Taking to the Streets for the Poor

Last week, I participated in a day-long downtown Indianapolis fast and demonstration asking Senator Bayh to join Senator Lugar in co-sponsoring the Global Poverty Act and Jubilee Act. By committing the U.S. to help reduce extreme poverty and cut the debt burden of struggling countries, these two pieces of legislation would address the obscene fact that 16,000 children die each day simply because they are poor.

We took to the streets in the hopes of educating Hoosiers about global poverty. As it turned out, we were the students, too. Even in the age of blogs, Facebook and cell phones, there are still a few lessons best understood by talking with people face-to-face.

We learned about messaging. Some people we spoke with about our issues gestured to the homeless people sitting near our vigil on west Market Street, and asked, "What about the poverty here at home?"

With deeds instead of words, most of the activists at our demonstration eloquently answer that question every day. The folks who held signs asking Senator Bayh to help hungry children in Haiti and Kenya also volunteer at the local food pantries, care for the sick, and empower the struggling right here at home. Responding to domestic and global poverty is not an either-or proposition, and that message has particular credibility when it comes from those who work for justice and peace every day in Indiana.

Of the few thousand passers-by we approached with our signs and flyers over the course of the day, most were courteous and welcoming. A comparative few had their personal spam filters turned on high, and were suspicious or even hostile. Perhaps because of a richer cultural history of advocacy for social justice, people of color were the most likely to accept our outreach and engage in discussion.

We learned about politics, too. Few passers-by were previously aware of the legislation we promoted, but many were unsurprised by the contrasting positions of our Indiana senators. Senator Lugar provided early and vocal leadership on the poverty bills, but Senator Bayh has sat on the fence. In response to over a thousand letters by Hoosiers on this legislation, Bayh has responded by offering neither support or opposition, or even an explanation for failing to take a position.

That didn't seem to surprise the folks we spoke with. White-haired men in dark suits, women pushing baby strollers and young men walking to the Illinois Street bus stop all shook their heads and offered variations on the same observation: "Bayh doesn't take a stand on anything." It was a ground-level echo of the verdict widely pronounced by national and local pundits, but we hope our junior senator defies that reputation by becoming a leader in fighting poverty.

Finally, we learned about grace. Several people passed by, accepted a flyer and walked on, only to double back a few minutes later to offer sincere thanks to demonstrators for speaking out for the least of our brothers and sisters. A political science teacher took photographs to show her class that citizen participation in government isn't limited to complaining about our own property taxes or 401(K)'s. The many kind "God bless you's"' we received made less positive reactions fade into the background.

In the short term, only Senator Bayh knows what effect our day of fasting and marching may have had. But activists learn to live by the adage that even the Grand Canyon was built a drop of water at a time. And on the Market Street sidewalk, I learned to treasure the act of walking side-by-side with Hoosiers aged 7 to 78, all standing up for a cause greater than themselves.

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