Speech at the Methodist Annual Meeting

Denver, CO | January 12, 1968

Our country cannot win a War against Poverty without the help of the churches and of churchmen. And happily thousands of ministers and priests and nuns and dedicated lay people are practicing their religion, not just in church on Sunday, but in the streets and in the rural parts of our country.

We all know about the critics who say that the Christian churches are not involved enough these days -- not involved enough in the inner city, not involved enough in civil rights, not involved enough in helping poor nations.

Well, frankly, sometimes I think they are too involved. The first and only Congressman to call publicly on President Johnson to fire Shriver was a sometime Baptist minister named Adam Clayton Powell.

The first and only group so far to buy a full-page ad in the New York Times denouncing me personally was composed largely of my friends among the Presbyterians. The first Black Power conference in America was held in an Episcopalian chapter house in Newark.

And when the Mexican-Americans down in the Rio Grande Valley decided to march on the state capitol down in Austin to protest about the wages, they were led by a Catholic priest. And there are now so many ministers and priests and nuns working at OEO, the Office of Economic Opportunity in Washington, that somebody down there said we ought to change the meaning of the initials.

He said, "OEO should now stand for Office of Ecclesiastical Outcasts." I can vouch for the fact that the churches are involved. The only question is, can the politicians survive your help?

The true answer to that question is, of course, that the politicians, and the country -- which is much more important — can't survive without your help.

Our country cannot win a War against Poverty without the help of the churches and of churchmen. And happily thousands of ministers and priests and nuns and dedicated lay people are practicing their religion, not just in church on Sunday, but in the streets and in the rural parts of our country.

The National Council of Churches, as many of you know, is the sponsor of a number of migrant labor programs financed by our OEO program. And this kind of activity with the migrants is not confined to a single state, not by any means.

These programs are going on in New Mexico, in Washington, in Michigan, in South Carolina, in New York State, and church people, in many cases, are the only people who were ready, willing and able to accept money to do this work.

They were the only ones ready to work with the migrants. Churches of all denominations are running Head Start programs. I will never forget, when we started Head Start, many people said it would be impossible to enlist the churches in, this effort.

In fact, many people said it would be impossible to enlist the churches in the entire War against Poverty effort. They said, in fact, that if that were done we would be violating the separation of church and state.

But, frankly, we took literally the words in the original bill authorizing OEO, the words which said, "Mobilize all the resources of the American people in this effort." And it seemed to us completely incredible to mobilize all the resources, of the American people to combat poverty and leave out, the churches.

And so we devised what we hoped were legal and constitutional means of enlisting the churches, and among the first programs in which we sought their help was Head Start. I am so pleased -- I am profoundly moved that probably 40 to 50 percent of all the children in year round Head Start classes today are in programs inspired by, led by, church people, and in many cases in church-related institutions.

These classes are going on in classrooms attached to Jewish temples. I have been in many of them. Classrooms, fine classrooms, which just a year ago, two years ago, were empty except for one day a week.

They are filled now every day, and sometimes, at night, with poor children who have never, none of them ever have been in a Hilton Hotel. And this is true of all the other churches. The response, the humanity, the religion of, the churches, has never been, in my judgment, more dramatically displayed than in the work you and many others are doing with Head Start.

Colleges run by all church denominations are participating effectively in the Upward Bound program, the program for high school students, which is already returning incredibly good results.

Just to give you one statistic, the youngsters who are in Upward Bound are chosen -- (some you may be interested to know this over there from Horace Mann students from a local Denver High School choir were in the audience) -- they are chosen because of their poor scholastic records. It's the only scholarship program in America that I know of where you have to have a C average or worse to get in.

In fact, if you are flunking a couple of subjects, you are just the fellow or girl we are looking for. Historically, in our country the population which is now in Upward Bound, about 8 percent of them go to college. Only 8 percent.

Of the youngsters that we have put into Upward Bound, 25,000 now, 83 percent have gone to college, and these youngsters have received on the average, from the colleges, $1,300 in scholarship grants per child.

We think that Upward Bound has shown the great reservoir of talent out in America which we have not been capitalizing upon in the past. We could not have demonstrated that fact with Upward Bound if it were not for hundreds of institutions of higher education of which a huge proportion have been church related colleges.

And so we are grateful for that. The Methodist Church particularly has run all kinds of programs in connection with OEO. Your church operates more than 100 Community Action neighborhood centers in the United States, financed, at least in part, by our office.

The Wesley Community Center in San Antonio has a Federal grant to conduct research among the problems of the neighborhood, and the living between the Mexicans and Americans in San Antonio.

The Seattle Atlantic Street Center, another Methodist institution, is in the third year of a study of 50 poor youngsters from a slum high school. This study is financed by the National Institute of Mental Health.

