Essays on Religion, Faith and Sprituality by Michele Madigan Somerville

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

How Great Thou Already Art, America: Campaigning Against Trump in Reading, PA

Canvassing on the penultimate weekend before voter closes in swing state Pennsylvania was dispiriting, encouraging and edifying. As a New York educator, activist and church worker who has worked in some of New York City’s poorest areas, I did not expect to be freshly appalled by the way our nation allows innocent people to slip through the proverbial cracks. But I was. Nor did I think it possible to be newly afraid of Donald Trump. But I was.

Canvassing in and around its historic district of Reading with my spouse and a dog, I saw once-magnificent homes, vacated and sold, I deduced, by families fleeing to suburbs. One could see in some kind of stark relief, how easily the perfect storm of housing market collapse, weak school system, white flight, collapse of industry (Remember Reading Railroad from the game of Monopoly?) coalesced into a perfect storm adequate to convert a gem of a city into a town compromised by crime and poverty. 

As a person who grew up in a home where we often lived pay-check to pay-check, I know how easy it is for families to find themselves falling through the proverbial cracks. My brothers and parents and I always feared it. A broken leg, an operation, death, addiction or the sudden departure of a bread-winner parent. My three (college age, college attending) children love having breakfast for dinner. On the way back from Reading, my husband and I had Saturday night dinner at a Waffle House somewhere in Pennsylvania. A cheap date, I had a waffle. It was fun. My brothers and I remember having the other kind of breakfast for dinner. They eggs you have when the money has run out.

As I looked at the houses in Reading I felt as if I was seeing the anatomy of American poverty in microcosm. It's more camouflaged in the city (new York) in which I live. I could see more of the bones of it in Reading, I could imagine how easily those who owned, occupied, sold and bought those historic homes might have found themselves unable to keep up with the maintenance of them.  One of our presidential candidates doesn't read for pleasure. I'm an educator. What happens when schools got bad? It's when all he trouble begins, I believe. 

Foreclosures happen. Large homes get occupied by individual tenants in search of affordable rents. A pattern of transience emerges, sets in. Those left behind are disproportionately elderly and black. I talked with a couple of old people about the campaign and what's wrong with today. My husband and I spoke with one elderly woman who had moved from Philadelphia four times in recent years. She walked with a cane. She was politically aware, nay, all-out astute. She moved to Reading from Philadelphia because she could find a dwelling she could afford. She left her home, in old age, so she could live somewhere other than on the streets. 

Roses love to climb and grow in Reading. We spoke with poor people who kept impeccable gardens but were missing front teeth. Many of these had flew flags in their front yards and articulated patriotic love for our nation and deep fear of Trump. I made the mistake assuming the flag folk were white Trumpers. I was wrong in most cases.

We encountered too many people who believed voting didn’t matter.

Most seemed to hold voting dear. In some cases, we had to explain our reason for carpet-bagging from Brooklyn. "Our vote only matters a little. Your vote can change the whole outcome." 

I loved meeting the codgers and and the couple of young Latino men who were enthusiastic about voting “down the Democratic ballot” for three women (Katie McGinty is running for Senate there, and Christina Hartman for Congress.)  One Spanish-speaking guy exclaimed thus, when we asked him about his plans to cast a vote: “I’m voting for the girl!” (His English was not great. My  guess is  Secretary Clinton would be okay with being called "a girl" by him.)

More than once, we were asked “You’re not with Trump, are you?” as we stepped onto a front porch and approached the door. We're white. 

While the local Republic campaign office at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel in Reading seemed to be operational, with posters for candidates in local races in its storefront windows, the Trump/Pence headquarters a few feet away was as empty as a ship from which the rats have finished scampering.
  
The conversation with a man in his twenties whom we accosted as he got out of the car with groceries both inspired and frustrated. He wanted to register to vote. He was obviously intelligent, interested in the presidential race and cognizant of the issues, but worried that he did not read well enough to fill out the forms. One of our presidential candidates doesn't read for pleasure. I'm an educator. What happens when schools got bad? It's when all he trouble begins. Imagination takes a licking.

When a city, state, nation fails to teach its taxpayers how to read, we should think twice about a candidate for president who does not read. 

We found that conversations with people who were not listed on our Democratic ground game list were as important as making sure that people who had registered once, planned to get to the polls on November 8th.

We registered a few nieces, nephews, friends and new citizens of people already on the list. Called them "live ones."

We met people who couldn’t find jobs, who could barely get by, who had a given up entirely on medical and dental care, who had been separated from extended family by poverty, who had been educationally shafted but who still held on to a feeling that the United States could support them in working to have a better life.Very often we knocked and were told by neighbors, that the tenant was at work, works a lot, works on Saturday, works all the time. 

One of the first things I learned while working with poor folks in New York as that most poor (and an alarming proportion of homeless) folks have jobs. A lot of people who have enough don't know that.

People with jobs and no homes or no teeth or bad water don't need Donald Trump's great jobs so much as they need a leader who recognizes their humanity, struggles and achievements and a government that gives back when they pay taxes on their gasoline, milk, shoes...

We spoke in English and Spanish with many Spanish-speaking people in Reading. From what I have read about Reading, a lot of the people Trump would like to depart are revitalizing Reading. This is should come as no surprise. It's what immigrants in the United States have traditionally done.

One Spanish-speaking man we met spoke of nervously waiting for his application for citizenship to clear in time for the October 11th voter registration deadline. Ave Maria his way. 

Some of the people on our list had used the address of /resided at a mission when they last registered. A man with mesmerizing blue eyes answered the door when I knocked looking for them. As he directed me to the entrance around the corner he warned me that most of the people “in here can’t vote because. They're felons." We chatted.

He didn’t plan to vote. He insisted it didn't matter who won. I argued softly. Maybe he didn’t want to vote; maybe he had been stripped of his right to vote. Maybe he had done something illegal enough to leave him without a say.  

Many who voted for Obama in 2012 are disappointed by what they see as a lack of follow-through on the part of his administration; electioneers show up at election time. I take their point. Perhaps Clinton can do more.

Nonetheless, the white man who answered the mission door was the only person in Reading with whom I spoke at any length, that weekend who did not speak of fearing a Trump presidency. "Two lousy candidates," he said. I wasn't quite buying it.

As we rounded the corner to get to the mission's entrance, I wondered about that default to hopeless disinterest. It could be seen as a healthly response to being deprived of a voter's voice.

If voting changes nothing, then losing the right to vote does not matter. 

We turned the corner and my husband went into the mission. The white guy was right. Indeed many of the men gathered around the television set watching a ball game were ineligible to register to vote. I don’t know what their offenses were, but I could infer from Narcotics Anonymous sign outside the property that many were there for the kind of offenses that send middle class white men to rehab. We are a culture that, at least, pretends to recognize that addiction is an illness, but we are not democratic about it. 

I was proud when the husband emerged with a couple of what we had talen to calling “live ones”--- new voter registrations. I hope our hopefulness is justified.


The trip to Reading was precious.  We're going back. Reading is a beautiful city, but it is one of the poorest in the nation. I am told it has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. The only thing I was afraid of while covering the roughly eight miles my husband, little dog and I covered on foot last week was Donald Trump.

The first step toward making our country greater is recognizing how great and various and full of hope we are. 

10/4/16

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