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A poverty talk rich with ideas

Presbyterian Mission Agency board digs into one of three Matthew 25 invitations

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

José Luis Casal, Rhashell Hunter, Ray Jones and Sara Lisherness discuss poverty with the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board and their guests Thursday. (Photo by Tammy Warren)

LOUISVILLE — With eradicating systemic poverty as one of the three goals of the Matthew 25 invitation, Presbyterian Mission Agency Board members took two hours Thursday to hear from a panel what’s being done about it and, around round tables, to discuss poverty’s implications and challenges for congregations, mid councils and other groups.

The Rev. Dr. Rhashell Hunter, director of Race Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries, reminded the board and visitors that “no one in this room made it by themselves. We assume we pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, but that’s not true.”

There are also “people in this room who have been poor,” Hunter said. “We clean up really well in church, so you may not know it of the person sitting next to you.”

For many Presbyterians, “the system is not a barrier, and so we don’t believe (the barriers) exist,” she said. “For others, it’s so demoralizing that they can’t even think of fighting with an insurance company.”

Sara Lisherness, director of Compassion, Peace & Justice, discussed how war-torn villages in Sierra Leone have been aided by the West Africa Initiative, supported by One Great Hour of Sharing gifts. A grant got a widowed mother of 10 trained in leadership. Working together, small farmers in dozens of villages have boosted food production and access to schools for their children. “The common thread,” Lisherness said, “is that they are now a tight-knit community.”

The Rev. Ray Jones, acting director of Theology, Formation & Evangelism, told the story of Ebenezer Church, a 1001 new worshiping community in San Diego. The co-pastors there “wanted to start a church for and with people who are poor, and with immigrants to the United States,” he said. “Part of their vision is to disrupt generational poverty.”

The new worshiping community works to keep children in school — all the way through graduate school.

He said it’s the power of the Holy Spirit working in communities, and not just in churches, that “literally breaks the hearts of people. As our hearts break, we continue to wake up,” Jones said, reminding the board that among the purposes of Jesus’ first sermon was to bring good news to the poor.

World Mission Director the Rev. José Luis Casal brought a prop to tell his story — a poster from Café Justo, a grower-owned coffee cooperative based in southern Chiapas, Mexico that was formed to address poverty and migration from Mexico to the U.S.

These coffee farmers, he said, “know for sure that somebody heard their cry.” Rather than charity, the farmers sought solidarity. “Compassion is (writing a) check,” Casal said. “Solidarity is presence and accompaniment.”

During a question-and-answer session following the panel discussion, Lisherness said Presbyterians use their investments “to speak to powers and principalities” through approaches including Mission Responsibility Through Investment as well as the Presbyterian Foundation and the Board of Pensions. Divesting from sectors including private prisons can be tricky, she noted — the head of one of the largest for-profit prison systems is a Presbyterian.

“Whether or not I’m poor,” said the Rev. Dr. Diane Moffett, the PMA’s president and executive director, “I still have a call to recognize how systems create problems that people have to wrestle with.”

“Some of the challenges we are seeing, we created,” Hunter said. “While we have evolved, we have oppressed people, and I’m not sure we have fully done all our repentance work on that yet. We have got to get to a place where we can reconcile the history we have … We’ve got to figure out how we can be repairers of the breach.” (Is. 58:12)

PMA Board Chair Joe Morrow then asked the board and their guests to break into small groups to discuss these questions:

  • How does what you’ve just heard relate to what you see in your context (congregation, mid council or community of affiliation)? Is it similar or not, and how?
  • What strategies being employed by PMA would be most consequential for addressing forms of poverty in your context?
  • What would success in eradicating poverty look like in your context? For the PC(USA)?

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