Build up the body of Christ. Support the Pentecost Offering.

Why are people hungry and poor?

Matthew 25 churches are committed to eradicating systemic poverty and to building God’s beloved community together

by Tammy Warren | Presbyterian News Service


In New York City, First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica’s food pantry and soup kitchen (which serves takeout) have been essential for many of the city’s workers who provided cash-dependent services and have been shut down by the pandemic. Courtesy of Patrick Hugh O’Connor

LOUISVILLE — The Rev. Dr. Diane  Moffett, president and executive director of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, welcomed more than 230 attendees to a Sept. 16 Matthew 25 online event focused on eradicating systemic poverty within the U.S. The next Matthew 25 online gathering on Oct. 28 will address the root causes of poverty globally. Register here.

Moffett said systemic poverty is becoming underscored in America and around the world with the wildfires on the West Coast, hurricanes, flooding, the COVID-19 pandemic and people losing their businesses and their way of life.

The Rev. Rebecca Barnes, coordinator of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, said, “Folks living in poverty do need food, but they also need access to jobs, transportation, fair wages, affordable housing, education, racial justice and more.”

In walking alongside churches and grant partners in this important Matthew 25 work, Barnes said we “encounter the living God” in those who are living with poverty. She sees it as an invitation for Presbyterians to change from being “problem solvers” with ideas to “fix things” to those who sit at the feet of people who live in poverty to listen. “People living with poverty know their situations intimately and already have solutions they want to try,” Barnes said.

Guest speaker the Rev. Phil Tom serves on the Development Committee of The Riverside Church in New York City, and as director of the International Council of Community Churches. He provides leadership to ensure the church and the broader community work in tandem on issues such as hunger and homelessness. He served as director for the Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the U.S. Department of Labor during President Barack Obama’s administration. He sees Jesus’ Matthew 25 teaching about serving the “least of these” as a call to think long-term, “get out of the pews” and listen to people in the community.

Tom said that his friend and colleague the Rev. Patrick Hugh O’Connor, lead pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Jamaica, Queens, New York, is working collaboratively within its community to eradicate systemic poverty through affordable housing.

Although COVID-19 has slowed the construction process, “The Tree of Life,” a 12-story, 174-unit apartment building next to First Presbyterian–Jamaica, Queens, is expected to open in 2021. Rendering courtesy of First Presbyterian-Jamaica, Queens

First Presbyterian–Jamaica is building an apartment building next door to the church.

“The Tree of Life,” a 12-story, mixed-use apartment building of 174 units, 53 of which will be permanently affordable, is the first project of First Presbyterian–Jamaica and the nonprofit First Jamaica Community and Urban Development Corp., which is responsible for developing property and managing a variety of social services and programs for the church.

The Tree of Life project, expected to open in early to mid-2021, will include a feeding program, a literacy program and a job training program to enrich and empower the lives of the residents in Jamaica, Queens. Phase 2 of the project will launch an on-site health center partnership with Cornell University. Take a building tour here.

Turning a parking lot next door to the church into an apartment building has been nearly a decade in the making. First Presbyterian–Jamaica, which has about 150 congregants from more than 35 birth nations, has taken time to learn firsthand what residents of Southeast Queens believe to be their most urgent community needs: housing, health care and child care.

The National Low Income Housing Coalition publishes a report each year, Out of Reach, that examines how a family earning minimum wage can afford a one- or two-bedroom apartment. “Their conclusion for the last decade is that any worker, any person making minimum income, cannot afford a one-bedroom apartment in any city in the United States,” Tom said.

The Rev. Dr. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance and associate director of Compassion, Peace & Justice, reflected on how much vulnerability is made worse during circumstances of disaster, like COVID-19.

“Disaster gives us a chance to uncover poverty that most of us won’t look at the rest of the time,” Kraus said. “It gives us the responsibility to look at that straightforwardly and to engage in it, not just because giving to disaster makes us feel good, but because engaging in disaster helps us to see those who are already living on the margin and the work that needs to be done in development.”

Marifrans Estrada, Pan de Vida coordinator in the Misión Peniel farmworker ministry in Immokalee, Fla., makes dough for tortillas with help from her daughter, Mariela. Miguel Estrada

The Rev. Miguel Estrada, presbytery evangelist with Misión Peniel (which means “The Face of God”), a farmworker ministry among the migrant workers in Immokalee, Florida, part of the Peace River Presbytery, provided an update on the issue of COVID-19 among farmworkers.

