PC(USA) minister Liz Theoharis finds hope and challenges on Poor People’s Campaign bus tour
July 19, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis was delivering an impromptu sermon at the end of a long, hot day riding around Western Kentucky on a bumpy bus when she turned to the story of a leper who approached Jesus. “The leper said, ‘If you choose, you can heal me,’” Theoharis said. “‘If you choose, you can heal me.’
“Now, that leper had gone a lot of places up to that point. He went to the HMOs of his day, and they turned him away. He went to the hospitals nearby; they had closed down. But Jesus traveled around the land, opening up free health care clinics, never charged a co-pay. The leper said to Jesus, ‘If you choose, you can heal me.’
“The question before us this afternoon is: Do we choose?”
The capacity and resources are available to fix many of the problems that face Americans, she said. What’s needed is a movement.
And that’s what Theoharis, an ordained Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) minister who teaches at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has been working to build through The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. The campaign, which she co-chairs with the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, was revived two years ago from the original vision begun by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 50 years earlier and is taking on issues such as poverty, systemic racism, militarism and ecological devastation.
The recent focus of the campaign has been a series of bus tours that have taken Barber and Theoharis around the country, along with members of state Poor People’s Campaign chapters, to highlight issues in a wide variety of communities.
Riding a bus in Kentucky, Theoharis reflected on what she had seen in recent days: Crossett, Arkansas, where water and air pollution is poisoning the residents; Hutchinson, Kansas, where some residents have to travel up to three hours for hospital services; and Oregon communities where homelessness is rampant and criminalized, and the homeless are attacked by police and white militias.
“To me, what’s striking is the pain and suffering but also out of those ashes, there’s the resurrection and rising, this hope and rebirth,” Theoharis said. “I find myself crying a lot but also deeply encouraged by the potential of a movement breaking through.”
One goal of the bus tours was for the riders to hear directly from people impacted by issues the campaign is addressing. At the stops, the Kentucky participants heard stories of a 14-year-old boy sentenced to 10 years in prison, a farmer who said immigration policy is having a negative impact on the agricultural community, a former prisoner who has seen the impact of mass incarceration firsthand, and a 7-year-old girl who said she was tired of seeing the impact of homelessness in her community.
“That was incredibly powerful, because it helps us to understand the connections between all of these issues,” said the Rev. Denise Anderson, director of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s Racial Equity & Women’s Intercultural Ministries.
“Folks are ready for change and have come forward,” Theoharis said. “People are being compelled out of their life situations, and then all kinds of clergy — including all kinds of Presbyterians — come on board, and not just praying, patting people on the back and offering a Band-Aid charity program. At the same time, praying for people, patting them on the back, and then passing resolutions and doing really important work of meeting of people’s immediate needs, but also being willing to engage and help lead a moral movement.”
Anderson, who Theoharis notes was very supportive of the revived Poor People’s Campaign when she was co-moderator of the 222nd General Assembly in 2016, said, “I am sinfully proud that she (Theoharis) is Presbyterian.
“I hope people don’t lose sight of the brilliance that is Dr. Theoharis and how her scholarship undergirds this movement,” Anderson said. “Not only her scholarship, but her activism. And I really want people to pay very close attention to how she furthers this work not only with intelligence, but humility.”
Noting that Theoharis will be one of the speakers at the CoInspire retreat at Montreat in October, Anderson said, “I need as many Presbyterians and people of all faiths or no faiths to listen to her as closely as they can.”
After a quarter-century in grassroots anti-poverty work, Theoharis says the last few years have been inspiring — particularly the bus tours.
“I’m learning a lot,” she says, “and it makes me even more hopeful, because you have people coming forward saying, ‘We’re hopeful.’”
Rich Copley, Communication Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Poor People’s Campaign Bus Tour
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Almighty God, Creator of all, you loved this world so much that you sent your only Son so that all might live in him. Turn our hearts to those around us who have yet to know the Savior, that we may be ambassadors for Christ and welcome our neighbors into your kingdom. We ask this in the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.