Millions of Americans know about the good work done by Goodwill Industries, but many, I fear, do not know of the connection of Goodwill to your churches. These things are only a small part, I realize, of the national effort to which all of you are dedicated.

But we at the headquarters of the War on Poverty want to say thanks to you tonight, officially and formally. And in saying it, I would like to add that the poor people of America want to say thanks to you also.

People in America are today coming out of poverty two and a half times faster than ever before in the recorded economic history of our nation. Minority group people, Negro Americans, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Indians, Eskimos, are now coming out of poverty at the same rate as white Americans.

That has never happened before in the recorded economic history of our country. And tonight, as we meet here, the total percentage of poor people in our country has gone down to 15 percent of the population.

That is the lowest that we know of in the history of our country. So we are making progress -- with the help of the churches, with the help of business and labor and Government and particularly, of course, with the help of the poor themselves, we have made a dent in the problem of poverty.

But despite all of this activity, despite the involvement of the churches and the efforts of Government, we certainly are not doing enough. And the 23,000 Methodist ministers in this country would probably be among the first to admit that we are not doing enough.

One of your leaders, a man for whom I have the highest respect and regard, Pastor Carruthers, in his book Keepers of the Poor wrote these sentences:

"Service of the poor is part of the Christian religion. We need nothing short of a nationwide surge of love for persons who are poor, not because they are poor but because they are because they are persons.

"We need a tremendous nation-wide emergence of deep love between the prosperous and the poor, because that is the only way we will save both rich and poor."

He's right. America, I believe, should think of itself as not waging a war only on poverty, but that we are all engaged in defeating another enemy, which is the attitude of the rich, let's say, or of the well-to-do, or the attitude of the indifferent, the person who is living a good life in contemporary America and is not interested.

The attitude that some people have which says that the poor are lazy and shiftless. The attitude that says poor people enjoy being on welfare and getting handouts. The attitude that says that the poor should be forced to make it the hard way, on their own, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps.

Millions of people in our country have those attitudes. They sincerely think they are right. They don't really hate poor people, they just don't know any poor people.

And certainly they don't understand. That's why I suggest tonight that the crisis in America is not in the slums but in the suburbs. Places like Watts, or Harlem, or Appalachia are not caused by what the poor have done, they are caused by what the rich have not done.

Some time ago a bishop in my church up in Rochester, Bishop Fulton Sheen, appointed a Vicar to the Poor. A priest friend of mine said, "He should have appointed a Vicar to the Rich."

I have great respect for Bishop Sheen, and I feel sure that I understand why he did what he did, but I have thought many, many times, and perhaps you have, that it is an odd thing for a Christian church to have to appoint one man to be a Vicar to the Poor.

Where was Christ? Christ didn't have to appoint a Vicar to the Poor. Something is wrong when we appoint a Vicar to the Poor. A Jesuit poet, wrote these words:

"We stand there -- American, white, Christian –with the keys of the world in our pocket. Everything about us says, Be like me. I've got it made. But the poor see the emperor naked, like the look of Christ -- the poor man strips us down to the bond.

"The poor have it hard, the saying goes. Well, the hardest thing they have is us."  

What does this mean? I think it means that we have got a terrible communications problem, and that may be too superficial a description of it.

We are not getting through in our efforts to explain the plight of the poor or the dignity of the poor, the potential of the poor, the rights of the poor, to our friends who are not poor.

Instead of being what Senator Fulbright called a "sick society," maybe we are We don't hear the people, sometimes, whom we are trying to serve, because if our message was getting across, America would have many more volunteers in the War against Poverty and in the Peace Corps and working with your churches.

We would have much more money from Congress if our message were getting across. We would get more support from business, and from labor, more from the Rotary and the Lions and the Kiwanis, more from the Chamber of Commerce, because these people are not people of bad will, or ill will. I think they are people who, for some reason or other, we have not been able to reach.

Maybe those deaf Americans haven't heard that they are desperately needed, needed by the poor. Many of them probably think that this War against Poverty is just another old welfare program, a handout program devised in Washington by Federal bureaucrats and run by boondoggling Democrats nation-wide.

Maybe they think that the problem of poverty can be bought off, with money, like a Manhattan Bomb project: spend more money, and the problem will be eradicated.

But they are wrong. America, I suggest, has a human problem, not a money problem. The problem of poverty has to be solved by human beings, and not just by dollar bills.

But first somehow or other we have to get this through to the well to do. I have to tell them from my soapbox, and I hope you will, help tell them from your pulpit, that this is not a new Message we are trying to get across. I suppose it is one of the oldest messages in the history of the world.

