Glimpses of the Spirit – Heroes in Our Midst

Many nonprofit service providers are working to alleviate the ever-worsening symptoms of poverty by meeting the needs for shelter, food and services. But very few go the extra mile to stand up in defense of the human rights of the poor, or to take part in protests against structural injustice.

by Terry Messman

 

On July 1, Carol Johnson and boona cheema took part in a nonviolent demonstration in Oakland in resistance to the statewide budgetary cutbacks that are causing grave harm to homeless seniors, poor families with children, and disabled people. On June 7, Sally Hindman led a group of homeless youth at Berkeley City Hall in a creative protest of the city’s proposed sitting ban.

GLIMPSES OF THE SPIRIT. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

Many people took part in those protests but these three women also happened to be entrusted with the major responsibilities of directing their nonprofit agencies and keeping them funded. Hindman is the director of Youth Spirit Artworks in Berkeley, Johnson is the director of St. Mary’s Center in Oakland, and cheema is the director of BOSS in the East Bay.

Many nonprofit service providers are working to alleviate the ever-worsening symptoms of poverty by meeting the immediate needs for shelter, food and support services. But very few go the extra mile to stand up in defense of the human rights of the poor, or to take part in protests against structural injustice.

Yet, right in our midst are people who valiantly stand up to the powers that be and speak out against injustice. Although most service providers are conspicuous by their absence at demonstrations for the rights of the homeless poor, a select handful take a public stand for justice. Over the past several years, Hindman, Johnson and cheema all have shown a high degree of commitment in standing up for what is right, instead of playing it safe due to the perceived risks to their agencies.

We have heroes in our midst. None of these women would ever say that about themselves. They don’t claim to be special in any way. But in reflecting on all the nonprofit executives who sit on the sidelines and refuse to join these protests, the bravery and inspirational leadership shown by cheema, Johnson and Hindman seems all the more remarkable.

Homeless people are often cynical about the true motives of the agencies that supposedly serve their needs. They rarely see the directors and staff of these agencies standing publicly in support of their human rights when city officials order police crackdowns or state officials order harmful cutbacks that shred the safety net.

Many feel it is a betrayal when nonprofit agencies constantly take money from the public to serve poor and homeless people, but then remain completely silent when the very people they’re funded to serve are under attack.

That is why it is so heartening to see the directors of East Bay nonprofit agencies step forward and lead nonviolent demonstrations that do not benefit their agencies, but rather are done as acts of solidarity with the homeless people they serve.

Over the course of many years, these three women have stood up for the rights of poor people, in good times and bad. None of them would ever consider their actions brave or remarkable. But they have displayed qualities of courage and dedication that are a great gift to their community. Given their quiet brand of leadership, they may be relatively unsung heroes — but they are heroes.

I began wondering what gave them the extra level of commitment to take part in campaigns for economic justice. What I didn’t realize, until I interviewed each of them separately, was the key role that faith and spirituality played in forging their social consciences and moving them to be involved in front-line activism.

Sally Hindman: “I feel that there’s no spirituality that is separate from justice for all people.”

Hindman attended seminary at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and graduated in the late 1980s. Instead of ministering in a church, she chose a different kind of ministry with homeless people, as the director of the Berkeley Ecumenical Chaplaincy to the Homeless.

Youth Spirit Artworks: From left, Lowell Ligon, Tiff Banks, Miss CC, Carrington Taylor, Sally Hindman, Angie Burkley, Carlos Hernandez. Front, Sylvia Sawislak. Pancho Pescador photo

Now, Hindman is the executive director of Youth Spirit Artworks in Berkeley, and works to develop the artistic creativity of homeless youth — another way of further exploring the intersection between spirituality and social justice.

In an interview with Street Spirit, when asked why she became involved in the protests against the proposed sitting ban ordinance in Berkeley, Hindman described her sense of spirituality.

“I am a Christian and a Quaker,” she said. “I joined the Society of Friends in 1984, and I also have been greatly influenced by Judaism. The Judeo-Christian tradition is what I see as fundamental to who I am. There is a really strong call to charity, but there’s also an equally powerful call to justice. Anybody who is a Christian has to grapple with and be challenged by that deep, deep call to justice.”

Even though she has devoted decades of her life to working for charitable agencies, she is critical of the idea that charity alone is sufficient. She sees an indissoluble marriage between spirituality and justice.

