by Lydia Gans
[dropcap]O[/dropcap]n October 25, St. Mary’s Center in Oakland put on a program in observance of the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty. First staged in Paris 25 years ago, the day has become an annual event officially recognized by the United Nations in many parts of the world.
The event was initiated by the Fourth World Movement which St. Mary’s has been associated with for a number of years. Fr. Joseph Wresinski, the founder of the Fourth World Movement, had declared, “Wherever men and women are condemned to live in extreme poverty, human rights are violated. To come together to ensure that these rights be respected is our solemn duty.”
The Fourth World Movement is a nonprofit organization that runs projects in 32 countries on five continents and works to end the injustice of persistent poverty, using a human-rights-based approach.
St. Mary’s Center was a highly meaningful place to hold an observance aimed at eliminating hunger and need, for it is located at the epicenter of poverty in Oakland, in an area where impoverished, homeless seniors come seeking housing, meals and community.
St. Mary’s Center serves homeless and low-income seniors and also has a preschool for low-income children and a community garden. You might say that St. Mary’s is located at the crossroads — a neighborhood where hunger and homelessness intersect with hope and justice.
In that spirit, the St. Mary’s celebration began with a reading of Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that everyone has a right to the basic necessities of life including, “food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services …”
Those attending this observance solemnly pledged to “remember the poor” and to fight for what they called “pathways out of poverty” — including affordable housing, food security, decent transportation and a Homeless Bill of Rights.
In the program segment titled, “Where we come from,” Ruth Esther Parker described the importance of genealogy and learning about her family. She urged people at St. Mary’s to find out about their roots, and explained how they can access their genealogies. Parker said it was “unconscionable” what families in poverty have to go through to survive. She said that “the strength of a nation derives from the integrity of the family.”
In a highly moving part of the observance, several speakers recounted their own personal experience of poverty, and told of being sick and hungry, struggling to survive on the streets.
Members of the Women’s Group at St. Mary’s Center were introduced, and each spoke a few words that together made a collective statement. They vowed to be “strong, whole, wise, independent women,” to “never be violated,” to be outspoken and “to have our voices heard,” and “to be kind to ourselves, because we care about ourselves.”
The next program segment, “What we fight for,” dealt with issues of hunger, lack of housing, and discrimination against homeless people.
Ortencia Hoopii, a senior member of St. Mary’s Center, was featured in an inspiring video created by the Alameda County Community Food Bank entitled, “We Won’t Let Our Seniors Go Hungry.” She spoke of Thanksgiving as a special time to think about sharing food with others.
Ortencia said, “I have felt the pain of hunger and I know what that feels like. So I often keep a bag with a sandwich and fruit that I give to others. Today, on the bus, I gave an apple to a child because he was hungry and he was crying.”
Her own son has been deeply influenced by seeing his mother give food to others. “My son saw me give sandwiches to hungry people and now he does that too,” said Ortencia. “Now he volunteers at churches serving lunches.”
Next in the event, Demitri Westbrook described the urgent need for more affordable housing and Andrew Rosen demanded “housekeys not jails” for the homeless.
Paul Boden of the Western Regional Advocacy Project (WRAP) warned of the increasing trend of local ordinances criminalizing the homeless — laws such as the sitting ban currently on the November ballot in Berkeley, Measure S.
These laws are being pushed by business interests in cities all over the country. Boden suggested that these laws cannot just be fought on local levels, but need a larger national movement to end discrimination against homeless people. He drew the example of the civil rights movement when all the local protest actions ultimately led to federal laws ending discrimination against people of color.
In the third segment of the observance, “Connecting with our community,” we learned how our community reaches out from the neighborhood, through the United Nations, and to the world.
Carol Johnson, executive director of St. Mary’s Center, connected with the ATD (All Together in Dignity) Fourth World Movement and has remained in touch with them over the years.
Last year, members of the Fourth World Movement saw a poem published in Street Spirit written by J. Fernandez Rua. This resulted in an invitation for Fernandez to come to the United Nations and read the poem at the Eradication of Poverty ceremony in New York City.
Carol Johnson accompanied J. Fernandez to New York for the occasion earlier this month, and she described their trip to a rapt audience at St. Mary’s. Fourth World volunteers met Johnson and Fernandez when they arrived in New York and took them on a tour of some of their programs. The Eradication of Poverty event took place in the United Nations General Assembly room, a very impressive hall with chairs designated for the different countries and equipped with earphones for translations. About 300 people were in the audience at the United Nations when Fernandez read his poem.
Johnson said, “His delivery was fantastic! The poem is so moving and several people came up to him asking for a copy or a translation. It was really an international cry for attention to the poorest people in our world that they get benefit from the Declaration of Human Rights.”
Johnson said she was deeply moved to see Fernandez’s poem projected on a huge screen at the United Nations while pictures of the members of St. Mary’s Center in Oakland were displayed before the large international assembly.
“What a privilege and honor it was to accompany J. Fernandez to the United Nations,” she said, “and listen to him read his poem on a really big screen, and to see in front of the General Assembly the pictures of St. Mary’s Center and all of you. It was really inspiring and tear-provoking.”
Afterwards, there was a reception at the Fourth World community house, not far from the United Nations building.
Johnson said that the trip to the United Nations “lets us know that we are truly not alone in this struggle and it is so important that we have those relationships with people we can call on for help, and give help to. Throughout our nation and then through the entire world, there are people just like us struggling to end poverty and knowing that we all belong to this beloved community.”
As always, the St. Mary’s event included lively cultural displays, including music, spirited drumming by Bill Wigfall throughout the morning, and art exhibits. Artist Ron Clark created a painting illustrating the divisions and injustices in our society. The caption of his artwork asks: “How can we worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday???”
Omar Bagent, a student at Oakland Tech High School and member of Youth Spirit Artworks, showed his painting illustrating his ideal of an America as one nation free of violence.
Also, “live art” was being created as the event took place. All morning, artist Cate White worked on a large canvas depicting a group of “fat cats” at the top enjoying a fancy meal and throwing the bones to the poor people down below. Making a further point, the fat cats are white and the poor folks come in many colors.
Luisah Teich, a spiritual teacher and priestess of an African faith, ended the program with a blessing to all, after which a tasty and nourishing lunch was served.
St. Mary’s staff member Ellen Danchik described the impact of the day’s event. “Because the Eradication of Poverty Day recognizes as a human right the need for food, housing and medical care,” Danchik said, “the day is empowering to those living in poverty.”
She said the event gives a voice to people who have so much to tell the community, but who are too often silenced and shrouded by extreme poverty.
Danchik said, “It is a time for the St. Mary’s Center community to speak out and have their voices heard. It is a time for the world to hear their concerns, in their own voices, of what poverty has meant to them and how difficult their lives are — and also to hear of their continuing dedication to fight for their rights in Oakland and the larger community.”