Thousands of faith leaders, union members, activists rally in D.C.

Jack Jenkins/Religion News Service | 7/4/2024, 6 p.m.
Thousands of clergy, union members and activists rallied on behalf of the poor near the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, June …
The Rev. William Barber addresses a crowd at a demonstration organized by the Poor People’s Campaign outside the U.S. Capitol on June 29, 2024. Photo by Jack Jenkins/RNS

Thousands of clergy, union members and activists rallied on behalf of the poor near the U.S. Capitol on Saturday, June 29, with faith leaders calling for lawmakers to embrace a slate of policies and for low-wealth Americans to make their voices heard in November as the nation’s “largest potential swing vote.” The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the organizing group the Poor People’s Campaign, declared to the sprawling crowd Saturday morning that poor people — who, he stressed, represent members of both major parties — are one of the largest untapped voting blocs in the country. Citing studies compiled by the Poor People’s Campaign, Barber argued poor and low-wealth people do not vote to their full potential, despite making up around 30% of the national electorate and close to 40% of voters in battleground states. Were the poor to vote with full strength, Barber said, they could potentially elect lawmakers who support policies focused on the wide range of topics that impact the poor, such as voting rights, raising the federal minimum wage, housing issues, LGBTQ+ rights and climate change. “Like the Prophet Moses, honored by Jews, Muslims and Christians, led the people out of bondage of Egypt, it’s time to rise,” he said. “Like the dry bones in the valley of Ezekiel’s vision, we’ve got to rise. Like the ancient vision of the prophet, when the stones that the builders rejected became the chief cornerstone of a new reality, we have got to rise.” Speakers at the demonstration, which has been planned for months and promoted by Barber on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” grappled with two major political happenings that took place this week: a Supreme Court decision upholding bans barring homeless people from sleeping outside in certain cities, and the presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump. Barber, who endorsed Biden ahead of the 2020 election and preached at the president’s inaugural prayer service, seemed dubious of calls for the president to halt his re-election bid in the wake of his widely panned debate performance, which included moments when Biden paused for long periods of time or lost his train of thought. Noting that an array of issues that impact the poor are at stake in the 2024 election, Barber —who walks with a cane and has been public about his own health struggles — suggested Biden’s poor performance shouldn’t be seen as disqualifying. “In my tradition, Moses stuttered, but he brought down Pharaoh,” Barber said, to cheers. “Jeremiah: depression, but he stood up for justice. Jesus was acquainted with sorrow. Harriet Tubman had epilepsy. People getting caught up on how a candidate walks — well, let me tell you, I have trouble walking, but I know how to walk toward justice.” Even so, Barber and other speakers lamented the lack of conversation about poverty this campaign season. Barber voiced similar frustrations during the 2020 election, when Biden and other Democratic nominees participated in a Poor People’s Campaign candidates forum. On Saturday, Barber announced his group would send statements to major networks imploring them to bring up the poverty issues at future televised debates. “In politics, there is a dirty, ugly, open secret that the word ‘poverty’ — the topic of poverty — is a taboo subject,” said the Rev. Adam Taylor, president of Sojourners. “We saw that displayed in the first presidential debate on Thursday night where the candidates spent more time debating their golf game than they did debating what would help all of us.” Other speakers at the event included Wendsler Nosie Sr., founder of the Apache Stronghold; the Rev. Terri Hord Owens, president of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ); the Rev. Leslie Copeland Tune, senior associate general secretary of the National Council of Churches; the Rev. Theresa Lewallen of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia; Sheila Katz, head of the National Council of Jewish Women; the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, advocacy director for the Presbyterian Church’s Office of Public Witness; and the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, a Unitarian Universalist minister.