The board also hears from the PC(USA)’s advocacy director, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Having read Matthew Desmond’s book “Poverty, by America” together, members of the Presbyterian Mission Agency Board meeting online Thursday discussed what they might do to help eradicate systemic poverty, as called for by the PC(USA)’s Matthew 25 invitation.
The central argument of the book, according to a New York Times review, is “that the endurance of poverty in the United States is the product not only of larger shifts such as deindustrialization and family dissolution, but of choices and actions by more fortunate Americans.”
“Poverty persists,” according to the review by ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis, “partly because many of us have, with varying degrees of self-awareness, decided that we benefit from its perpetuation.”
PMA Board members divided into small groups Thursday to discuss three questions about the book: What surprised you? What had impact? What actions could the board develop now based on reading this book?
That third question generated the most discussion once board members reconvened in plenary.
The Rev. Dr. Matt Bussell said his small group talked about everything from equity in pastors’ pay across the denomination to what churches pay their custodians. “I think we should invite the denomination to look at that. Are you paying your employees a living wage in your community?” Bussell asked. “Yes, there are financial issues at play in congregations and mid councils, but there’s a cost, and it’s at the hart of what he gets at in this book.”
“How much we can do as a church,” said Dr. Ximena Leroux, “is the most challenging part.”
“What I appreciate is the way that Desmond subverts the narrative about welfare,” said the Rev. Frank Pottorff. “Those of us with privilege are the direct beneficiaries of [tax breaks and other programs] labeled in different ways. Capitalism disempowers all of us in some way.”
“It strikes me how connectional Presbyterians purport to be except when it comes to money,” said the Rev. Denise Anderson, director of the PMA’s Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries. Even among Presbyterians, there are “congregation leaders and staff who have to rely on welfare systems … What seeds are we sowing?”
“The book talks about having the will [to eradicate systemic poverty]. With the church, we start repair one by one as people identify harms, and I think it’s the same with poverty,” said the Rev. Dr. Diane Givens Moffett, the PMA’s president and executive director. “Matthew 25 gives us a powerful platform, if people are part of it, connecting with people who want to do the work.”
PC(USA) churches and worshiping communities are initiating partnerships and “reinvesting in places, and the people will come because we are scratching where they’re itching, but only if we’re with the people we are serving,” Moffett said. “There are churches that get it and are doing it.”
The Rev. Kevin Johnson was reminded of the early church described in the Book of Acts. “It was a collective way of living. The money was distributed to those who had need,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to be a naysayer, but I cringe when I hear language about ending poverty and racism. Moreso than ending it, what I cherish is being part of a process that confronts it with a sense of intentionality.”
“These aren’t conversations ‘over there.’ They’re us, and with God’s help, there’s nothing we can’t do,” said the Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, Co-Moderator of the 225th General Assembly (2022). “But we have to notice and invite people to come closer. Can we just be accountable with each other?”
“Even if it’s a tiny step,” she said, “let’s be supportive of one another in that tiny step.”
Christianity and capitalism
The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, who directs PC(USA) advocacy work at the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, built on some of the talks he delivered over the summer during the Synod of Lakes and Prairies’ Synod School. Read more about what he had to say at that event here, here, here, here and here.
“I think we’re a little too cautious when it comes to raising up the church’s prophetic voice,” Hawkins told the PMA Board. “I know there are people who don’t want to hear anything about justice, which is a biblical concept, but I think the Presbyterian denomination is at a different place now.”
People tell him that although they’d never before engaged in advocacy work, “I’m feeling called now. Our clergy have always been more progressive than our members, but I think members are catching up,” Hawkins said. “We have to understand that justice has to be part of our teaching,” especially in the face of still popular views including the prosperity gospel, “which isn’t concerned about justice.”
“We understand that part of our calling is making life better for others, but 99% of that is done through charity,” Hawkins said. “We’ve got to challenge and change the system.”
Faith communities can partner with nearby nonprofits “to find ways to engage with the community” with organizations working on issues they have in common, such as gun violence, Hawkins said. “You can’t read Scripture and not talk about poverty, and I think people are eager to have those conversations. But you’ve got to know your audience” and “love people and challenge them at the same time. There are no quick victories in justice work.”
With a prompt, Hawkins reminded the board that the Jesus and Justice Young Adult Advocacy Conference for college students and seminarians is coming to the Presbyterian Center Oct. 20-22. Learn more and register for the free conference here.
Watch and listen to Hawkins’ presentation to the board here. The Presbyterian Mission Agency Board will hold its third and final day of meetings beginning at 11 a.m. Eastern Time Friday. Watch the proceedings here.
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