DIRECTOR’S MESSAGE — September 2019
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival
By Rev. Denise Anderson
“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 Matthew 6:19–21)
In August 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 historic 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 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 re-enactment of the March from Selma. And, on the 50th anniversary of King’s call for a multi-racial 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.
For Presbyterians, the campaign’s revival was particularly prescient. The 222nd General Assembly (2016) 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 on not just poverty alone, but systemic racism, militarism and the war economy, ecological devastation and the distorted moral narrative that would have us believe 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. They found that:
- 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.
- And many other disturbing realities.
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, which would promote clean energy developments and water access
- 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 center 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.