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An online Matthew 25 gathering on eradicating systemic poverty draws a crowd of more than 150

Getting at the root of poverty is a key. More webinars are upcoming

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Fredrick Lee via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Why are people poor in your area? How has poverty touched your life? Your community? Your faith community?

More than 150 people joined the Matthew 25 webinar Tuesday on eradicating systemic poverty, which organizers called “Where Does Jesus Stand? Exploring Five Spiritual Practices to End Poverty.” The webinar explored these and more questions and invited participants to mull them further in small groups near the end of their time together.

Those five spiritual practices, with resources for engaging them, are worship, learn, relate, act and share.

Laura VanDale, hunger action advocate for the Presbytery of the Western Reserve, led those gathered in saying five assertions about systemic poverty:

  • We repent that Christians have misunderstood or been misled by biblical passages taken out of context or by theological interests that distort the gospel’s original intention.
  • We repent that the church has used Scripture to uphold systems that perpetuate oppression and poverty.
  • We do not believe that “the poor will always be with us” indicates that poverty is inevitable or God’s will.
  • We do not believe in a prosperity gospel where God blesses faithful people with economic riches or condemns unfaithful people to poverty.
  • Jesus Christ taught us to care for the vulnerable, to be a good neighbor and to provide food to the hungry.

And, from The Confession of 1967, participants agreed that “poverty is not a personal problem but a corporate sin.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, helped those in attendance look at the root causes of poverty, including the lack of quality and sustainable employment and affordable housing; health care availability; access to reputable financial products, including loans and credit; and educational disparities. When Johnson was a prison chaplain, an inmate once told him, “I am in prison because I couldn’t read the confession that I signed.”

When Congress voted to “end welfare as we know it” in the mid-1990s, replacing Aid to Families with Dependent Children with block grants to states under the “welfare to work” reform pushed by then-President Bill Clinton, “it doesn’t mean folks who are poor are receiving the grants in every state,” Johnson said. “If you have spent time trying to get welfare [benefits], you understand it’s not an easy undertaking. Many times, the bureaucracy alone causes people to drop out of the system.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson (Photo by Rich Copley)

“Who are the poor among you? Poverty is not about bad choices or bad morality,” Johnson said. “Those are the last things I would say about my mom. I do know she was taking care of a sick husband.”

The Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, helped share three stories. The first was a video from the Poor People’s Campaign, which was co-founded by a Presbyterian pastor, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.

A second by mission co-worker Christi Boyd featured the voices of indigenous Batwa communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Living off their ancestral rainforests, the Batwa are forced to the margins by logging companies condoned by their own government. While structural racism from Bantu neighbors aggravates their hardship, the Batwa also fear that logging activities will disrupt the forest’s peatlands which harbor large amounts of greenhouse gases.

Papa Pierre Bonkono is a member and deacon of the Presbyterian Church of Kinshasa (CPK) and spokesperson for the Batwa in Equateur Province. (Contributed photo)

“The government knows very well we survive in the forests,” says a Batwa leader. “This is our heritage. This is what God has blessed us with. We don’t deny the state’s powers, but we are the peatland’s guardians.” Through the Batwa’s accounts, the video illustrated the intersections between the Matthew 25 themes of systemic poverty, structural racism and climate crisis. Watch the video here.

Ellen Sherby (Contributed photo)

Ellen Sherby, an associate director with World Mission, shared the story of her involvement with the immigrant community in Kentucky and her marriage to an immigrant from Honduras. “The roots are deep and complex, and we have a responsibility to keep learning about how those roots are connected,” Sherby said. “We can also look at people with compassion and realize there are complexities immigrants face. They’re not here because they came on a lark. They’re here to survive.”

Throughout the webinar, participants kept the conversation lively in the Zoom chat room.

“I used to think that poverty levels were high because I lived in areas without a lot of economic resources,” said one. “Now I live in Silicon Valley in one of the wealthiest parts of the wealthiest state in the wealthiest nation, and there is still poverty and inequality. Now I am convinced the causes are truly systemic.”

The next online Matthew 25 gathering on ending systemic poverty is set for 3 p.m. Eastern Time on June 29. The webinar, “End Poverty: Measuring our Impact Holistically,” is designed to help answer questions including: How do we best focus our time, talent and treasure to reduce systemic poverty? Did those who live closest to the problem ask for accompaniment and did they develop the strategy? We know what we are fighting against, but what is the collective vision of what we want? Register here. More workshops on eradicating systemic poverty are scheduled for Aug. 28 and Oct. 30. A webinar on building congregational vitality will be held in mid-August and one on dismantling structural racism is set for early November. The national Matthew 25 summit is slated for Jan. 16-18, 2024, in Atlanta.

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