It has been nearly 40 years since Michael Harrington's "The Other
America'' awakened the intellectual and political leadership of the United
States to the reality of poverty in our midst.
Harrington's book bluntly stated a truth that had been too long avoided: It
was wrong and ridiculous for presidents and senators to proudly proclaim their
nation's status as "the richest country in the world'' when tens of
millions of their fellow citizens lacked food, shelter, education opportunities,
adequate medical care and the security of knowing that they would be cared for
in old age.
Harrington's book shocked a more innocent America. Soon
the shock turned to agitation, a healthy agitation that demanded action.
In the shadow of the Red Scare, Harrington, a socialist, was invited to
the White House to converse with policy-makers about a radical project
that no less a figure than the president of the United States referred
to as the War on Poverty.
In those heady days, Americans dared to dream that theirs could be a nation
without want. And the war on poverty succeeded, using government programs such
as Medicare and Medicaid to cut the poverty rate almost in half.
But, as quickly as it had begun, the war on poverty was ended. By the 1970s,
Republicans and Democrats in Washington were drifting further and further from
the moral moorings that Harrington had established.
Some of these "leaders'' claimed that poverty was inevitable; worse yet,
some claimed that dispossession was the fault of the dispossessed -- and not of
societal structures that made the rich rich, the poor poor and the great
middle-class fearful of a slip on the economic ladder.
Jim Wallis never joined the defeatists and the apologists for America's
economic, social and racial inequalities. As a pastor, activist, author and
editor of the exemplary magazine, Sojourners, he preached a politics of
possibility very much in the tradition of Harrington and that generation of
idealists who knew that a genuine war on poverty could be won.
For years, Wallis was a voice in the wilderness. Now, however, the Call to
Renewal movement he has worked so hard to forge is gaining national attention as
the base for a new movement to break the chains of poverty in America.
This year, the group's "Covenant to Overcome Poverty'' has attracted
unprecedented support not merely from the liberal church groups that have long
worked on these issues, but also from mainstream Catholics, evangelical
conservatives and black churches. As Wallis says, "The National Association
of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches never do anything together,
but here they are working together to overcome poverty.''
Wallis will bring his ministry and his movement to Madison tonight, as the
featured speaker at the Madison Urban Ministry's annual meeting and dinner at
Christ Presbyterian Church. (For more information, call 256-0906.) Among other
things, he will be asking people to sign the covenant and commit themselves to
the cause of overcoming poverty in America.
The covenant reads:
The persistence of widespread poverty in our midst is morally
unacceptable. Just as some of our religious forebears decided to no longer
accept slavery or segregation, we decide to no longer accept poverty and its
disproportionate impact on people of color. In the biblical tradition, we
covenant together in a Call to Renewal. By entering this Covenant, we commit
* Prioritize people who are poor -- both in our personal, family and
vocational lives, and in our congregational and organizational practices --
through prayer and dedication of our time and resources.
* Decide our financial choices in ways that promote economic opportunity
and justice for those in poverty.
* Evaluate public policies and political candidates by how they impact
people who are poor.
* Challenge racism, dismantle the structures of racial injustice and white
privilege still present, and seek reconciliation among all groups in our
* Nurture the bonds of family and community and protect the dignity of
* Organize across barriers of race, denomination, and social boundaries in
common commitment and action to overcome poverty in our own communities, our
nation, and our world.
© 2000 The Capital Times