Kamala Harris Holds Private Meeting With Rev. William Barber - Word&Way

Kamala Harris Holds Private Meeting With Rev. William Barber

WASHINGTON (RNS) — Vice President Kamala Harris huddled with prominent activist the Rev. William Barber II in a rare private meeting, where they discussed issues impacting the poor as well as Israel’s ongoing assault in the Gaza Strip.

Harris hosted Barber, a Disciples of Christ minister, at the White House as well as the Rev. Kazimir Brown, the executive director of Repairers of the Breach, an organization founded by Barber that seeks to repair “the breaches caused by centuries of systemic oppression and injustice in our country.” According to Barber, the trio focused primarily on issues surrounding the plight of the poor during the roughly 45-minute meeting, which took place Feb. 5.

“Vice President Kamala Harris’ team reached out and said that they were having some conversations with various thought leaders around the country,” said Barber, who recently left his longtime pulpit at Greenleaf Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, to found Yale Divinity School’s Center for Public Theology and Public Policy.

Barber, who also co-leads, with the Rev. Liz Theoharis, the advocacy group The Poor People’s Campaign, said he’d already been in conversation with the White House about a desire for officials to sit down with poor and low-wealth people.

“The vice president is very clear, I believe, on these issues,” said Barber. “She resonated with the reality of looking at poverty through this lens of death.”

Harris acknowledged the meeting in a post on X, thanking Barber for “his years of work to raise wages and end poverty” before adding: “President Biden and I know: We have a duty to ensure workers across our nation are treated with dignity and that all families have the opportunity to thrive.”

Neither the White House nor Brown offered any additional comment on the meeting, but Barber said he pressed Harris to take action to address the concerns of millions of Americans who are locked in poverty or have low-wage jobs. The vice president, he said, was amenable and appeared to be especially interested in a recent Poor People’s Campaign report that frames millions of poor and low-wage Americans as an “untapped power” at the ballot box as well as a 2023 study that argues long-term poverty can be linked to as many as 800 deaths a day.

“When she heard us put it that way, she clearly understood that it’s a different conversation,” he said, noting that Harris said she planned to deliver a speech this year focused on economics and wages. “It’s not about left versus right. Republican versus Democrat. This is about life and death.”

It’s an argument Barber has made to Harris and President Joe Biden for years, often in person. Both Biden and Harris participated in a 2019 presidential candidates forum hosted by Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign, where politicians were peppered with questions about issues related to poverty. Barber and Biden would eventually signal shared goals as the election cycle wore on, with the pastor making a rare endorsement of Biden’s candidacy and Biden, in turn, pledging support for the Poor People’s Campaign during his 2020 White House bid.

Barber went on to deliver the sermon at Biden’s inaugural prayer service, and Biden endorsed policy goals of the Poor People’s Campaign, such as raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour and protecting voting rights, in a 2021 video.

In addition, a group of White House officials — including heads of the White House faith office and Office of Public Engagement, as well as at least one domestic policy adviser — also met with representatives from the Poor People’s Campaign along with leaders of the Service Employees International Union in June of last year.

But while the Biden administration backed a minimum wage increase, Congress voted it down, with eight Democratic caucus members opposing it. Efforts to make pandemic-era child tax credit benefits permanent — a proposal that featured unusually broad support from a range of religious communities — also fell short. Barber said Harris signaled in their recent meeting that she saw that as a “failure” by Congress.

Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign have sometimes struggled to accrue support from Biden. The president was late to heed demands from Barber and others to abolish or adjust the Senate filibuster to allow for the passage of voting rights legislation, and Biden has yet to grant Barber’s repeated requests to host a summit at the White House featuring poor and low-wealth people.

Barber said he was invited to speak with Harris because of his role at Yale, not as head of the Poor People’s Campaign, but the vice president nonetheless “expressed an openness” to the summit proposal, in addition to many of the Poor People’s Campaign’s policy goals.

“She expressed that she is fully behind this business — that we have to raise the living wage, we have to do voting rights, we have to make sure that people have the basic fundamental right to health care, and we have to protect women’s rights,” Barber said, recounting some of the issues the Poor People’s Campaign argues are connected to poverty.

Rev. William Barber. (RNS Photo/Jack Jenkins)

He added: “I really am not so interested in whether I get another meeting. I really want this to be poor and low-wage folk sitting in the Oval Office with (Harris) and the president.”

Barber was quick to note that the visit was a White House meeting, not a campaign stop. But it comes as Biden is renewing efforts to reenergize support among Black voters — including by speaking at prominent historically Black churches — in an attempt to shore up one of his most important bases of support ahead of the 2024 election. Biden has garnered criticism from some Black clergy over his handling of the Israel-Hamas war, with more than 900 Black Christian faith leaders taking out an advertisement in The New York Times late last year calling on the president to push for a cease-fire in Gaza.

Barber said Harris also asked him for his thoughts regarding Israel’s ongoing assault into the Gaza Strip. The Israeli assault, which followed an attack in southern Israel by Hamas that left 1,200 dead and hundreds more taken hostage, is estimated to have so far killed more than 28,000 people, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza.

Barber referred to a document he and other faith leaders published in November that condemned Hamas while also calling for a “moral cease-fire” in the region. Barber also spoke via telephone at a cease-fire vigil convened outside the White House that same month.

He said he suggested to Harris that the Biden administration convene a gathering of “Jews, Muslims and Christians together — deep moral voices” at the White House, citing similar confabs hosted by President John F. Kennedy while he was in office. Barber also suggested that, when the fighting ceases in Gaza, a similar delegation be tasked with visiting the families of those who have last loved ones in both Gaza and Israel. Barber said that after he and Brown left the meeting, they huddled in prayer for the vice president.

“It was simply a prayer for the vice president, for the administration,” he said. “A prayer for the nation, and a prayer that we not marginalize the very people that are so central to our deepest moral traditions: the poor, the sick, the hurting, the immigrant and the dispossessed.”

The pair then immediately “went back to organizing,” Barber said, preparing for a sweeping 42-week campaign in more than 30 states “to mobilize 15 million infrequent poor and low-wealth voters.”