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Presbyterian pastor and organizer Liz Theoharis speaks during the fourth and final installment of studying ‘Poverty, by America’

‘It starts with us making the decision we can actually do something about poverty’

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Last month, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis delivered the opening plenary during the Matthew 25 Summit, held at New Life Presbyterian Church in South Fulton, Georgia. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, who co-founded the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival and runs the Kairos Center housed at Union Theological Seminary, brought the four-week, denomination-wide study of Matthew Desmond’s “Poverty, by America” to a close Monday saying she’s “really excited” that denominational leaders organized the online book study “and so many are interested in this work of becoming poverty abolitionists.”

To the 170 or so people online asking “what shall we do?” now that the book study is over, Theoharis turned to Luke’s gospel, where Jesus is asked the same question three times. “What I love here,” Theoharis said, is that with Jesus, “it’s always an economic justice answer.”

In the wealthiest nation on the planet, 135 million people are poor or low income, Theoharis noted. “Who has the power to disrupt this complacent national life? It’s when poor people come together in fusion coalitions and take action together.”

The Bible itself features an anti-poverty program, she explained, including resisting unjust economic practices, fostering community prosperity and following God’s preferential option for the poor.

“It starts with us making the decision we can actually do something about poverty,” said Theoharis, noting the Poor People’s Campaign will gather on Saturday in Washington, D.C. and in dozens of state capitals in a march to lift up the issues of poor and low-wealth people.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and I know people are already doing amazing work,” Theoharis said. “This is a Kairos moment, an inbreaking happening in history. Old structures are breaking down and new ones are breaking through. We can do this, and we must do this.”

The free online denomination-wide book study was offered every Monday in February.

Book study participants had a number of questions for Theoharis, including asking about next steps. She recalled years ago organizing in Chicago, when church folks decided to stop and listen to the unhoused people they were trying to help. “They learned every morning at 5 o’clock at this shelter, folks were woken up and got in line for five sheets of toilet paper,” Theoharis said. “Church folks began to ask, why do you need to demean people this way? They built a coalition of church folks, advocates, organizers and homeless folks.”

“Find out what’s already going on,” Theoharis recommended, “and how you can plug in.”

In one study, sociologist Mark Rank and a colleague found that 3 in 4 Americans between the ages of 20 and 75 would live in near poverty conditions for at least a year. Every county in America “has a level of economic insecurity and poverty,” Theoharis said. “‘The least of these’ is most of us.”

Theoharis is one of those who has experienced poverty. “I’ve worked in all kinds of low-wage jobs and lived without health care,” she said. “I was lucky enough to experience most of that when I had already met other folks who were organizing and were impoverished themselves.”

“It doesn’t have to be this way,” she said, echoing Desmond’s argument in “Poverty, by America.” “This is not as good as it gets.”

In “cities across the country,” there are five or more abandoned housing units for every unhoused person living in the city, Theoharis said. “There isn’t a scarcity of housing and there’s no scarcity of solutions. When we do the work of ending poverty and inequality, it doesn’t just benefit those who are impoverished.” The cost of poverty, notes economist Joe Stiglitz, is far greater than the cost of ending it, Theoharis pointed out.

Asked how Presbyterians can engage their elected representatives on universal health care, Theoharis said that while she doesn’t agree with church reformer John Calvin on all things, “one thing he talks about is lack of health care for anybody is a moral issue, and he tried to organize universal health care back in his day.”

Efforts that prove most successful “is when folk who are without health care can organize together with people of faith, activists and organizers, and build what it takes,” Theoharis said. “It’s having aggressiveness and togetherness to make the power structure say yes when they may be desirous to say no.”

The Rev. Carl Horton (Photo by Rich Copley)

The Rev. Carl Horton, coordinator of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program, took participants through the highlights of Desmond’s final two chapters and epilogue, where Desmond concludes that “we don’t need to outsmart this problem. We need to out-hate it.”

Horton noted that in his penultimate chapter, “Empower the Poor,” Desmond urges giving poor people the power to decide where to work, live, bank and when to start a family.

“These are calls for a capitalism that serves the people, not the other way around,” is how Desmond puts it.

Important themes of Desmond’s final chapter, “Tear Down the Walls,” are deconcentrating poverty, dealing with what Desmond calls “the scarcity diversion,” and celebrating an economy of abundance. Here’s Desmond’s how-to: “Lift the floor by rebalancing our social safety net; empower the poor by reining in exploitation; and invest in broad prosperity by turning away from segregation.”

That vision, according to Horton, connects with the three foci of the  Matthew 25 movement: eradicating systemic poverty, dismantling structural racism and building congregational vitality.

Read previous Presbyterian News Service reporting on the book study here, here and here.

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