Next week, I start a seventeen week sabbatical, where I get to take some time to study and rest, with the support of the Lilly Foundation. This is an opportunity for deeper learning for me and I am so grateful.
Eight years ago, I started Chaplains on the Harbor. So much has happened since I first started handing out sandwiches and building relationships with people.
I have witnessed and stood with people through so much hardship and pain. I have seen the scars and suffering of so many people struggling to survive late capitalism. I will never forget the bruised and battered bodies, the hunger, the grief. We have lost so many people to violence, to addiction, to lack of medical care, to the prison system. I have seen so many children on the street and sat with so many moms who have lost their children to the state when they cannot care for them. The suffering of this place is real.
I have also seen so much resilience and love. I have been honored to walk with people as they recover and find new ways of living. I have watched people rebuild their lives out of nothing. We have built leadership together, as we learn together how to fight for the liberation of us all. We have stood together at the river, at the state house, at the National Capitol, demanding justice. We have also learned to take care of each other and stand with each other.
People in this community either love me or they hate me. I’ve had my share of threats and I get a lot of mud slinging and hate from community members who refuse to actually meet me or talk to me. Sometimes the level of hate, not just toward me, but toward homeless people or anyone who stands with them, is exhausting and soul crushing. But a friend always reminds me that love always conquers hate. If I pray anything for this community, it is that our community learns to prioritize human life over possessions, learns to love and care for each other, because only then can we truly heal and be free. I think that most people simply want a good life for themselves and those they love; something we will never have until we love and care for every single one of us.
As I step away for a time, I hold all of you in love and prayer. I look forward to learning more about nature and earth based spiritualities and how they can help us heal from trauma. I look forward to having some time to process the last eight years. I plan to update this blog from time to time and will have someone post to Facebook so you can keep up with me if you like.
I will be back November 28. Between now and then, I will be completely away from phone, email, Facebook, Messenger, and Jpay.
Until then, may God hold you in the palm of her hand.
Because the prosecutor ruled that his death was justifiable, even though he was shot in his own home, in the back, as a response to a mental health crisis.
Because case workers, usually with very little training in rural areas like this, called for backup during a mental health crisis, and the county’s police forces responded with a SWAT team and armored vehicle and a sniper.
Because, a father and husband and friend is dead.
His wife told me that she watched the protests that swept Minneapolis after George Floyd’s murder with tears, in part because, in this community, she was too often met with ridicule and hatred by other community members.
When we held a vigil to remember both George Floyd and members of our community like Patrick West, men with guns screamed at us that Patrick deserved to die.
What kind of self hatred must a community have to believe that one of their own deserved to die in the middle of a mental health crisis?
A few weeks ago, during Derek Chauvin’s trial, I was talking to a white guy who is homeless and he wondered out loud; “Why don’t we ever show up in the street when white people are killed?”
Fox News routinely points out that more white people are killed by police than Black people. They do this, however, not to express sympathy or solidarity, but to say; “See, white people die more by police and we don’t care.” This ignores the fact that, while there are more white people killed in sheer numbers, black people are far more likely to be killed. For example, while police violence is the 6th leading cause of death for young men 25-29, Black men are 2.5 times more likely to die than white men.
In this community, where poor white people and poor Native people and poor Asian and Black people all struggle together, it is hard to believe that anyone really does care.
It is also hard to push back or to show up in the streets or to take action for accountability.
There are many reasons, I think. It is safe to say that poor people in rural areas are more likely to believe their poverty and their mistakes and their illness are entirely their own fault. Our communities are also fragmented. Respectability politics play a large role: if you make enough to get by, you do not want to identify as poor or as in need of any kind of help.
It is also dangerous. Small communities, as fractured as they are, as divided as they are between classes, have less opportunity to publicly protest state violence, whether on the street or on a blog post. I will likely get threats on my life for even posting this. Small, struggling communities are not much different from dysfunctional and abusive families: you don’t talk about the unpleasant things. You keep your mouth shut.
There are whole systems that keep us in our place, as we die of untreated illness, medical neglect, drug overdoses, suicide, police violence, gun violence. To speak out is dangerous. To speak out costs something.
And, if we do, we are not guaranteed an audience. Lawmakers, even in liberal Washington state, are not all that concerned about what happens here on the edge of the earth.
