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Co-moderators make “The Big Ask” at the NEXT Church National Gathering

BALTIMORE – The co-moderators of the 2016 General Assembly are calling Presbyterians to action – to take some risks, and to join with others working to knock down the structures supporting racism and poverty.

“My personal dream would be that Presbyterians again would be known as troublemakers,” said Denise Anderson, who is one of the leaders in Maryland of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “I want Presbyterians to be known for some radical stuff.”

Anderson and her co-moderator, Jan Edmiston, want Presbyterians to get involved in the Poor People’s Campaign, which is led by William Barber II and Liz Theoharis and is linked to the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign that Martin Luther King Jr. helped bring to attention in the 1960s.

“This is not commemoration,” Anderson said, but an attempt to get a grassroots coalition of activists – including faith-based and community groups – working together on issues including systemic racism, poverty, military spending and environmental degradation. “This is a movement. This is to continue the work that was left undone 50 years ago.”

Dozens of states are forming their own Poor People’s networks and connecting via social media. The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting June 16-23 in St. Louis, will include a focus on racial and economic justice and will build on the grassroots work that community activists are deeply involved with there.

During a Feb. 27 workshop at the NEXT Church national gathering in Baltimore, Anderson and Edmiston issued what they called “The Big Ask,” urging Presbyterians to:

  • Take the pledge to get involved with the campaign at
  • Enter a 40-day season of civil disobedience and non-violent direct action, beginning May 14.

“The reality is that not everyone can risk arrest,” Anderson said. “That doesn’t mean there is no place for you in the campaign. … Don’t use that as an excuse” not to get involved. “We need to trouble the waters of laws we feel are unjust.”

Anderson and Edmiston see the Poor People’s Campaign as a way for Presbyterians to take up the concerns raised by an overture the 2016 assembly approved from the Presbytery of the Cascades – “On Choosing to be a Church Committed to the Gospel of Matthew 25,” which committed Presbyterians in congregations and at the national levels of the church “to locate ourselves with the poor, to advocate with all of our voice for the poor, and to seek opportunities to take risks for and with the poor …”

In the first year of their term, the co-moderators encouraged Presbyterians to read and study together Debby Irving’s “Waking Up White.” Now they are asking them to read Theoharis’ book “Always With Us? What Jesus Really Said About the Poor.” Theoharis is one of three winners of the 2018 Women of Faith Award.

There was conversation in the workshop about some of the obstacles – including popular opinion and theological views about what makes people poor.

Edmiston cited a 2017 poll, reported in the Washington Post, which found that Christians – particularly white evangelical Christians – are much more likely than non-Christians to see poverty as the result of someone’s personal failures. More than half of white evangelical Christians (53 percent) said a lack of effort is to blame for someone’s poverty, as opposed to circumstances. That compares to the views of Americans who are atheist, agnostic or claim no religious affiliation – and who by more than a 2 to 1 margin said difficult circumstances were the reason.

Some Christians believe “the poor are just an inevitable reality of life, and the Bible says so,” Anderson said. Asked how many had heard the 26th chapter of Matthew’s gospel preached that way – “for you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me” – at least 10 people raised their hands.

Edmiston said some believe “it’s kind of necessary to have poor people, because they do the jobs we don’t want to do. That’s the way God intended it.”

Culture contributes too – to the unwillingness to act or to see those living in poverty as part of the community.

People get the message “why should I give money to that beggar on the street?” one man said. “You’re just going to blow it on drugs or alcohol or something terrible.” So “if you do give, it’s with strings attached.”

Or give “just a box with canned goods,” Edmiston said – referring to President Trump’s proposal to replace the food assistance program for low-income families with “harvest boxes” of canned goods.

“We often times are willing to take care of people who look like us,” but not those who seem different, said another man.

Case in point, said Edmiston: the paucity of aid sent to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.

Can we even imagine, she asked, what it would look like to eliminate hunger? “Because we have the resources to do that.”

Anderson listed areas for working on systemic injustice. Voter suppression. Educational inequalities. Incarceration rates. Immigration policy. Living wages.

This is hard, uncomfortable work – Holy Spirit work, Anderson said. It’s too easy to “essentially fling the coins,” she said, rather than “advocating for systemic change.”

All photos by Jodi Craiglow