John Wesley, two hundred years ago, had this same problem, both in England and in Georgia. In one of his sermons, he talked about the way the rich people avoid poor people. And this is what he said -- I wish I'd said it.

"One reason why the rich have so little sympathy for the poor is because they so seldom visit them, and so one part of the world doesn't know what the other part suffers. The rich don't know, because they don't care to know. They keep out of the way of knowing it.

"And then they say they are uninformed, as an excuse for their hardness of heart."

Now, I don't really think that most Americans have a hard heart. But many of them probably have uninformed heads. So instead of condemning the rich, I think we should start informing the rich.

That is the kind of leadership I think would be most helpful from Methodist laymen and from Methodist ministers. According to the statistics given to me, as I mentioned, there are 23,000 such ministers, and ten million laymen. 

How many of those ministers and laymen are leaders in the War on Poverty? Not the Federal one, necessarily, but the local one. The answer is, not enough. Dr. Carruthers wrote in his book "Keepers of the Poor":

"It is necessary for the Methodist Church to reorganize its neglected ministers. To the extent that our pastors are untrained in community organization, the Methodist Church is failing in its responsibility to win the War on Poverty.

"This war will be won largely in terms of the ability of the community to organize its latent

Once again, let me say he's right. If every Methodist minister in America, and every Lutheran, Baptist, Presbyterian, Universalist minister and every Catholic priest and Jewish rabbi became a community leader instead of just a church leader, both America and Christianity would change overnight.

Every Sunday Morning all of us together have a chance to reach a hundred million people. At lease, that's what the statistics show -the number that attend church every Sunday. You can reach these people and tell them that the poor in the community need help, not just dollars. Not just something in the collection plate, but human help. This help, I believe, has to come forward soon -- sooner than many of us think, or else the crisis in our American cities and in rural America may gradually make all of our churches into temples of irrelevance.

In the current issue of your magazine World Outlook, there is an editorial, that talks about the sense of frustration pervading all the churches, and especially the Methodist Church. It says:

"It is the feeling that the Church is a machine not a community, and that the machine is running us, not we the machine.

"Too much organization, too much program, too much direction from the top -- these are the familiar complaints repeated over and over again. No system is going to get us out of our present plight, and for our part," the editorial writer says, "we, think our two chief sins are a legalism that substitutes letter for spirit and a wrong idea of the Church which leads us to think it should be a business corporation rather than a community of love."

The very phrase "community of love" sounds almost corny, and simplistic, to many modern ears. We think we are too sophisticated for that. We aren't used to hearing the word "love" -- certainly not in public, especially when "love" is mentioned as a power.

In the corridors of world power, many things are more potent than love. Money is power. Consensus is power. Votes equal power. Military force is power. The Eastern Establishment is power. Some even say that Ronald Reagan plus suburbia plus white backlash plus advertising agencies plus TV is power.

Yet within a world of crime an napalm and riots, some men and women are turning to love, and I don't mean to Hugh Hefner, but to the love which preaches self-sacrifice, self-effacement, and self-respect.

The early Christians formed themselves into communities of love. In the Acts of the Apostles we read: "Lo, the Christians, how they love one another!" That was the most remarkable thing to the pagans about the Christians. They loved one another.

St. Francis, of course, gave us many examples of love, not just for human beings but even for animals and for nature. Tolstoy said, "Man does not live by care for himself, but by love for others."

Today Our Lord, or St. Francis, or Gandhi, or John Wesley -- all would agree, I think, that the essence of love today could be expressed perhaps this way: to put yourself into the skin of another man, to be weakened by his burden and heartened by his joy. Into the skin of a black man, into the skin of a Jew, into the skin of a leper, into the skin of a convict.

That was the idea of the Peace Corps -- to ask young Americans to put themselves into the skin of the people they were trying to help, so that the help would not be paternalistic or imperialistic, but genuine, humble.

Sometimes I said it should be like yeast in a loaf of bread. You can't even see it, but the bread doesn't rise without it.

I will never forget visiting a Peace Corps group in Malaysia. We had some registered nurses there. They were working maybe two hundred miles north of Kuala Lumpur in the local rural hospital. I visited them, we were having lunch and they were peppy and gay and pretty, and I felt good, and the Peace Corps was a success, and one of them said to me: "Mr. Shriver, won't you come visit my ward?"

And I looked at this girl, and I said, "why, of course I'll visit your ward." And then I said to her, "Which ward do you have?" And she said, "I run the leprosy ward."

And then I wasn't so sure I wanted to visit her ward. But I said to myself, "If that girl can go into that ward every day all day for two years, how can I, the big shot from Washington, be scared to get in there for ten minutes?"

