Watch Night: A Moral Agenda for the Poor People’s Campaign

Posted on Jan 5, 2017
Watch Night: A Moral Agenda for the Poor People’s Campaign

On December 31st, 2016, right before midnight, a crowd gathered together in Washington, D.C. to raucously sing, hold hands, and welcome in 2017 with hopeful resolutions about what they would change in the coming year. But this wasn’t a party at one of the hip cocktail bars on 14th Street—it was a Watch Night service at the historic Metropolitan AME Church, convened by Rev. William Barber, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and others to call for a New Poor People’s Campaign.

The day had started early with a press conference of religious leaders, who issued a stern demand to then President-elect Trump: meet with us in a local Washington church to discuss how your administration can support a moral agenda. Rev. Barber and the Kairos Center’s co-executive director Rev. Dr. Theoharis appeared on MSNBC to promote the call.

Yet leaders of social movements, grassroots organizers, and progressive clergy weren’t going to hold their breath and wait for Trump’s sudden conversion. Instead, the group—led by Rev. Barber’s Repairers of the Breach and the Kairos Center—held a packed teach-in all day at National City Christian Church. The teach-in organized the call for a New Poor People’s Campaign around the “four horsemen” of poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation (and adding voting rights and healthcare).

The leaders we invited to help lead the teach-in and the Watch Night service itself included:

Uniquely for an event of this kind, representatives from the struggles themselves spoke up about the need for a New Poor People’s Campaign—this was truly a gathering of movement leaders and organizers, speaking from the heart about what the New PPC needed to be a movement to end poverty forever, led by the poor. The teach-in was a great show of unity and serious intellectual analysis prior to that night’s stirring Watch Night service. (Watch the full set of videos here.)

And at the Watch Night service itself, in the same church that memorialized both Frederick Douglass and Rosa Parks, we celebrated the New Year and dedicated ourselves to building a New Poor People’s Campaign fifty years after the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first call for a Poor People’s Campaign before his death in 1967.

You can watch the whole service here.

Although fearful about the coming struggles, the speakers at Watch Night—mostly movement leaders and clergy supportive of the call for a New PPC—were hopeful and defiant. As Religion Dispatches reported, the service was a truly interfaith event, including “speakers representing a variety of faith traditions—Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Unitarian. Activists addressed a range of issues, including poverty, voting rights, access to clean water, immigrant and LGBT rights, violence against minorities, the resurgence of white nationalism.”

The Watch Night service made it clear that the call for a New Poor People’s Campaign, though newly resonant in the public sphere, did not mean that struggles for human rights and social justice were not already ongoing in communities all over the country. As Rev. Barber often points out, the new administration is not the worst thing Americans have ever experienced—the struggles for justice represented in the New PPC have been breaking out all over for many years.

Perhaps the most stirring words at the service came from Valarie Kaur, a Sikh activist and filmmaker and founder of Groundswell at Auburn Theological Seminary. Kaur asked: “What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead, but a country that is waiting to be born?” Like a mother giving birth, she said, we must breathe, and then push.”

Rather than facing the New Year as if it will be a new era of darkness and fear for the poor and dispossessed of our country, the testifiers at Watch Night declared that we were only in the darkness before the dawn of a new birth—the birth of a New Poor People’s Campaign that will unite the poor in a new and unsettling force committed to ending poverty, forever.