Poor People’s Campaign
Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. There will, however, be no one in need among you, because the Lord is sure to bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you as a possession to occupy.
– Matthew 6:11
Yesterday I was listening to a sermon from a UCC pastor about the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. This movement is a renewed action to further the original Poor People’s Campaign, founded 50 years ago by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I was convicted by this sermon because one of the co-chairs of this campaign is Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, a PC(USA) teaching elder in New York City, and I have failed to share her important work with San Gabriel Presbytery, while the UCC is doing so.
I don’t remember if I mentioned that this summer’s General Assembly was begun with a Bible study led by Rev. Theoharis, who is dedicated to eliminating the structural causes of poverty in the United States. Her book, Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor, was recommended by our former co-moderators to the denomination for book study this year. It is not a “how-to” book on working with the poor, but looks more at theological misunderstandings that Christians have used to turn away from God’s repeated call to fight poverty.
Rev. Theoharis’ co-chair for the Poor People’s Campaign is Rev. Dr William Barber II, a Disciples of Christ pastor who has been the president of the North Carolina NAACP since 2006, the founder of “Moral Mondays,” and one of the most important voices for human rights in the United States today. You can find a summary of the motivation of the Poor People’s Campaign, and some key challenges to the ways all of us are dehumanized in the current world system, in its Moral Agenda. And you can download a copy of an analysis of poverty in the United States, The Souls of Poor Folk, here.
You probably know by now I like to use statistics to illustrate the scope of an issue, so here are the Poor People’s Campaign’s estimates of poor or low-income people in our nation, based on a methodology called Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM).
43.5 percent of the U.S. population — or 140 million people — were poor or low-income in 2016. Our government does not provide information under the SPM on poverty and low-income status for all races, gender identities, or sexual identities. However, according to existing data from the SPM for 2016, the 140 million people who were poor or low-income include:
- 9% of children under the age of 18 (38.2 million children)
- 7% of adults between the ages of 18-64 (81.5 million adults)
- 5% of our elders over the age of 65 (20.8 million elders)
- 45% of women and girls (73.5 million people)
- 9% of White people (67.1 million people)
- 3% of Black people (25.9 million people)
- 1% of Latinx people (37.4 million people)
- 1% of Asian people (7.6 million people)
There is grossly inadequate information on the poverty and low-income status of First Nations, Native Americans, Alaskan Native, LGBTQIA and disabled people in this country.
But it has been estimated that Native Americans, people with disabilities, and transgender people experience poverty at double the rate of the general population.
The Poor People’s Campaign has developed demands that reflect several interrelated concerns:
- Systemic Racism
- Poverty and Inequality
- Ecological Devastation
- War Economy and Militarism
- National Morality.
I share this information not to urge you just to join the Poor People’s Campaign, but to consider how God is calling you and your church to eliminate poverty in your community. I, like others, have tended to assume that Jesus’ comment “you always have the poor with you” means that there’s no reason to attempt to eliminate poverty, but to simply be charitable. But rather than resigning ourselves to persistent poverty, God calls us to go outside our comfort zones in order to open our hands in generosity, that all people may live in safety and peace. As Elizabeth Ann Seton, founder of the Sisters of Charity, said: “Live simply, so that all may simply live.”
Every Sunday we say the Lord’s Prayer. I always consider how our tradition—unlike some others—uses the word “debts” in the phrase “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Other traditions will replace this with trespasses or sins. I believe our use of this term is Biblical not only in the Matthean text, but more importantly it is a sign that Presbyterians have taken seriously God’s call for debt forgiveness as a method of economic restorative justice. Are we willing to live this out, by giving not as an investment or a loan, but as a faithful response to God’s call to share God’s blessings with all people?
I have heard compelling reasons for Christians to give to the poor in front of them (eg, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement), or to fight for systemic change (eg, Liz Theoharis and William Barber and the Poor People’s Campaign). I don’t know that there is one perfect answer for all of us. Like all our responses in faith and obedience, it is up to us to discern God’s guidance for ourselves and our churches. I do believe that God will use us as long as we turn to God in humility and openness whenever we pray. May it be so.
May God continue to bless you, as you bless others,