And so I went with her, and I went down between a row of beds, and she had alerted the patients and they were sitting up with sort of blue denim pajamas, and they had pockmarks and sores on their facet and hands, and some of them suffered from loss of limbs.

But they were smiling cracked smiles, some of them, and the girl was patting them and joshing with them and talking with them, and called me over to introduce me to one of them.

And the patient reached out his arm to shake hands with me, and I reached out, and then I saw there was no hand, but only a red, raw sore of leprous stump sticking out at me.

And I was scared to grab it. I shouldn't have been, but I was. And when I did grab it, I felt just as if I had a hot poker in my hand. And subsequently I thought to myself about that girl. Nobody could have hired her to go out there. You couldn't have paid her to do that.

She was actually doing it for nothing. She wouldn't admit it, probably, but she was really doing it for love. I think that's the message we have got to get across to the rest of our countrymen.

We need people to go into the suburbs, not just to the slums. We need ministers and dedicated laymen to do what the Government cannot do, to tell us, to tell everybody, what Christianity is all about, that it's a religion of love, that it holds out the risk of failure to anyone daring enough to serve the poor.

The Government can't replace the churches, because the Government has got to worry about being a success. We operate on a success ideology. Politicians cannot get elected unless they are popular, and popularity is the soul brother of success.

Even Winston Churchill was unable to get elected in the face of failure. I have had such funny experiences myself. I can tell you in five minutes, after going into the House of Representatives dining room, whether we are successful or a failure.

The first year I used to go in there running the Peace Corps, and nobody knew me. The second year, I went in there and people brought their constituents over to be photographed with me. The first two years of the War on Poverty, it was kind of hard to get anybody to have lunch with you.

It's just wonderful the way people don't like to be around failures. In life, if something is going to explode, turn out to be .a bust of a fiasco, it's incredible how lonely you can become.

But just the opposite -- if you are a success, goodness! You'd be surprised how many people love you. I fear that sometimes we are trying to make Christianity look like a religion of success instead of a religion of love.

Victories sometimes are more important to us than values. We prefer the Hollywood version of Christianity, with those lovely green lawns and the station wagons of the people coming to church, and the air-conditioned classrooms and the comfortable parsonage, or rectory, and
 the civic club.

But, you know, that's not theology. That's mythology. It's got little to do with Christianity.

Actually, it's the effort of every one of us to be a success, to stay as far away from the possibility of failure as we can. Yet let me say again, Christianity is the religion which says we must risk failure, at least apparent failure, the way Christ did -- the way He was defeated and rejected, the way He was crucified.

To preach this fact of Christianity, the Crucifixion, is the unique mission of the minister, of the priest, and of the dedicated layman. America needs to be told what religion really is, not religiosity the kind where you feel good instead of do good.

I suggest, therefore, that this is the witness you can make and nobody else can make at this point in American history -- to remind us that Christ was forsaken, He was kicked on, spit at, and hung.

Just as that moment on the Cross was the most important moment in Christ's life, so today can be the most important moment in America's life. Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit French philosopher, said this a number of years ago about the world today:

"In spite of the apparent enthusiasm with which large sections of mankind go along with the political and social currents of the day, the mass of mankind remains dissatisfied.

"It is impossible to find, either on the political right or on the political left, a truly progressive
 mind which does not confess to at least a partial disillusionment with all existing movements.

"A man joins one party or another, but, having taken his stand, everyone feels hampered, thwarted, even revolted. Everyone wants something larger, finer, better for mankind. Scattered throughout the apparently hostile masses which are fighting each other, there are elements everywhere which are waiting for a shock in order to re-orient themselves and unite."

I suggest we have seen those shocks -- among Head Start children, 85 percent who have never seen a doctor or dentist -- among Job Corps enrollees who average seventeen and a half years of age, who have lived all their lives in our continental United States, yet 30 percent of them cannot read or write.

And they perform, on the average, at the third-grade level. Among the poor, the chances for a poor child dying before the age of one are twice as high as for a rich, child, where there is ten times more eye trouble, six times more mental illness -- I used to think that was a disease of the rich.

Six times more mental retardation. In Alaska, ten times as much tuberculosis among the poor as among the rich in that same place. The crisis of health care in America is not how to transplant hearts, but how to transplant ordinary health care to the poor.

These are the shocks which should be arousing us, which should be demanding that we unite, white and black, rich and poor, old and young, Christians and humanists.

There is no way out of America's social crisis, except through this kind of union. Each of us is called upon to make a small offering of love, or endure a large amount of hate.

The reason there is hate in the world is not because love has failed, but because we have failed to exhibit and practice enough love.

Let us tonight say, with John Wesley who wrote in his Rule that:

"We will do all the good we can, in all the ways that we can, to all the souls we can, with all the zeal we can, as long as we can."