Need a moral antidote for Gov. Paul LePage?
The Rev. Mykel Johnson suggests Martin Luther King Jr.
Johnson is the pastor at Portland’s Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church. Friday morning at Portland City Hall, she joined several other speakers in decrying the LePage administration’s plan to deny General Assistance benefits to asylum seekers and other immigrants who come to Maine in search of new lives.
Noting that we just celebrated King’s birthday on Monday, Johnson invoked King’s eerily prescient “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech on April 3, 1968, in which he all but predicted his assassination the very next day.
That same fateful evening in Memphis, recalled Johnson, King also touched on the biblical story of the Good Samaritan – in which a man was attacked by thieves and left to die on the road to Jericho, only to be saved by a foreigner from Samaria after a local priest and a Levite both passed him by.
Perhaps the priest and the Levite, speculated King, feared it was a trap: If they stopped to help, they may have worried, what would happen to them?
“But then the Good Samaritan came by,” said King. “And he reversed the question: ‘If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?’ ”
To which Johnson, with a stairway full of immigrants and asylum seekers standing behind her, now added this modern-day twist:
“I acknowledge that some people are asking, ‘If we keep helping asylum seekers and immigrants in our state, what will happen to us – to our balanced budgets and our taxes?’ I imagine they might be afraid,” she said. “But we must turn the question around: If we do not help the asylum seekers and immigrants, what will happen to them?”
It’s not a rhetorical question.
Doug Gardner, Portland’s director of health and human services, decided recently to see exactly how LePage’s General Assistance crackdown might affect Portland, which along with Lewiston far outpaces other Maine communities as a haven for immigrants and asylum seekers.
Using data from November, Gardner said, the loss of General Assistance would put 351 families out on the street.
“That’s 592 individuals,” he added.
Such a scenario – men, women and children, having fled oppression and in some cases torture in their homelands, now wandering the urban streets of Maine in search of food and shelter – violates what the Rev. Johnson considers a fundamental tenet not just of Christianity, but of Judaism and Islam and any other religion that places the common good over individual self-interest.
“If our sister from the Congo is in danger, how can we not welcome her into our city? If our brother from Burundi needs our help, how can we throw him out in the streets?” Johnson asked. “It is the very measure of our humanity. We are all connected. We are all one family.”
Try telling that to those who, upon reading those words, are already pounding away at their keyboards about how Maine can’t afford to help these people, how they only come here for a free ride, how nobody invited them in the first place, how “the last time I gathered with my family I didn’t see anyone from the Congo . . .”
Why all the anger?
“I think certain elements of our country are moving more and more toward individualism and losing that sense of the common good,” said Johnson following her remarks. “I’m not sure why that is happening.”
Enter Portland Mayor Michael Brennan, who also spoke Friday. He lays the blame squarely on far-right-wingers like LePage who repeatedly use “welfare” as their primary weapon in what even Ohio Gov. John Kasich, himself a Republican, recently lamented has become “a war on the poor.”
“When you have (current levels) of income inequality, people lose trust in each other,” noted Brennan. “There’s a lot of mistrust that somebody’s getting something they shouldn’t, somebody’s getting more than what I’m getting. And these types of proposals fuel that mistrust.”
A faint ray of hope: LePage’s proposed change in Department of Health and Human Services rules surrounding General Assistance eligibility, while on a fast track to take effect as early as late March, is by no means a done deal.
For starters, it still must pass legal muster with Maine Attorney General Janet Mills, who’s not shy about taking on LePage.
Beyond that, noted Brennan, it could get derailed by the Legislature as a “substantive rule change” requiring lawmakers’ approval before it can take effect. Currently, LePage & Co. see it as a “routine technical rule” adjustment not requiring legislative action.
The mayor has a point: According to the Legislature’s Office of Policy and Legal Analysis, routine technical rules “are not expected to be controversial or to have a significant public impact.”
On the other hand, the office states, “Major Substantive Rules are generally rules that, in the judgment of the Legislature, require the exercise of significant agency discretion or interpretation or will cause a significant public impact.”
We’ll leave it to the legislative leaders to sort that one out, although it’s hard to imagine that pulling the welcome mat out from under hundreds of immigrants (according to Gardner, 70 percent are off the General Assistance rolls within six months) won’t have “significant public impact.”
Better, at least for now, to reflect on the fact that Martin Luther King went to Memphis almost a half-century ago not for his own gain, but to support that city’s striking sanitation workers as they fought for decent wages and working conditions. Among their grievances: Two workers, following a city rule that they seek shelter from the rain only in the back of their putrid compressor truck, were crushed to death when the machinery malfunctioned.
“The question is not, ‘If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?’ ” said King the night before he died. “The question is, ‘If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?’ ”
Sanitation workers in Memphis . . . immigrants and asylum seekers in Maine . . . the question is as relevant today as it was in 1968: If we don’t help the newcomers among us as they struggle to find a foothold here, what will happen to them?
Be careful how you answer that one.
As the Rev. Johnson so aptly notes, it’s a measure of your humanity.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: