‘I felt like my legs were praying’

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Photo by Alvine

By Andrew Krinks

Pilgrimage for Jobs, Equity, and Fairness

City Hall, Nashville, TN

July 23, 2013

My name is Andrew and I work with people experiencing homelessness here in Nashville. I’m also a doctoral student in religion at Vanderbilt University.

A friend of mine many of you may know, Don Beisswenger, an activist, minister, and former teacher of 30 years at Vanderbilt Divinity School, taught me a few years ago that the first question of any meaningful social action, the first question, too, of any religious or theological reflection, is the same question that Marvin Gaye put before us in 1971: “What’s going on?”

As far as I can tell, this pilgrimage has been a three-day, twenty-two-mile exercise in asking “what’s going on” in Nashville, in the neighborhoods where people are struggling the most. By asking and illuminating what’s going on, this pilgrimage has amplified what Dr. King called the “language of the unheard” in our communities.

What is the language of the unheard? It’s the language of the 18% in our city who struggle to make ends meet because they live below the poverty level. It’s the language of the people who are ready to work but cannot find work. It’s the language of 4,000 people who lack adequate shelter, people who go to jail, are summoned to court and fined hundreds of dollars for sleeping under bridges, in parks, for sitting on stoops or on heating grates in the wintertime. It’s the language of people who know what it feels like to be invisible, unimportant, and unheard when it comes to the priorities of city government.

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Photo by Alvine

We are here to say that the language of the unheard has gone unheard long enough. We are here to say that Nashville is not truly Nashville until we make space for such voices. We are here to say that Nashville will not be the “it” city so many people say it is until it begins prioritizing its most vulnerable sisters and brothers.

Over 50 years ago, Diane Nash, a student at Fisk University, walked to these steps to ask Mayor Ben West a simple question: “Do you feel it is wrong to discriminate against a person solely on the basis of their race or color?” Mayor West had no option but to respond in the affirmative. A few weeks later, thanks to that question and the persistence of the sit-in movement, lunch counters across the city were finally integrated.

Today, we ask our Mayor, city leaders, and the city as a whole, a simple question. Do you feel it is wrong to put entertainment and the interests of tourists before the needs of impoverished Nashvillians? Do you feel it is wrong to incentivize high-end development, to provide benefits for people in certain zip codes and income brackets but not in the areas that need it the most? We await an answer in the form of concrete action.

The Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, looking back on his pilgrimage with Dr. King in 1965, said, “When I marched in Selma, I felt like my legs were praying.” Well, this is a mighty prayer that’s been embodied here today. And I just want to say, “Amen.”

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