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Board Member Private Forum
Some of you have contacted me after seeing news of my arrest for a nonviolent action around the water shutoffs here in Detroit. While I am touched by your concern, I implore you to reserve your support for those being affected by the shutoffs and your own generation, which, unless things change, is on track to inherit a commodified world in which beauty, nature, life itself will be sold off to the lowest corporate bidder, an affront to all that is good, decent and human.
The action in which I and several others engaged was only a small gesture of loving resistance, a humble offering of our own bodies against the dehumanizing and democracy-crushing effects of life under Detroit’s state-appointed emergency manager. Pope Paul VI once said the world needs witnesses more than it needs teachers, and in times like these, to be a teacher may mean to move the classroom to the street in order to bear witness to the grave injustices that are harming our neighbors.
The glaring disparity between the rich and the poor in Detroit and the breathtaking rapidity with which that gap is widening is downright biblical. With its adult sandboxes, whimsically painted street-side pianos, and upscale lofts, downtown Detroit has become a glittering playground for the pioneers of the “new” Detroit while blocks away, children are unable to brush their teeth or flush their toilets.
To put it plainly, this is sin. “I was thirsty, and you … shut off my water.”
While I know that for some of you, the image of one of your teachers being led off in handcuffs is jarring, you should not be surprised. As discussed in class, we plant our feet on the good soil of a biblical tradition and body of social teachings that demand justice and a preferential option for the poor. If we fail to incarnate these teachings, they remain dry as dust. How can we study the prophets, the Gospels, the encyclicals, and the saints and not act? As it has been said, “To know and not to do is not yet to know.”
After witnessing home after home being shut off in the early-morning hours where contractors mark their work with a bold streak of blue spray paint (an action that suggests a sort of reverse Passover ritual), after listening to stories of people trying to stave off the inevitable (life is always complicated when money is tight), and after stuffing towelettes into baggies for elders to use as bathing kits, I had to act.
When I joined others in blocking the contracted shutoff trucks from leaving that morning, I acted as a mother, teacher and follower of Jesus, conscious of the privilege I carry, a privilege not afforded those who are so often casualties of a soul-numbing legal system that discriminates against the poor and people of color.
In light of those whose very existence in the face of brutal and unrelenting injustice is a daily act of resistance, our action was a mere crumb, a tiny ripple, an embarrassingly small gesture of solidarity. A way of trying to bring some decency and order to a disordered situation.
Ironically, we were arrested for disorderly conduct, an interesting charge for a teacher whose daily life of bells, schedules, and respectful classroom conversation is predicated on good order. There is another kind of order, however, that throughout history has been used to keep the boots of brutes and empires on the backs of people, especially the poor and vulnerable.
This was the so-called order of the day that prompted the prophets to raise their voices to the high heavens over the ruthless exploitation of widows and orphans and the oppressive order of the day that compelled Jesus to turn over tables in the temple.
And this is the gut-wrenching, heartbreaking order of the day here in Detroit, where tens of thousands of people are having their water shut off despite the protestations of local citizens, nurses from around the country, the United Nations, and people of goodwill from around the globe.
No, if anything is disorderly, it is an imposed system of governance that is disenfranchising citizens (especially in African-American communities), uprooting the poor and working class, privatizing the commons, and denying babies and elders the human right to water.
In biblical terms, the disorder of the present moment can best be understood as an aggressive assault by the powers and principalities, rapacious (dare I say demonic) economic and social forces that are crushing the poor in gross violation of the law of love articulated in Matthew 25 and the beatitudes.
This is a time for both lamentation and action. A time to wage love, as the mother of Detroit’s water movement, Charity Hicks, counseled, with all the courage and compassion we can muster.
There is much more I want to say, but when I see you in class in a few weeks, we will discuss these things.
You are scholars — do the research and then take to heart the words of Pope Francis who rails against the idolatry of money, the “new tyranny,” as he calls it.
When we get back to school, we will sit quietly with Francis’ question: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” One of the first things we’ll do upon our return is discuss the core principle of Catholic social teaching — the dignity of the human person — something worth pondering in times such as these.
For now, turn your attention to those around you and your own future. Know that there are elders in the community who have given their lives to this struggle for a very long time and come to this sacred work with hard-fought wisdom. Listen to them. Respect them. Learn from them. Stand in solidarity with the good and graced work already going on.
Study the historical context of the present moment, do social analysis in concert with others, and then decide where to place your feet.
Jesus chose to stand with the least among us. Where will you choose to stand?
What will you do to bring good order to a disordered world that needs you to wage love with everything you’ve got?
As published August 6th, 2014 in National Catholic Reporter
Kim Redigan is the Vice-Chair of the Michigan Coalition for Human Rights, Secretary of
Pax Christi Michigan’s State Council, and on the Coordinating Committee of the Detroit Area
Peace and Justice Network, where she represents Meta Peace Team (formerly Michigan Peace
Team), and the Detroit Catholic Worker. Kim spends most of her time working with Meta Peace
Team where she volunteers as a nonviolence trainer and serves on domestic and international
peace teams, including teams in the West Bank and Egypt. Kim has a Master’s degree in
Religious Studies from the University of Detroit Mercy, a B.A. in English from the University of
Michigan-Dearborn, and a Master of Arts in Social Justice from Marygrove College. Over the
past nine years, Kim has taught courses in World Religions, Catholic Social Teaching, and
Spiritual Biography at the University of Detroit Jesuit High School. Prior to that, Kim taught
English for ten years at Holy Redeemer High School in southwest Detroit. She is also involved
in Women in Black – Detroit and represents Pax Christi as a Jobs with Justice affiliate. Kim and
her husband Matt are parents of four children.