“I feel that there’s no spirituality that is separate from justice for all people,” she said. “Charity by itself is not enough if we don’t also deal with systemic injustices.”

Charity may suffice when individuals need help due to accidental misfortunes. But when millions of people in the United States are sinking into a level of massive poverty unseen since the Depression, structural injustices must be confronted.

“The people we work with are homeless youth who are systemically disenfranchised,” Hindman said. “All the great religions of the world, in one way or another, say something related to loving the Lord with all your heart and all your soul, and loving your neighbor as yourself.

“They don’t say to just give your neighbor a meal in the soup kitchen, and leave your neighbor out on the street, and you go ahead and buy five houses. They say love your neighbor as yourself, and that really means, most obviously, that your neighbor should get a house, your neighbor should get health care, and your neighbor gets all those things that all of us deserve and that God wants for each of us.”

Hindman protested the sleeping ban because it is an example of structural injustice. Berkeley only has a total of 33 shelter beds for homeless youth, and 25 of those beds are only open during the winter months. It is a monumental injustice for politicians to criminalize youth for sitting on sidewalks in a city that provides nearly no shelter and no drop-in center for them.

“That was a classic example of how we live in this phenomenally unjust society,” she said. “We go about our business day to day tolerating that systemic injustice. We’re not doing the basic things that are needed in providing housing and providing needed services. So on top of that, we’re going to ticket and then arrest those same homeless youth who have no place to go? The idea of penalizing them for being on the street and homeless — when they have no place to go — is sick.”

Many service providers became aware that a sitting ban was being planned, but most remained as silent as the grave. The very agencies being paid by our society to care for homeless people turned out to not care much at all. At least, not enough to stand up for the rights of poor people, and not enough to jeopardize their funding.

Similarly, on July 1, when the State of California enacted devastating cuts to programs serving seniors, the disabled and the poor, many advocacy groups took a stand against the ruinous cutbacks, but many service providers failed to attend the July 1 protest in Oakland. Yet Carol Johnson of St. Mary’s Center and boona cheema of BOSS were there, as they have been so many times in the past.

boona cheema: “In this country there’s a war against poor people and homeless people and we all know it.”

For the past 40 years, boona cheema has guided BOSS as it developed a large network of services, shelter and transitional housing for homeless people in the East Bay. For nearly the entire span of its existence, members of BOSS have also taken part in campaigns for justice.

BOSS Director boona cheema (at center) addresses the demonstration against statewide budget cuts that was held in Oakland on July 1. Lydia Gans photo

In an interview, cheema explained that BOSS was founded by people with an acute personal awareness of the need to confront social injustice.

“It’s one of our highest values,” she said. “We see social justice as just as important as providing housing and services. Our founder, Ursula Sherman, was a survivor of the Holocaust. When she started the organization back in 1970, the people who gathered around her to start BOSS were all from the Jewish faith. So the organization was started by people who were very committed to not let anything like that ever happen again.”

BOSS has a very supportive board of directors and cheema said they have never once told her not to take part in a protest when conscience compels a response to injustice. If an agency says that they are trying to “empower” homeless people, they must somehow confront the unjust conditions that reduce people to misery.

“Over time,” she said, “the poverty industry has grown and grown and grown, and I think it’s unfortunate that people from these organizations don’t show up in large numbers at protests. It’s really unfortunate that they don’t believe in the inalienable right to gather and protest. That is another right that could be taken away from us if we don’t continue to exercise it.”

When I suggested that some agencies are worried about their funding being cut, cheema spoke with conviction. She said, “I think it would be absolutely shameful if that’s what the answer is — that we’re afraid that our money will be cut. You might as well say, ‘We only do this work to get our paychecks.’ There should be absolutely no fear of losing your funding if you’re providing good services.”

One telling indication of an organization’s true values is looking at which protests they attend, and which they skip.

“In the year when Alameda County was going to make heavy cuts in the social services organizations, everybody showed up in protest,” she noted. “All these executive directors and their staff, everybody showed up, concerned that they wouldn’t be able to keep providing services.

“But you also have to show up when the people you serve are going to have to live on no money. If you don’t show up when your people are going to die, then that’s when it’s shameful. We’ve shown up every time when Alameda County has tried to make cuts in General Assistance, going all the way back to 1987.”

When cheema first came to Berkeley more than 40 years ago, she was pregnant and had only $80 to her name. BOSS helped her receive the benefits she needed to have her baby in a hospital. She vowed she would always help others, in turn.

