By Kelly Moltzen OFS
Until the Sky Turns Silver: A Summary
“Until the Sky Turns Silver” is a documentary fiction book about the work of the organization All Together in Dignity / ATD Fourth World, which connects people living in extreme poverty with opportunities to share their stories. Those who participate become empowered to advocate for themselves and their communities, including by speaking at the United Nations. The book is based in New York City, and the characters in the book are based on the lives of people the authors have known in real life.
The book tells the stories behind people who are living in poverty, and the work of the ATD team members in engaging those individuals – particularly youth – in activities that demonstrate they truly do care about the dignity of every individual. For example, ATD sets up art activities and libraries on the streets, so it is easy for people to attend, and the participants can beautify and activate their neighborhood. ATD members share the dismay when community members who have been kicked out of their homes, or have become drug users, get put down by others who often judge people without knowing the people’s stories. The book communicates why it is important for initiatives aimed at ending poverty to truly aim to include all individuals, not just half of the population as the Millennium Development Goals do. It also communicates the importance of including people living in poverty directly in conversations about policies that will affect their lives, as the people most directly impacted know best from life experience what works and what doesn’t.
In “Until the Sky Turns Silver,” the characters had the chance to organize a skit and write a talk and poem for an event at the United Nations, which gets attended by dignitaries, ambassadors and their staff. After weeks of worrying about her speechwriting and not knowing what to say, Tanita gives a moving speech about what it feels like to be looked down upon as a person living in poverty. She gives the speech alongside Ahmed, an ATD Fourth World volunteer who came in from Tanzania for the event. It was for World Day for Overcoming Poverty, held each year on October 17. The event is well received and is successful in helping some of the people in attendance to think differently about engaging people in poverty. Following the UN event, when the characters go to UN Church Center for refreshments, it sparks a conversation about churches and religion. They share some enlightened perspectives on religion:
“A church ought to tell me what they do to stand by folk who are in trouble.”
“In a number of prisons, the government has started funding religious programmes geared to help prisoners fit into the community after they’ve served their time. That’s an important goal – but the programmes are very much based on Jesus and the Christian gospel…I’ve heard a Muslim prisoner say he joined a Christian programme because he was afraid that if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be released on parole. How can people feel free to choose whether to convert when they are in prison and a programme like this seems like their only chance for early release?”
“I am a Muslim, but I don’t think God wants us in different categories, whatever our religions. Practicing any religion is a way of being part of a community and reaching out to one another.”
“Not everyone believes in God, but people who don’t believe have to have a powerful, powerful mind. God is the only one who can help you start over again when you have a millstone around your neck. He’s the only one with you when you get thrown in jail. God is the only one who can help you get off drugs.”
“But that’s the problem nowadays. Our young people don’t go to church the way we did growing up. The priests don’t even know them. And how can we protect our kids without the church?”
“Churches just can’t compete. The streets are speaking to our kids loud and clear. No matter how we raise them, violence is waiting at every corner. How do we expect religion to compete with that? But what helps my kids is the art workshop. It’s right out there on the street where we live. They don’t have to look for it. And I hear how Jesse and Yun Hee talk to our kids. They want them to be their own person and to believe in themselves. Maybe getting confidence can keep our kids away from gangs.”
ATD Fourth World is the partner organization that worked with Franciscans International to create the handbook, “Making Human Rights Work for People Living in Extreme Poverty.” It should be clear to any Franciscan or Franciscan-hearted person that ATD Fourth World and religions have at their roots missions which are very much the same, and that is seeing the dignity in every person, seeking out those in extreme poverty, and giving them a platform and/or helping them to find their voice.