting, which eventually took Chris and other advocates to the State Building, a major commitment of new State funding was secured – and Chris took to the hospital to recover.
The memory of Chris Sprowal jolted me to a sense that today we need to again consider imaginative and audacious actions to raise the urgent issues of basic justice and compassion in our increasingly polarized society.
A couple days after the meeting, I was speaking with a fellow activist, who was passionately questioning: “Where is the prophetic anger from the religious community? There’s all this poverty and suffering, and the United States may be entering yet another war soon!”
A few days later at one of our advocacy committee meetings about the proposed state budget, the same theme struck again. During yet another tough conversation, someone said that maybe we need religious leaders from around Pennsylvania to raise profound moral and spiritual issues about current directions in public policy. Something in me stirred—yes, we need that voice, a powerful, prophetic cry for justice.
The very next day, I spotted a headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer saying that Catholic bishops were calling for a day of fasting to protest,..
Could it be, I thought? Our spiritual leaders calling for action from all the faithful on the urgent issues of our day? A prophetic voice being raised about human suffering, poverty, and injustice?
No—the protest was about contraception. More specifically, it was about the recent White House statement on federal mandates for insurance companies to cover contraception and what the leadership saw as an assault on religious liberty.
One diocesan official stated, “Extreme situations call for extreme responses.” I couldn’t agree more. Yet, once again, ecclesial leaders focus their moral ire almost exclusively on what we do or don’t do with our genitals, while God’s precious children are again assaulted by thuggish policy-makers, pushing them into deeper poverty.
But the bishops are too easy a target, and righteous indignation doesn’t get us off the hook. Certainly much of the religious community in this country suffers from a myopic vision of social responsibility. Both in the pulpits and the pews, too many Christians, even those of liberal or progressive bent, have become too comfortable, too immune from the suffering of millions of our sisters and brothers. And we are largely impotent in the face of continuing systemic assaults on our most vulnerable citizens, while wealth is being amassed by the few. Even many activists have become content with our tactics and our liberal credentials. The more radical among us sometimes take shelter in our prophetic denunciations of the system, while the system continues to steamroll those already struggling to survive.
Not that I expect much from the Pennsylvania state government. But I am convinced that we need to tap into the holy anger of the prophets and of Jesus when God’s children are being neglected, exploited, marginalized, or dehumanized.
And we need elders like Chris Sprowal to remind us that sometimes we just have to take imaginative and audacious risks.