MCHR Vice-Chair Kim Redigan writes for Common Dreams:
Today, families in Detroit, living under an emergency manager imposed by a governor committed to privatizing every inch of the state, are having their water shut off. A few days ago, the United Nations, at the behest of local activists, issued a statement on the shutoffs.
This is what it’s come to – appealing to an international body to uphold the basic human right to water.
The situation in Detroit is, of course, a result of systemic injustices deeply rooted in racism, injustices that have been analyzed by minds far better than mine.
No, the question I ask is not academic.
I am honestly trying to understand the hatred that is reserved for the poor in this country, hatred as deep and noxious as a tar sands trail.
How to explain the downtown waiters I spoke with yesterday who snorted, “If they can’t pay their bills, too bad.” Or the mean-spirited letters to the editor penned by folks who seem oblivious to the outsourced jobs and the predatory lending schemes that have ravaged this city. Or the vitriol of self-righteous people who don’t understand that Detroit is the canary in the proverbial coal mine – a harbinger of the structural adjustment plan that is coming to a suburb near them.
Yup, just get an education at one of the abysmal state-controlled schools in Detroit, take out a college loan at exorbitant interest rates, and then ride the downtown People Mover to nowhere to find a job in a town with an unemployment rate double the national average. Oh yeah, and eat your soup by candlelight after paying your water bill with the money set aside for electricity. If your boots are still salvageable after the coldest winter in history, grab hold of those fraying straps and, like any good American, pull yourself up and live the dream!
Although today I am privileged to have a job and modest home, it wasn’t always that way.
We were newly married, going to school, having babies, and working minimum-wage jobs during the Reagan years. Having been raised in working-class, cash-carrying families, neither of us fully understood the interest game, and when a major bank dangled a line of credit before our young eyes we, foolishly, bit the bait. For years, this single loan of a few thousand dollars hovered over our lives like a drone.
Unexpected medical expenses, broken-down cars, and rising utility rates culminated in our falling into a deep hole that seemed to reach all the way to China, an ironic thought given the globalization that was taking hold at that time. We wore hand-me-downs, lived on cheap carbs, and cut our own hair.
Despite our best efforts, we always seemed to come up short.
Eventually, we turned to the cash advance “service centers” that were popping up in our west side neighborhood at that time like boils on an old man’s back. Taking out a $100 loan on Wednesday in order to pay a utility bill due on Thursday only to owe $130 the following Wednesday led to unrelenting stress which led to illness which led to medical bills which led to a soul-crushing vicious cycle.
Ultimately, we filed for Chapter 13 bankruptcy in order to pay off our debts. The humiliating experience of standing in a crowded courtroom before a dour judge who demanded an accounting of the most minute expenditures related to childrearing was an exercise in solidarity with others in that grim room.
For the next several years we did penance by squeezing our large family into a minuscule rental home that had no shower, garage, or privacy. While we found a way to make it work, we lived under the scornful gaze of our landlords, a suburban couple who ruled over their dynasty of shoddy homes with all the arrogance of third-world despots.
When we arranged to see the home for the first time, I was pregnant with our fourth child. I will never forget the shame I felt as I donned a dress the size of Texas in order to disguise my pregnancy. My shame deepened when Mrs. Landlord haughtily raised a plucked eyebrow and said she couldn’t imagine how we could raise three children there.
After we moved in, we were model renters, only once asking for a ten-day reprieve because of a family funeral. In a great show of benevolence, our landlords granted the extension with the caveat that we pay a ridiculously high penalty fee. The resentment I felt on that occasion and others when we had to acquiesce to the demands of extortionists has never left me.
Although my experience does not even scratch the surface of what it means to be poor, it’s allowed me to understand the complex and terrible choices people must often make in order to survive.
When a Detroit water board commissioner trumpets the fact that a big chunk of people pay their water bills within 24 hours of shutoff, he misses the real story. The story of families choosing water over rent, water over electricity, water over food.
There are always choices to be made when one is poor.
Today, those with money gather before fountains that splay bursts of blue water against the skyline of a city that is turning off the water of its citizens. When asked about the shutoffs, they stir their iced drinks and use words like “responsibility” and “laziness” and recite racist tropes about Bridge cards and steaks.
Their words are parroted by those hanging on to their own jobs, homes, and water by a tenuous thread. By those who deny their own precariousness by projecting hatred onto those who languish only a deck below on this sinking ship.
Today, we’ve reached the point where a child with an empty cup is an object of contempt.
Why do we hate the poor?
Perhaps we hate the poor because they are the prophets of a future that awaits us all. A future of water shutoffs for the many and splaying fountains for the few.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.
Kim Redigan is a mother, teacher, nonviolence trainer, and human rights activist from Detroit who blogs on spirituality and social justice at www.writetimeforpeace.com.