But, today, Patrick West’s name is on the Cathedral in Seattle. And a federal lawsuit is filed by his brave family members, who want to see some accountability for his death.
Along with the names of Black men and woman shot by police like Charleena Lyles, who was also shot in her own home in Seattle, and Native men and women, like carver John T Williams, and so many others.
Capitalism and colonialism have cast a long shadow on the history of the globe for the last 500 years. European powers, and colonial states like the United States, have turned the globe into an economic playground for capitalists and left the rest of us with scraps, robbing whole continents of their resources, their culture, their land, and their ways of life.
In the United States in particular, settler colonialism both sought to erase and destroy indigenous people, while bringing settlers from Europe to take over “empty land” that had been stolen through genocide.
In most histories, liberal and conservative alike, white people are seen as a monolithic whole. White supremacy in all its forms claims that white people are superior and demands that white people stick together.
This is one of the most useful lies in the capitalist arsenal. Today, 33% of whites are poor in the United States, a total of 66 million people. If that group can be convinced that they are white first, and that rich white people have their best interest at heart, then the system that has produced prodigious wealth for a few off the backs of millions of people, including poor white people, is safe.
Like most white kids, I was raised on a history of Manifest Destiny. Europeans came to a “new world,” worked hard, built amazing technology, and fulfilled God’s plan for America to be the greatest nation in the world. I was descended from pioneers and cowboys whose self reliance made this country great.
Except the reality is not so rosy. What actually happened was that my great grandfather died in a live-in motel in Los Angeles, after moving dozens of times as a child across the country after leaving the deep south during the Dust Bowl. Both my maternal grandparents died of medical neglect and no one has left inheritable wealth. My paternal great grandma lost seven children and another died in a homeless shelter in Hong Kong (I still do not know how she got there). My dad was partly raised by a great grandma who had raised three generations of children and nearly died of toxic waste spewed into her home by a factory next store. In my generation, my sisters and cousins have struggled our whole lives with bankruptcy, living with family, experiencing homelessness, and barely making ends meet.
There is not much manifest destiny in these stories, although there is a great deal of courage and will to survive. While my family was maintaining railroads, working in grocery stores and hotels, butchering meat, working in warehouses and factories, driving long haul trucks, or drinking away their lives in a pay by the week motel, others were getting wealthy off our lives and labor.
As I listened to stories and searched for genealogical clues in my own family history, I realized that our story is actually much different than the one we have been told.
In 1455, the pope authorized the Portuguese seizure of West Africa and endorsed the enslavement of non Christian people. In 1493, the pope authorized the seizure of land and waterways of any non Christian land, something invoked in 1823 by the US Supreme Court, codifying the Doctrine of Discovery in US law. In 1492, not only did Columbus sail to the Caribbean, but Spain, as a newly formed nation state, expelled all Jews and Muslims from Spain and seized all their assets. In 1536, England seized all church land in their break up with Rome.
These newfound sources of wealth by European powers would change the world forever, as capitalism was born– that is, a system where investors or capitalists would invest in enterprises on land recently stolen from indigenous people and worked by indigenous and African enslaved labor. It also changed the face of Europe. As in most parts of the world, the majority of the population were peasants, people who worked and lived on the land for generations. As empires fought over what king controlled what, the people themselves were mostly indigenous to the land, with their own lives, traditions, and ways of life.
With a new system of economic exchange, European peasants were driven from their land in what historians call the fencing of the commons. That is, land was made a commodity and was divided up and given to kings and the nobility, who could use new found wealth to create various enterprises, from wool production to cotton to large factories. The merchant class arose, creating middlemen for a new business world. Peasants, however, who had worked and lived on the land for centuries, became vagrants, driven from the land they called home. They filled jails, they roved through the country in groups, they rebelled and became prisoners of war, and they sold themselves as servants if they could. Some historians claim that Henry VIII executed up to 72,000 vagrants in England. Then, when ships started sailing to the American continents, they fled. Some as indentured servants, some imported as prisoners of war, and most simply refugees of Europe’s new economic system.
