The Rev. Meredith Loftis, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, is the guest on ‘Being Matthew 25’
by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service
LOUISVILLE — Opportunity knocks in most people’s lives, but in Knoxville, Tennessee, justice knocks.
The Matthew 25 work of Justice Knox was the focus of Thursday’s “Being Matthew 25” broadcast, which can be viewed here. The guest of the Rev. DeEtte Decker, communications director for the Presbyterian Mission Agency, was the Rev. Meredith Loftis, associate pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Knoxville.
Using Micah 6:8 as its foundation, Justice Knox is a local nonprofit made up of congregations from many faiths seeking solutions to community needs. According to its website, the mission of Justice Knox, which includes First Presbyterian Church as a member, is “to understand problems facing the Knoxville community through person-to-person conversation, and to grow those conversations into prioritized, research-based education items. These action items are targeted to have a real impact on the lives of underserved — or not before heard — community members.”
Watch a video describing the work of Justice Knox here.
First Presbyterian Church traces its downtown Knoxville roots to 1792. The Matthew 25 congregation decided a few years back that “rather than just continuing to treat the symptoms” of systemic poverty, “let’s diagnose the problem and work to heal it,” Loftis told Decker. “It’s what we call ‘justice ministry.’”
While many people of faith are able to demonstrate kindness and walk humbly with God, “we aren’t always so sure what justice looks like, or how to do it,” Loftis said. “Justice work is hard work because it’s not simply handing out. It’s discovering why a system works the way it does and seeking to change it.”
“We recognized we couldn’t do the work alone. We really have to work with our partners and with lots of people,” she said. The vehicle was Justice Knox, an organization of about 20 congregations including Jewish and Muslim faith communities.
“By partnering together, we can harness the power to create real change and hold our community leaders and officials accountable,” Loftis said. One example: through extended work with the mayor and city council, Justice Knox pushed the city to establish an affordable housing trust fund that will allocate $50 million over the next 10 years to renovate affordable housing units and build new ones.
Another success involved helping to get Knoxville police officers and sheriff’s deputies crisis intervention training, a de-escalation technique that aids officers in helping individuals experiencing a mental health crisis. Justice Knox also worked with county leaders “to engage in a systemwide evaluation of Knoxville to see what is missing in our community that caused people with mental illness to remain in the costly and deadly cycle of jail and homelessness,” Loftis said. As a result, several new efforts are underway, including opening a new urgent care behavioral health center “in a part of town where many people who are indigent and without transportation live.”
“I want to be honest. This work isn’t easy,” Loftis told Decker. “It is messy and long-haul work that often takes years to accomplish. The seeds of justice we are trying to plant and see take root may not happen soon or even with us, but in the people who come after us and take on this work. But it is lasting systemic work, and we are proud of it.”
Thursday’s broadcast also included other Justice Knox voices.
“When we think about ‘love thy neighbor,’ we forget the rest of the sentence, ‘love thy neighbor as yourself,’” said Marjorie Thigpen-Carter, lead organizer for Justice Knox, whose approach is, “I want to stand up for my neighbors and make sure that systems are treating them fairly and they are being treated fairly.”
“I have been to the park and held hands and talked about unity and sung songs after a shooting,” said the Rev. John Mark Wiggers of St. James Episcopal Church. “But this is actually joining with people, listening to them and walking together with them to try to bring about justice.”
According to Ann O’Connor, a Justice Knox board member who attends the Episcopal Church of the Ascension, Justice Knox once met with the director of a homeless shelter to said, “Please don’t give us more money. Change the system. It’s the system that needs to be changed.”
“It takes people power,” O’Connor said. “It doesn’t take money power.”
“The problems didn’t show up overnight, and we aren’t going to solve them overnight,” said Pastor Joe Maddox of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church. “But we have to continue to hold people who are decision-makers accountable for making sure all people are treated fairly — not equally, but fairly.”
In addition to all the work it’s doing, Justice Knox has been partnering with the Presbyterian Hunger Program for training in congregation-based community organizing. Justice Knox has been using grant money “to train our leaders to build justice ministry networks,” Loftis explained.
“There’s a deep relational aspect in doing this work,” she said. “It helps us recognize that though we are different and may approach faith in God in different ways, we are all children of God, and we can achieve so much more when we work together. That has been an amazing blessing.”
“We have learned to do the hard work of confronting our community leaders and elected officials and digging into those messy systems that are hard to change,” Loftis said. “Confronting systems of power is not easy, and for most of us it’s not natural … We speak respectfully but firmly and say, ‘You know what? We’re called to love our neighbors and we need to see that happen. You have the power to do that. Let’s do that together.’ The grant from Presbyterian Hunger Program has been instrumental in that.”
Asked by a listener if some members of First Presbyterian Church expressed concern with the church’s involvement in politics, Loftis said, “The short answer is yes. We don’t pretend this isn’t political work. It is political, but we are nonpartisan.”
Still, she said, “There are people in our congregations who struggle with what we’re doing, trying to hold elected officials accountable … Helping folks understand what justice looks like from a biblical perspective is certainly crucial. Tension is not inherently bad,” and, in fact, it helps create change, she said. “Jesus pushed the systems of power all the time.”
Thursday’s edition of ‘Being Matthew 25’ included white members of the PC(USA)’s national staff reading a litany approved by the 225th General Assembly (2022) called “The Apology to African Americans for the Sin of Slavery and its Legacy.” A recording is here.
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Categories: Hunger & Poverty, Matthew 25
Tags: 225th general assembly (2022), affordable housing, being matthew 25, congregation-based community organizing, eradicating systemic poverty, first presbyterian church knoxville tennessee, justice knox, matthew 25 invitation, matthew 25 movement, mental illness, micah 6:8, presbyterian hunger program, rev. deette decker, rev. meredith loftis, The Apology to African Americans for the Sin of Slavery and its Legacy
Ministries: Matthew 25 in the PC(USA): Join the Movement, Presbyterian Hunger Program