Virtual discussion features those ‘on the ground doing this work’
October 31, 2023
A recent Matthew 25 webinar provided inspiration and information about using effective strategies for eradicating systemic poverty, including banding together to build power.
The online gathering featured three main speakers: the Rev. Jimmie Hawkins of the Presbyterian Office of Public Witness (OPW), the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis of the Poor People’s Campaign, and Denzel Mitchell of Richmonders Involved to Strengthen Our Communities (RISC).
Prior to the event, the Rev. Dr. Alonzo Johnson, who co-hosted the workshop with Jennifer Evans of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, explained the reasoning behind the workshop, “Matthew 25 — Community Organizing, Policy Advocacy and Movement Building.”
“We chose this topic because it is important for us to begin to lift up working models and create opportunities for the church to be conversant with those who are actually on the ground doing this work effectively,” said Johnson, coordinator of the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People. “Unfortunately, conversations about addressing systemic poverty stay theoretical; it is important for those who seek to engage this work to both hear and learn from those who are doing this work so that we can actualize it and see it through.”
Theoharis, a Presbyterian minister who co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign and leads the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice housed at Union Theological Seminary, noted that the workshop was taking place on the anniversary of the March on Washington in which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Sixty years later, Theoharis said, the United States still is a place where poor people are being told, “No,” such as, “No, we can’t raise wages.”
But she believes the tide can change if people band together.
“What Dr. King talks about is from the bottom up, led by the people, bringing people together across all the lines that divide into a powerful force to be reckoned with,” she said. “If we come together, if we build alliances together, if we organize in our community together, if we advocate for policies together, then we can build the kind of compelling power to turn those noes into yeses, and we can actually build the kind of society that is needed and that God requires of us, and so I look forward to doing that with you all and us keeping on moving forward together and not one step back, as we say in the Poor People’s Campaign.”
Hawkins highlighted why it’s crucial for churches to be involved in politics and social justice.
“We are called to be advocates, and the work that we do in New York and in D.C. is on behalf of the church so that the church’s voice can speak out for justice,” said Hawkins, who leads the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) advocacy offices: OPW and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations.
“And we know that advocacy plays a major role in addressing and eliminating systemic poverty, especially for communities of color and other underserved families that have been particularly hit hard by economic inequality, even in the best of times,” Hawkins said. “And we know that U.S. poverty would be twice as high, if it had not been for the advocacy of communities of faith, pushing the government to do more.”
Hawkins cited the recent Inflation Reduction Act, which has a focus on climate goals and that he said will help create well-paying jobs.
However, millions of people continue to struggle in the United States and “much more needs to be done,” he said.
Mitchell, an associate organizer for RISC, a grant partner of PHP, talked about harnessing people power and churches working collectively to bring about change. His organization started when a group of congregations came together to do justice work. “What we do is we organize people power in order to bring about justice in our community,” he said. “We’re helping them to organize long-term,” rather than focusing their efforts around one book or one event.
The Presbyterian Hunger Program, the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, the Office of Public Witness and the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations are part of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
Darla Carter, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Matthew 25 webinar
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Let us pray
We know that the secret of bearing fruit is abiding in Christ and he in us. Through communion, servanthood and fellowship, we benefit from Christ’s strength so that we may be able to bear fruit and be a blessing to others. Help us to serve with humility and grace. Amen.