While some of those refugees did make it big in the new American capitalism, most descendants of European peasants did not. They usually squatted on land, driven further and further west into the Appalachian and Ozark mountains, where the remnants of their peasant heritage still exist in the music and art of those hills. Others, like my family, moved farther and farther west each generation, never stopping long enough to secure a sense of place or home, many too far removed from their own history to claim any ethnic identity. Still others came later, Irish refugees from British subjugation, and later Scandinavian and Eastern European people fleeing unrest and war. We ended up all over the United States, some in trailer parks on the edge of large cities, others on little bits of farmland in the middle of nowhere.
Sometimes I hear white liberals say that white people need to claim their own ethnic identity. “Don’t call yourselves white, call yourselves German or Polish or Irish.” Besides the fact that most of us have no ties to any of those countries as they exist today, people like me are not even sure what our ethnic makeup is. One grandma said she was Spanish, I had a French speaking great grandma, and I know some great grandfather fled the Irish Potato Famine.
White conservatives take a different tack, conveniently leaving out the stories of poor white people in the march westward, leaving out the actual history. For example, did you know that cowboys were not the good guys bringing cattlemen westward, but were actually gangs of poor men who stole cattle and ran them for a profit, and often got themselves killed or executed doing it? Or that most pioneer families nearly starved on little plots they could not afford to keep (or squatted illegally on) and were forced to keep looking for a place to live after the railroad men and entrepreneurs gobbled up their land? Or that, on many occasions, poor white people found common cause with poor black people and poor people of color and organized their labor in unions like the IWW?
The 66 million poor white people living in this country now have been sold a lie, a lie that keeps us complacent, a lie that robs us of our own history and culture, and a lie that has kept us divided from other colonized and subjugated people around the world. White supremacy is ingenious in its ability to tell poor white people both that they are superior because they are white, but also that they are failures because they are poor.
We are not failures at all. We are descendants of a European peasant diaspora, when the land we belonged to was seized by wealthy men intent on profit over human life. We are descendants of refugees who fled to land stolen from its indigenous people, only to find ourselves pushed ever westward, “searching, but never finding, a secure life in a land of plenty” (Will Campbell).
Perhaps, if we see our place in history more clearly, we can use it to change our future. Perhaps, if we find our place in humanity, we can see our culture and heritage, our mistakes and our courage, in a clearer light. Perhaps, if we reject the narrative we have been told, we can instead join with indigenous and oppressed people around the globe who seek to create a better world for our children and the land itself. Perhaps we can, together, end a system that values profit over human life.
Note: The ideas in this piece come from many different sources. Some of the most important are: Resmaa Menakem who wrote My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathways to Mending our Hearts and Bodies, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who wrote An Indigenous History of the United States, and Lyla June who wrote “Reclaiming our Indigenous European Roots.”
Also useful have been Nancy Isenburg’s White Trash: The 400 year Untold History of Class in America and Keri Leigh Merritt’s Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antibellum South.
I remember driving with a young, white homeless man who often worked on boats during the Westport fishing season and was complaining about tribal members being able to fish out of season. I explained how important it was for Native people to have access to their traditions and traditional food sources. Then, he commented on how unfair he thought it was that tribal members sometimes receive cash payments from their tribe. While this is not true for most tribal governments in the region, I commented; “I wonder what it would be like to be part of a culture that valued sharing wealth instead of accumulating it all. I wonder what it would be like for you to get what you needed, just because you were alive and deserved to be cared for.” I remember he stopped short and looked at me for a moment. “Yeah. That would be cool.”
Manifest destiny has led to the continued genocide of Native peoples in this country. And it has not turned out so well for poor whites either. If the tents lining riverbanks and the high percentages of homeless people in our towns is any indication, poor whites and poor Natives have ended up abandoned in a Western society that does not care if they live or die. Poor whites were often promised land, but it was Weyerhaeuser and companies like it who got most of it. And, now that our labor is not needed, we have a hard time getting even employment.
The dominant cultural response to the crises of homelessness and poverty is generally to blame poor people for being poor. As more and more people end up on the streets, we open more and more jails and prisons. Public forums are quick to say that “druggies don’t deserve help,” “they should just leave town,” and “why don’t they all just die?” Local governments often oppose any social supports, whether it is harm reduction like needle exchanges or housing projects. Social services can be spread so thin that it takes forever to get any kind of help– whether treatment, housing, or anything in between.
