In August of 2015, I attended an event at Montreat Conference Center called “Dr. King’s Unfinished Agenda.” This event was hosted as a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historical and at the time controversial address at Montreat’s Christian Action Conference. At that commemorative event we heard from Charles Blow, Leonard Pitts, Dr. William Barber, Congressman John Lewis and Bishop Vashti McKenzie in what can only be described as a transformational, inspiring and enlightening experience. We came away from that event reinvigorated and determined to further the cause of justice.
That event was one of a series of 50th anniversary commemorations of Dr. King’s life and work around that time. I had taken my daughter to the National Mall for the 50th anniversary commemoration of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. We watched the 50th anniversary reenactment of the March from Selma. And, on the 50th anniversary of King’s call for a multiracial movement of people impacted by poverty — the Poor People’s Campaign — we would again call for a grassroots movement to confront economic injustice. On Dec. 4, 2017, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival took up the work that King was doing at the time of his assassination.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and corrosion consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor corrosion consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
— Jesus of Nazareth (according to Matthew6:19–21)
For Presbyterians, the campaign’s revival was particularly prescient. The 222nd General Assembly approved Item 11-03: “On Choosing to Be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25,” an overture submitted by the Presbytery of the Cascades. Its first recommendation was that the PC(USA) “recommit ourselves at the congregational level, the mid council level and the national levels of our church to locate ourselves with the poor, to advocate with all of our voice for the poor and to seek opportunities to take risks for and with the poor.” This would later serve as the impetus for the Presbyterian Mission Agency’s Matthew 25 invitation, which calls the church to the work of building congregational vitality, dismantling structural racism and eradicating systemic poverty.
From the very beginning, Presbyterians have been key fixtures in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Its co-chair, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, is a Presbyterian minister and director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice. Presbyterians were represented at the December 2017 launch of the Campaign and have been active in its efforts ever since. We have served on state coordinating committees, risked arrest in acts of moral fusion direct action and hosted mass meetings. Now as we deepen our work in eradicating poverty and extend the Matthew 25 invitation to more and more churches and mid councils, I believe there is an opportunity to further glean from and participate in this movement.
First, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival understands that confronting poverty must take an intersectional approach. That is why it focuses not just on poverty but also on systemic racism, militarism and the war economy, ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative that would have us believe that these things are too political to be talked about in church. If eradicating poverty is our aim, we must address the forces that undergird and perpetuate it.
Second, it looks to empirical evidence to direct its work. In conjunction with the Institute for Policy Studies, the Campaign released an extensive look at poverty called The Souls of Poor Folk: Auditing America 50 Years After the Poor People’s Campaign Challenged Racism, Poverty, the War Economy/Militarism and Our National Morality. The findings include:
- Twenty-three states have adopted some form of voter suppression law since 2010, and 25 states have pre-empted cities from passing minimum wage laws.
- There was no state or county in the nation where an individual earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour could afford a two-bedroom apartment at market rent.
- Poor households spend seven times as much on water bills as wealthy households.
These findings led to the creation of a Moral Agenda Based on Fundamental Rights, which then led to a Poor People’s Moral Budget. The Moral Budget identifies “$350 billion in annual military spending cuts that would make the nation and the world more secure; $886 billion in estimated annual revenue from fair taxes on the wealthy, corporations and Wall Street; and billions more in savings from ending mass incarceration, addressing climate change and meeting other key campaign demands.” It prioritizes investment in the following areas:
- Democracy and equal protection under the law
- Domestic tranquility (access to jobs and adequate income)
- An equitable economy and fair taxation
- Life and health, meaning access to health care
- Our future, with a tax system that adequately and affordably covers child care and college costs
- Our planet, by promoting clean energy development and water access, and
- Peace and the common defense, which would move us toward diplomacy over “military-first responses.”
I look at these priorities and remember King’s admonition that there is no deficit of human resources; the deficit is in human will. But what of Presbyterians? How we spend money and allocate resources says so much about what (and whom) we value. Our resources include, of course, our “time, talent and treasure.” They also include our advocacy, our study and even our empathy. How can we not only lend our gifts to this cause, but also examine how we are currently using what have and shift course as appropriate? And do we even want to do that?
Further, are we ready to prioritize the experiences of Presbyterians who are impacted by poverty? Many of the Presbyterians who have been leading in this movement are doing so as impacted people. Because early land ownership among Scotch-Irish colonists helped Presbyterians become one of the richest denominations in the Americas, much of how we often speak about ourselves suggests that we make invisible siblings among us who are impacted by poverty. The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is incredibly wealthy, and I don’t mean financially. We are rich in intellect, fervor and the passion necessary to effect real change in our world. It’s simply a question of whether we have the heart to do it.
The Rev. Denise Anderson
Coordinator Racial and Intercultural Justice
“Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”—Isaiah 58:12
The Compassion, Peace & Justice (CPJ) ministry engages with Presbyterians and partners across the U.S. and internationally to:
End poverty and hunger as we:
- Assist and accompany vulnerable communities working to improve their lives
- Support education, training and capacity-building programs
- Work for long-term solutions to systemic poverty and injustice
- Listen to, amplify the voices of partners, and join in action toward these goals
Restore communities impacted by disaster as we:
- Partner with communities affected by disasters, environmental degradation and systemic racism
- Provide training, disaster preparedness and capacity-building programs for mid councils, partners and responders
- Mitigate the impact of disasters and their underlying causes
Promote peace and transform cultures of violence as we:
- Educate, advocate and respond to domestic and international conflicts
- Provide opportunities to learn about peacemaking initiatives, and to accompany impacted communities
- Address structural racism, white supremacy, misogyny and violence; and work for human rights and dignity
- Encourage the study and practice of nonviolence
- Confront the epidemic of gun violence
Promote solidarity with people as we:
- Amplify the voices of those whom society marginalizes and stand with communities as they defend their rights
- Challenge systems of oppression, discrimination and abuse
- Partner with those who seek livable wages and just labor practices
- Engage with partners working with refugees, immigrants, asylum seekers, citizens returning from incarceration, and people impacted by trafficking or forced labor
Promote solidarity with creation as we:
- Work toward environmental justice, creation care, sustainable living, appropriate technologies and climate justice
- Support food and farm systems that restore God’s creation
- Challenge systems that put profit ahead of health, safety and the environment
- Honor and respond to the leadership of frontline communities experiencing environmental degradation and/or environmental racism
- Articulate and advocate for a just transition toward an equitable and sustainable economy
The ministries of Compassion, Peace and Justice are supported by your contributions to the Presbyterian Mission Agency through your local congregation.
We appreciate your support!