Presbyterians add their voices to Poor People’s Campaign events

Bus tour and June Moral Action Congress latest activities in movement originally launched by MLK

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

Earlier this month, the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness, discussed the Poor People’s Campaign during Compassion, Peace & Justice Training Day in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Rich Copley)

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Jimmie Hawkins, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Office of Public Witness in Washington D.C., says “we have third-world conditions in parts of the United States of America,” reflecting on his travels to cities some might find surprising.

“I went to Austin, Texas, and this was stark, to me,” Hawkins says. “Austin, which describes itself as one of the most progressive cities in the nation, is dealing with issues of gentrification and affordable housing. In west Austin, which is the black part of town … you could see where newer houses and newer businesses were being put up right next to shacks — literally.

“Where they are supposed to have windows, it’s boarded up because they can’t afford to replace the broken glass. They look like abandoned housing units, but people are living in them. I think it really brings it home when you witness first-hand the immensity of poverty in the lives of individual families.”

That is the sort of thing Hawkins and others involved in the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival hope people will see on its National Emergency Truth and Poverty Bus Tour, taking place this spring in more than 30 states, according to the campaign website.

Rather than a single journey across the country, the tours are presented by state chapters of the Poor People’s Campaign, itself a revival of a movement started by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1967 and ’68. At stops on the tour, leaders aim to show areas struggling with poverty, racism and other issues the campaign is working to highlight.

The Rev. Denise Anderson is flanked on her left by the Rev. Dr. William Barber and, on her right, the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis.

To the Rev. Denise Anderson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Racial & Intercultural Justice ministry, it is reminiscent of the command in Jeremiah 29 for exiles to be concerned with the welfare of the cities in which they settle.

“For in their welfare, you’ll find your own welfare,” says Anderson, who will be part of the Kentucky bus tour on April 29. “I’m really hoping that bus tour participants or spectators will come away from this experience with a broader understanding that the forces that disproportionately impact the poor tend to run in the undercurrent. We don’t often pay attention to them, unless we’re looking for them.”

The Kentucky tour will depart from Bowling Green Monday morning and stop at Kentucky State Penitentiary in Eddyville, where there will be a press conference highlighting issues such as mass incarceration, cash bail and the restoration of voting rights. It will then continue to Hopkinsville for a walk in a neighborhood faced with economic challenges, including testimony from some residents about affordable housing and access to services.

According to the schedule, the founders of the revived Poor People’s Campaign, the Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, will be part of the Kentucky visit.

Theoharis is a Presbyterian minister, and the PC(USA) has been involved since the campaign’s revival in 2017, providing human and material resources.

To Hawkins, it is part of the church living into the Matthew 25 invitation, particularly the calls to battle racism and poverty.

“We look at the issues lifted up in that passage and the teachings of Jesus — poverty, hunger, incarceration, health care — … those coincide with the Matthew 25 theme and with the justice advocacy of the Presbyterian church,” says Hawkins, who hopes to be part of the bus tours near his Washington office.

“When I was co-moderator, it became a passion of mine to encourage Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) involvement in the Campaign,” says Anderson, who was co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly. “In this job, I push that involvement even more — gather both staff people here and nationally encourage Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) involvement in their state coordinating committees and campaigns and local actions.”

After the bus tours, the action of the campaign will focus on Washington for the Poor People’s Moral Action Congress June 17-19, which organizers are saying will include the presentation of its Moral Budget, a forum with presidential candidates, and a National Freedom School and Congressional hearing.

Hawkins, whose office is across the street from the U.S. Capitol, says he is not sure what his office or the church’s role in the congress will be, but he is supportive of the event.

“We are making ourselves available,” Hawkins says. “We want to be a resource for them.”

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