By The Rev. Donna Simon, St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church
Natalie is married and has three children. She works at Popeye’s, hoping for full time but subject to the scheduling whims of management. Natalie was in the gifted program all through school, but when she got pregnant at eighteen, her college plans were put on hold. She still hopes to go one day.
DeSean lives with his fiancé and their two children in a small apartment on the east side of Kansas City. He works at Burger King, like his mom before him. He is also a local and now national spokesperson for the Fight for 15, the movement seeking a living wage and union representation for persons working at the bottom of the wage scale in America.
These are rough portraits of two of the hundreds of workers I have come to know since our congregation started hosting Stand Up KC, Kansas City’s branch of the Fight for 15. These workers are some of the smartest, funniest, hardest-working people I know, and they are struggling—struggling to feed their kids, to pay the light bill, and to hold up their heads in a country which denigrates and even vilifies poor people, most of whom are working hard and falling further behind as wages stagnate decade after decade¹.
When Rev. William Barber shared his vision for a new Poor People’s Campaign, continuing the work started by Martin Luther King shortly before King’s death, the workers and allies of Stand Up KC were early adopters. We knew that this campaign would do what the Fight for 15 has done: put the people being cast to the economic margins of our country at the center of a narrative of justice and equity. And it has. Our workers have told their stories in Kansas City, Jefferson City, and Washington, DC. Over one hundred workers and allies from Stand Up KC have taken arrest so far in our state capital to protest its systematic dismantling of policies which protect working people and the preemption of properly instituted wage hikes in St. Louis and Kansas City.
I put my body in a street in Jefferson City because I am tired of living in a country which tacitly accepts the concept of the “working poor,” a concept which violates the stated values of our nation and the values we profess as people of faith. People who work hard in the richest country in the world should not be poor.
The Poor People’s Campaign follows Dr. King’s blueprint in allowing poor people to tell their own stories, thus also following Jesus in giving people agency in their own healing. “Stand up, take your mat and walk,” Jesus said to a man who had suffered for thirty years [John 5:8]). “Speak out against the four evils of racism, economic exploitation, militarism, and environmental degradation,” says the Poor People’s Campaign. It seems obvious to me that the second command follows closely upon the first.
¹Sixty-three percent of persons 18-64 in the U.S. who are eligible to work are employed, most of them full time. The rest are disabled, in school, looking for work, and not working for a variety of reasons. Source: Economic Policy Institute