As I have navigated these social services and systems with people I love and care for in Grays Harbor, I have noticed the ways that First Nations in this region have stepped up for all people. Even though local tribes are criminally underfunded and the U.S. government has not made good on treaty rights, and even though health care and treatment and resources are woefully inadequate for tribal members and non tribal members in this region, sometimes the only care available is funded by Native nations. The only treatment center in the county that accepts medicare funding is run by the Squaxin Island Tribe. Northwest Indian Treatment Center is also the only treatment program I know of that incorporates native wisdom and trauma based healing. Shoalwater Bay’s chemical dependency program, before the pandemic, was one of the few ways I could get anyone, white or Native, signed up for treatment beds for many years. The Quinault Indian Nation is proposing to put in a treatment center with multiple resources in Aberdeen, a program that would revolutionize access to healing in this community, and they are proposing to fund it themselves. This is not to dismiss any of the other agencies in town that are working to make a difference, but I do have a great deal of gratitude for the resources that Indian Country so often shares so generously with the community.
I am also grateful for the ways that the Quinault Indian Nation and many other tribes have advocated for the land itself– taking on a lengthy lawsuit to restore salmon habitat on our waterways, opposing dams, opposing oil trains that posed a threat both to our communities and the land itself. They have led the way in discussing sea level rise and sustainable ways to live on this land that belongs to them. Northwest Indian Treatment Center teaches its graduates how to grow and use native and healing plants, information that some graduates now use on our farm. Small businesses like Jean Ramos’ Tribal SovereigNDN Tea bring healing plants to the community and teach us how to use them.
No one can live in a community like this one– plagued by poverty, job loss, landlessness, addiction– and not see that we are in deep need of healing. And at the root of our suffering lies a system that values profit over people’s lives, over the land itself, a system that set in motion the destruction of indigenous lives and culture. Yet, hundreds of years later, they are still here and still fighting for life.
I want to offer my thanks to the indigenous people and tribal governments of this region. Under incredibly hard circumstances and with all the odds against them, they have managed to forge paths toward healing. I know that their efforts have been incredibly instrumental toward my own healing, as a non indigenous person.
I cannot quite imagine what is next here on this land. I follow and root for land back movements. I am in awe of the water protectors of Standing Rock and their fight for the water that is indeed life. I am incredibly grateful for the leadership of women like President Fawn Sharp. I do what I can to support my many homeless friends and loved ones, white and brown and black and Native. I hope we can find some way toward healing for us all.
I do know that we will not find it without the leadership and daring of Indian Country. And I am profoundly grateful.
I have two Facebook worlds that show up on my feed every day. My first is the hundreds of people who are poor and struggling and disenfranchised, here in Grays Harbor and around the country. The second is people I know through church and university connections around the country.
I love all of them, but I am often struck by the different worlds, the two Americas, they sometimes represent. I myself have a foot in both worlds and I see, over and over, the truth of The Rev Liz Theoharis’ words when she says that there are Two Americas. Never was that more apparent to me than this last week.
As a new president was inaugurated last week, and the final transfer of power did prove peaceful, I saw two realities.
My first Facebook went into mourning for three people who died. They posted urgent requests for food or shelter or rides. A few funny political memes, but the transfer of power honestly went barely noticed. They were too busy mourning and too busy surviving.
My second Facebook was overjoyed, posting everything from beautiful pictures of the amazing women at the inauguration (and amazing they were) to Bernie Sanders and his very cool mittens. What stopped me in my tracks was when one of my Facebook friends noted that he is so grateful that, for the first time in four years, he doesn’t have to wake up in the morning wondering what new horror awaits him in the news.
And I realized that, for one America, what happens in the political arena matters very much, in part because their interests are represented.
For the Other America, I realized that I am still going to continue to wake up every single morning wondering who died in the night, wonder every time I open my phone if there is another preventable crisis or tragedy, wonder if another young life will be cut short. In this other America, death stalks us at every turn, in form of despair, suicide, lack of access to health care, overdoses, infection, chronic disease, violence, cold, hunger, abandonment.
Transfers of power mean a lot less on the bottom. Whatever party is in place, the everyday struggle for survival is much unchanged in our current political climate.
Before I go on, let me say: it is a huge relief to have a president that does not openly identify with white supremist organizations. It is an incredible thing to have a black and Asian woman as vice president, making history. We should celebrate that.
