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The PC(USA)’s group studying ‘Poverty, by America’ isn’t deterred by technology gremlins

Organizers rally to pull off the second of four planned online programs

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Photo by Jesson Mata via Unsplash

LOUISVILLE — Technology glitches Monday couldn’t derail the second week on the PC(USA)’s national online study of Matthew Desmond’s book “Poverty, by America,” which drew nearly 200 people from around the country.

Desmond himself joined the initial discussion on Feb. 5. Monday’s 75-minute session featured Tom Bacon from Denver Presbytery, who has been part of a two-year roundtable with mid council leaders and national church staff working on the Matthew 25 focus on eradicating systemic poverty. The Rev. Ellen Sherby, Associate Director of Global Connections in World Mission, also led a part of the discussion.

Organizers opened with brief descriptions of chapters 3 and 4 in Desmond’s best-selling book. Chapter 3 “is powerful,” said the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, “because it’s about the working poor,” two terms put together ironically, he noted.

In the book, Desmond talks about Julio Payes, a permanent resident from Guatemala who came to the United States on a work visa. Ten years ago, Payes was working two full-time jobs — a graveyard shift in fast food, and then daylight hours at a temp agency. His younger brother, Alexander, who was eight at the time, told Julio one day he was saving his money to buy an hour of his older brother’s time so the two could play together. “Julio looked at his brother and wept. Not long after that, he fainted from exhaustion in the aisle of a grocery store,” Desmond reported. He was 24.

Things weren’t always this bad for the working poor, Desmond notes. Between the late 1940s and the late 1970s, “the American economy expanded and shared its bounty. Honest work delivered a solid paycheck, and a big reason why had to do with union power.” Today, only about 1 in 10 American workers belongs to a union.

Now, the nation “offers some of the lowest wages in the industrialized world, a feature that has swelled the ranks of the working poor,” according to Desmond. Johnson noted Desmond connects “the intersection of race, class and gender” in his discussion on the working poor.

“We need to incorporate economic justice — workers’ rights — in our purchase decisions,” Johnson said. Making those decisions based only on price “may mean more for us, but less” for the people who provided and transported and sold the product, Johnson said.

The free online denomination-wide book study is being held every Monday in February.

Bacon’s notes helped shape the discussion around both chapters 3 and 4 of Desmond’s book. The fourth chapter, “How We Force the Poor to Pay More,” talks about limited choices the working poor have. Here Bacon posed a few questions: How do these structural features fit in with our calling as Presbyterians? Is “structures” too political? Can we change our system to allow the poorest among us to better survive or even thrive?

Participants then broke into small groups to discuss questions including: Do you see problems with workers’ rights in your community? Is economic justice built into your shopping decisions? Does your church or presbytery already have success combatting the systems behind poverty? How could you create change with your local and regional colleagues?

After 30 minutes discussing those questions, a few groups shared some of what they’d talked about. One woman said her group noticed that unions are perceived differently across the nation. “Sometimes they’re considered the devil in some communities, undermining business,” this person said. Co-workers in her union sometimes grumble about paying union dues. “It kind of takes the steam out of the union movement,” she said.

A man said one of the most effective ways congregations can get involved in helping eradicate systemic poverty is through congregation-based community organizing. “To make change, we need to join others to build movement and call people of power into accountability,” he said. He’s seen models where congregations “go into the community and have listening sessions to identify, what do we need to work on this year?”

Another woman said she’s witnessed companies subcontracting out work to “escape paying benefits and avoid liabilities. They don’t want to deal with employee liability, and insurance is expensive,” she said.

Still another held up the model of Lafayette (Indiana) Urban Ministry, a consortium of nearly 50 congregations serving immigrants and people living at or near the poverty level. “There are things churches can do if we join together and consolidate our resources,” this person said. “That’s one way communities can work together.”

On Feb. 19, the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, will lead a discussion on chapters 5-7 of “Poverty, by America.” The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary and the Poor People’s Campaign will appear during the final discussion on Feb. 26. Register for either or both sessions here.

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