Poor People’s Campaign raises Anabaptist voices

Northern Indiana group adapts national movement’s economic and racial-justice goals to local causes

Jason Shenk, left, and Bambi Alridge lead singing at a rally in Indianapolis in May 2018. The rally was part of a nation-wide movement to relaunch the Poor People’s Campaign on its 50th anniversary. — Thomas Frank Jason Shenk, left, and Bambi Alridge lead singing at a rally in Indianapolis in May 2018. The rally was part of a nation-wide movement to relaunch the Poor People’s Campaign on its 50th anniversary. — Thomas Frank

Rod Hollinger-Janzen spent his ­career working for social justice in West Africa. In retirement, he has brought that work home to Northern Indiana.

A couple of months before stepping down from his role as executive coordinator for Africa Inter-Mennonite Mission in January 2020, Hollinger-Janzen helped to organize a chapter of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival in his community.

The PPC, Hollinger-Janzen said, “is doing the things that we Mennonites have done for decades in the international sphere. We’ve been very concerned about economic and social development in various places around the world. We’re just bringing those same principles home here.”

The campaign is a national movement calling for an end to systems of oppression. Launched in 1968 by Martin Luther King Jr., it was revived in 2018 under the leadership of William Barber II and Liz Theoharis.

Hollinger-Janzen believes the PPC fits Anabaptist values.

“[Anabaptism] in Europe was born in a situation of conflict around economic issues,” Hollinger-Janzen said. “Given that that’s our own history, if we’re concerned about our own economic well-being, then what about other people’s economic well-being?”

In a 1967 speech, King identified three moral evils — racism, poverty and militarism — that hinder life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Fifty years later, poor people and allies took up King’s fight and expanded the list to five, adding ecological devastation and the false narrative of Christian nationalism.

Now active in 48 states, the campaign includes members from 19 faith groups and has formed partnerships with 200 organizations.

Local groups can focus on any of the campaign’s dozens of “demands,” such as equal pay for equal work, expansion of Medicaid in every state, fair and decent housing for all, and an end to mass incarceration, which disproportionately impacts people of color.

Hollinger-Janzen helped to form the South Bend-Elkhart-Goshen cluster of the PPC last summer. It now has about 30 members, the majority with Anabaptist affiliations.

One of the first causes the group took up was the case of Hahkeem Layman. A resident of Elkhart, Layman was arrested last August on a charge of resisting arrest after a police officer attempted to detain him in front of his home while the officer searched for drugs and weapons. None of the suspected items was found, but Layman was jailed for 30 days. The Elkhart County prosecutor has so far refused to drop the charge of resisting arrest.

Layman’s mother, Valerie Matthews, believes racial profiling played a role in the arrest of her multiracial son.

The local PPC cluster reached out to Matthews after learning about Layman’s case. They wrote letters to newspapers and helped the family raise money for legal fees.

One evening in January, group members sat around a campfire with Matthews, Layman and other family members sipping warm apple cider. They had gathered to get to know the family and show support.

“When we’re talking about systemic racism,” said Jason Shenk, who hosted the campfire in his backyard, “we want to be hearing from the folks who know the most about it.”

A member of the South Bend Friends Meeting, Shenk has been involved in the PPC since the planning stages of its revival a few years ago.

He was raised in a Mennonite church before becoming a Quaker in his 20s. At first, the PPC’s demands about things like voting rights and living wages were challenging for him.

“That was not something I was used to doing as someone who grew up Anabaptist,” he said. “I was more familiar with a prophetic tradition that sees the state as a place of violence.”

Shenk sees his work with the PPC as calling on the state to be true to its own principles, including equal treatment under the law.

Hollinger-Janzen challenges the traditional Anabaptist avoidance of political activism.

“We say that we are the quiet in the land,” Hollinger-Janzen said. “But the problem is that the structures are unjust, and if we do nothing, then what we are saying is actually that we agree with the structures as they are.”

At the bonfire in January, Matthews shared about her experience of raising a multiracial family.

“I have always noticed [racial profiling],” she said. Since her son’s arrest, she’s become even more aware of the problem.

“[People are] so quick to judge based on appearance,” she said, adding that she is grateful for the support of the local PPC group.

“They let me know they cared,” Matthews said. “That has been hard to come by.”

Sierra Ross Richer is a Goshen College student intern with Anabaptist World.

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