“When I was helped myself,” cheema said, “I made a commitment that I would help as long as I could, and to be there for people who are losing the little they have or feel total hopelessness.”

Spirituality, she said, “is the critical, sustainable source of activism. That’s where I go when I don’t know the answers.”

A native of India, she was exposed to many of the world’s religions there. “In India, you’ve got all the faiths — Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, Christian — we’re all there.” She has been influenced most deeply by Buddhism and Sikhism, but also has learned from other faith traditions. “All religions are compassionate religions. They lead us to express compassion for homeless people.”

Along with compassion, she said it is crucial to challenge systemic injustice.

“It’s so critical that we understand why so many people are homeless, and change those systems,” cheema said. “Sometimes that takes generations. The economic system, the way it’s set up, the way capitalism is set up, does not work. It only works for the few, and it does not work for the many. In this country there’s a war against poor people and homeless people and we all know it. This country is cruel to the people who, for whatever reason, do not have a two-car garage and a house.”

Carol Johnson: “Our whole economic system is designed to defeat the people we serve.”

Under Johnson’s leadership, St. Mary’s Center in Oakland has joined the concepts of service provision and social justice. The center provides free meals, a winter shelter, housing referrals, a recovery program and case management for poor seniors, and a preschool for low-income families.

Carol Johnson (at right) marches and sings with Betsy Rose (left) and Rafael Herrera on the International Day to Eradicate Poverty. David Bacon photo

The center also runs the Hope and Justice program to involve seniors in community organizing, lobbying and nonviolent demonstrations. Seniors from St. Mary’s Center offered some of the most moving testimony about the inhumane effects of the statewide budget cuts at the July 1 protest in Oakland.

Johnson said that activism is an essential commitment for service providers.

“There is no way that any community organization can fill the need,” she said. “We’re simply scratching the surface of poverty. Our whole economic system is designed to defeat the people we serve. The lowest income people are not being served, and it appears to be by design.”

It is vital to provide shelter and food and meet basic human needs, she said, “but that’s only the beginning of the response.”

“The problems that we’re facing are not simply the need for more charity. That’s not going to do it. We really need to reform our country to meet basic human needs as our primary objective.”

So St. Mary’s staff members join low-income seniors and get involved in campaigns to seek housing and health care for all those who are left out.

“I think what the real crux is, that we have to stand with the people that we’re trying to serve,” she said. “So they’re the ones leading the way.”

Johnson observed that even though some nonprofit agencies may fail to get involved in protests due to their worry about political repercussions, the fear of losing funding is not a realistic fear.

“They may think that somehow we can stay out of the political arena,” she said. “Well, we can’t. We have a responsibility to the people we’re serving and to the jobs that we’re doing. If I’m handing out food, I can’t do that blindly, knowing that the reason people don’t have food is because they don’t have access to food stamps.”

Many people at St. Mary’s come from Catholic and other spiritual traditions. When asked if spirituality provides a foundation for her social justice work, Johnson replied, “Absolutely it does. Justice work is spirituality, from my perspective. Both books of the Bible speak to justice, and so do other sources of religious inspiration. They all speak to justice. And I’ve been fortunate to walk with people who see our struggle to reach out to poor people as a struggle in our own spiritual lives.”

St. Mary’s educates the public about the importance of the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the way it enshrines not only political and civil rights, but also economic rights.

“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is almost like a secular spirituality that we can all identify with,” Johnson said. “If we were able to achieve respect for these basic human rights, people would feel so much better, not just economically, but spiritually.”

Many activists who have worked for justice for years grapple with disillusionment and burn-out when social change turns out to be so hard to achieve. Asked what helps her persist in such bad times, Johnson turned the question on its head.

“All the more reason to stand up and speak out when we’re in bad times,” she said. “And it gives me energy. I think there’s a real energy source in collective action for justice. Of course, it’s easy to get discouraged. I think sometimes as the problems get bigger, we ask how can we have a real effective response. But on the other hand, part of our job is to just be there because it’s right.”

When so many nonprofit agencies retreat into a self-protective mode when the rights and the very lives of poor people are at stake, it throws into higher relief the beautiful dedication of those who dare to stand up to the powers that be.

“Glimpses of the Spirit” is a series of columns exploring the connections between social justice and spirituality. These columns search for glimpses of the spirit that inspire people to seek compassion and justice for all those who suffer from poverty and oppression.

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