Ahead of Easter Sunday, Bishop William J. Barber II and fellow clergy performed a solemn ritual in West Virginia. They washed the feet of low-income individuals to raise awareness and heighten compassion for millions who are struggling economically in America.
The service was held on what’s known as “Maundy or Holy Thursday” and is part of ongoing anti-poverty work by the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The group, which has organizing committees in 45 states, held the gathering to coincide with the day Christians commemorate the Last Supper. Scripture (John 13:1–17) says Jesus washed the feet of His disciples ahead of His Crucifixion, and later, Easter resurrection.
“It’s time to wash away greed. It’s time to wash away the denial of healthcare. It’s time to wash away the denial of living wages,” said Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign.
“It’s time to wash away voter suppression. The washing should start right here in West Virginia.”
Barber, a North Carolina pastor and former NAACP chapter president, had traveled to Charleston, West Virginia, where local Poor People’s Campaign leaders organized a socially distanced gathering outside the Unitarian Universalist Congregation’s church.
Dozens of people attended, and Rev. Dr. Barber and Rev. Caitlin Cotter Coillberg tenderly washed and dried the feet of several individuals, among them, Black women. The gesture of humility and humanity led one sista to wave her hands in praise and gratitude.
Organizers told ESSENCE the pre-Easter event was about “healing the nation.” They aim to call attention not only to poverty, but other social issues: racism, voter suppression, their demand for a $15 living wage, and ending the Senate filibuster, a parliamentary procedure which many progressives believe should be eliminated.
“Don’t you know the awful history of the filibuster?,” Barber asked the crowd during the event. “Civil rights legislation is the most familiar, but it’s been used down history to keep this nation from fulfilling its promise to be one nation under God.”
Just as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. preached, the Poor People’s Campaign platform believes poverty is a moral issue, one they assert interlocks with systemic racism, ecological devastation, militarism and distorted nationalism.
Nationally, more than 140 million low-income people live in the U.S.—about 4 percent of the country’s population.
The Poor People’s Campaign cites these numbers: 39 million children below age 18 are impoverished; 21 million are seniors 65 or older; and 74.2 million are women. Along racial lines, an estimated 66 million white people; 26 million Black people; 38 million Latinx people; 8 million Asian people; and 2 million Native/Indigenous people are living below the poverty line.
During the event in West Virginia, the Poor People’s Campaign challenged Senator Joe Manchin (D-WV) and other elected officials to take bold action to make headway on poverty. 2020 data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey shows West Virginia’s poverty rate is 3.7 percentage points higher than the national average, and the 6th highest in the U.S.
“We need to know in West Virginia, over 1,300 people are homeless,” said Barber. “In West Virginia, over 350,00 workers make less than $15—that’s 50 percent of the workforce. In West Virginia, over 320,000 people need SNAP or food stamps.”
Yet West Virginia is not the only state where residents are experiencing economic hardship, some of it exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Besides the pain of 500,000 plus deaths, the coronavirus has devastated the economy and left 10 million people across America unemployed. At least half a million people, by some estimates, are grappling with homelessness.
Barber, who is also president of Repairers of the Breach, and the architect of `Moral Mondays,’ a social justice movement, has taken his spiritual message of lifting low wage earners to the streets, Capitol Hill, and the highest levels of government.
In January, the Bishop was among the interfaith clergy invited by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to the official inaugural prayer service. He delivered the homily during the celebration hosted by the Washington National Cathedral in D.C.
In December 2020, more than 30 leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, including impoverished and low-income people, economists, public health officials, clergy, and organizational partners, met online with members of the Biden-Harris domestic policy team.
Prior to that, then-candidate Biden joined the Moral Monday Mass Assembly in September 2020. He discussed his father’s pain after losing a job and the family’s struggles during his youth.
“We are always talking about the work left undone to make real the promise of how often our politics does not speak often enough to the 140 million people who live in poverty, struggling paycheck to paycheck in the wealthiest nation on earth, scared to death,” Biden told the audience of more than 1 million viewers.
“All of you remind me of how scripture describes calling to serve, not to be served,” he added. Calling toward justice, healing, hope, not hate. To speak the good news and follow, by some good deeds.”
Biden vowed that, “ending poverty will not just be an aspiration, it will be a theory of change— to build a new economy that includes everyone, where we reward hard work, we care for the most vulnerable among us, we release the potential of all our children, and protect the planet.”
During the 2020 presidential election, the Poor People’s Campaign estimates that 55 percent of low-income voters across America cast ballots for the Biden/Harris ticket. They have shared key platform issues with the new administration.
The White House is addressing economic issues. Following its passage in the 117th Congress, Biden signed the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021 into law on March 11. The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill included $1,400 checks for about 85 percent of households across America.
This week, the Biden-Harris Administration rolled out its American Jobs Plan, a $2 trillion proposal officials said is designed to fix the country’s aging roads, bridges, water systems, modernize transit systems and other infrastructure. During an announcement in Pittsburgh, the president also said it would also create good-paying jobs, make improvements to schools and childcare facilities, address affordable housing and tackle the climate crisis.
The White House said President Biden is expected to release a broader package in the coming weeks to address health care and higher education, and help lift the impoverished.
Barber continues to preach that poverty must be addressed, and doing so, will benefit the entire nation.
“If we the people, with God’s help, repair the breach, revival and renewal will come,” he said. “Weeping and mourning may endure in this night of our discontent, but joy will come in the morning.”