“Although a hot spot for COVID, Immokalee workers in Florida did not receive testing until Doctors Without Borders showed up,” Estrada said. “Farmworkers are considered important, but at the same time, not too much.

“Once you become a certain age in the farmworker community, or too sick to be picked by the contractors, you are basically living on the streets,” Estrada said. “We have a good number of workers who are homeless or under really difficult conditions because they are not able to work anymore, but obviously still have basic needs.”

Through the Pan de Vida (Bread of Life) program, Misión Peniel is providing meals for homebound farmworkers. The ministry is also providing laundry assistance and other basic needs for those who are COVID-19 positive and are in quarantine. This emergency work is built on long-term poverty-alleviation strategies that include working for fair housing alongside the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a human rights group, in collaboration with the national church and two bordering presbyteries, Tampa Bay and Peace River. Read more about the Immokalee community here.

The Rev. Melana Scruggs, general presbyter of Peace River Presbytery, said, “What we’re excited about is the opportunity to be in mission with the farmworkers, guided by them and the needs they show us they have. And really excited about the fair housing project that just got approved by Collier County, so that we can provide 128 units for people to live in safe, hurricane-resistant housing, where children can be educated and where families can be safe.”

Before the pandemic, the Rev. Dr. Betty Tom, transitional interim pastor of Old First Presbyterian Church of Newark, N.J., is flanked by praise team leaders Melvinna Johnson (left) and Andrew Darling. Joseph Pombo

Guest speaker the Rev. Dr. Betty Tom, transitional interim pastor of Old First Presbyterian Church of Newark, New Jersey, and wife of the Rev. Phil Tom, has devoted nearly a decade to parish ministry in urban communities.

She said that the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed to the forefront many of the inequities that exist in America, particularly socioeconomic and racial justice inequities, as well as food insecurities and inequities in access to good, healthy food.

“Poverty is not a new issue to us, particularly for those of us who are in parish ministry,” she said. “Not that other people don’t see and experience that, but we are sort of like the first responders, the ‘boots on the ground’ people. We know all too well the names and the faces and the circumstances of the people who live in poverty. The families are not just numbers to us. We see them. We know them. We go to court with them. We minster to them. We feed them. We clothe them. They sleep on our doorsteps and they sleep in our church halls.

“I know the single working mother whose money runs out before the month runs out, or who comes to the church on Sunday afternoons, to the fellowship hour, and brings her small children so that they can eat for that day.”

Recent statistics from the Community Food Bank of New Jersey states that the food insecurities in New Jersey alone have risen by 56% since the pandemic hit, she said. “We here at Old First Church and other faith leaders in the Newark community, we are seeing many more families where one or both of the parents or the adults are working in the families; however, they are not earning enough money to even take care of their basic needs: food and shelter, clothing and medicine.”

Since the pandemic, she said, “One of the things that we have really focused in on is that no one church and no one agency can eradicate systemic poverty alone. We can’t do it by ourselves. It takes a multidisciplinary approach, where the schools and the churches and legal services and law enforcement and local businesses and government agencies are all working together to do our individual pieces.”

The Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP), spoke about raising our sights, listening and making connections on systemic poverty issues locally and globally.

In Panama, the Women Committee at Villa Nueva and Water Council used an SDOP grant to build an aqueduct in a remote indigenous community — a 1,500-gallon cement tank to hold clean water to serve 52 houses and a school. In Detroit, “water warriors” with We the People Detroit are standing up for the 140,000 homes experiencing water shutoffs since 2014. In Appalachia and in Africa, miners are facing poverty and mining issues, Johnson said.

“One thing I think Matthew 25 does for us is remind us that we are a connectional church,” Johnson said. “We do this work in partnership. We don’t do this work alone. We listen, not just to our communities, but we listen to each other.”

Matthew 25:31–46 calls all of us to actively engage in the world around us, so our faith comes alive and we wake up to new possibilities. Convicted by this Scripture passage, both the 222nd and 223rd General Assemblies (2016 and 2018) exhorted the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to act boldly and compassionately to serve people who are hungry, oppressed, imprisoned or poor. Learn more about the Matthew 25 vision at

The work of the Presbyterian Hunger ProgramPresbyterian Disaster Assistance and the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People is supported by contributions to One Great Hour of Sharing.

Creative_Commons-BYNCNDYou may freely reuse and distribute this article in its entirety for non-commercial purposes in any medium. Please include author attribution, photography credits, and a link to the original article. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDeratives 4.0 International License.

  • Subscribe to the PC(USA) News

  • Interested in receiving either of the PC(USA) newsletters in your inbox?

Categories: , ,
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Ministries: , , ,