But white supremacy is not defeated solely by symbolic victories. Written into the fabric of our social structures, white supremacy ensures that black and brown communities stay majority poor. White supremacy ensures that failed white people, poor white people, continue to stay poor. White supremacy, so closely paired with capitalism, ensures that the white men who own the land, the businesses, even the government itself, continue to stay in power at the expense of millions of workers, millions of homeless people, millions of children. Particularly, in this late stage of capitalism, we are seeing the fault lines that will plunge the world, and the earth itself, into ruin. And poor people stand directly above that fault line.
In every single political campaign I have ever heard in my lifetime, not a single one has issued a comprehensive strategy to deal with poverty. Even now, as 43.5% of Americans are poor and low income, and this was before Covid, not a single candidate talked about poverty with any seriousness or depth.
There are always a few policy measures that reach us, here in the Other America, in ways that are often unpredictable and confusing. For example, Biden just increased food stamps, by a rather slight margin in the face of the need, and this will have a slight but direct impact, especially on poor families who are going hungry in record numbers. When Obamacare was passed (perhaps the most useful legislation for poor people in my lifetime), people could suddenly go to the hospital, although care was still difficult to get. When Trump was elected, everyone rushed to get their teeth fixed before medicaid ended (thankfully, in Washington state, it didn’t). When the Trump administration finally sent out a $1,200 stimulus, people could get hotels for a little bit or they could pay rent for a month, but it did little to stem everyday poverty. Recent stimulus packages forbid evictions, but landlords find ways around that, and they also provide relief funding for emergency housing, which will make a difference. When Obama increased immigration enforcement, our cannery workers found themselves running from increasing numbers of ICE raids. When Clinton expanded youth incarceration, our county soon reached staggering incarceration rates for our children.
But, aside from those policy jolts, over the past several decades, the decisions of the president or congress reach us randomly, as if only by accident. Public services are already so defunded, and poverty is at such record heights, that transfers of power have very little practical, material repercussions for poor Americans. There have been no comprehensive, systemic efforts to address poverty in my lifetime, since the War on Poverty in the 60s, even as poverty itself has steadily increased until nearly half of Americans find themselves unable to reliably meet their basic needs. Nor have any politicians in either party unveiled or even signed on to any systemic efforts to end poverty in that period. Even Bernie Sanders stopped short of a comprehensive plan to end poverty in his platform.
I am not saying these things simply to be a naysayer. Nor am I saying them because I wish for some kind of ideological purity or perfection from our political leaders.
I am saying them because the actual, material conditions that people endure year to year, endlessly, in our social structure, will not change with scraps alone, or even with good faith alone. Nor will they change without actual, comprehensive efforts to end them.
Poor people, even as they are a near majority of people who live in this country, are always peripheral in any political discussion. Politicians invoke them occasionally to sound compassionate- or to admonish them- but never address poverty in a systematic way. We get crumbs, randomly, as it meets a political agenda in which we have no part, no priority.
And so, every single morning, I wake up and check my news, the news that never makes a single paper or headline, and wonder who died. Too often, someone did. This last week, while we watched an inauguration, a Native woman in her 30s. A Samoan man around my age. And a white man in his 20s.
For those of you who do not live with this horror, I am not asking you to cease celebration this week.
But I am asking you not to forget the Other America. I am asking you to join me in demanding a systemic, comprehensive response to the deadly crisis of poverty.
It is not enough to give leaders a chance. The crumbs falling down from on high, after over 60 years of austerity and dismantling every social program of the last century, are not enough. Not nearly enough.
I never expected to be putting together a website about myself and my work, but here I am. I started life in a working class suburb of San Jose, CA and grew up on a little subsistence farm in Grays Harbor County, WA.
Years later, with a master’s degree and ordination in the Episcopal Church, and working back in Grays Harbor, I find myself thinking deeply about where have come from, what my work has been like so far, and where I am going.
I find myself continuing the subsistence practices I learned as a child: growing food, making cheese, practicing herbal medicine.
I find myself thinking a lot about my work as a pastor and organizer in a very poor, majority white community, with a significant Native presence.
I find myself wondering about how we can find healing for land and people together, in this time a place.
So I decided to start writing again and sharing my reflections.
If religion, or organizing poor people, or dismantling white supremacy, or growing our own food, or healing are interesting to you, perhaps you will want to join me.