A central feature of the 224th General Assembly was going to be the Hands and Feet initiative, which would have moved the assembly and commissioners out into the community of Baltimore throughout the week to learn about and get involved with local ministries.
This would have built on the Hands and Feet work that started in St. Louis with the march to end cash bail and other activities led by local activists and churches during the 223rd General Assembly in 2018. When this year’s GA was moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those plans had to be shelved — but new opportunities also emerged.
On June 20, the Office of the General Assembly invited all commissioners and Presbyterians to participate virtually in “The Mass Poor People’s Assembly and Moral March on Washington,” a digital rally organized by The Poor People’s Campaign.
The rally lasted for three hours and 20 minutes and featured hundreds of voices offering perspectives on the interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, the war economy/militarism and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism. There were a number of celebrities who spoke and introduced or reflected on these themes including Al Gore, Danny Glover, David Oyelowo, Debra Messing, Erika Alexander, Jane Fonda and Wanda Sykes. While the celebrities drew people in, the event was designed to prioritize and amplify the voices of people living in poverty. Participants heard personal stories of those directly impacted by poverty juxtaposed with statistics about the impact of poverty. Faces, names and stories connected with systemic issues and injustices.
The event opened with Bernice King, the daughter of Martin Luther King Jr., saying: “Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. MLK Jr. worked with poor people of every race. Today, as his daughter, I am honored to add my voice to the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and stand with the poor to urge America to address the issues of poverty and race.”
Following King’s statement, a video was shown of faith leaders from many religious traditions and Christian denominations reading a unified statement of support of the goals of the Poor People’s Campaign, including the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) stated clerk J. Herbert Nelson. The statement ended with Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church declaring that it is love that drives all Christians into the work of addressing systemic poverty. He stated: “We lament because we love. Because we love, we must stand up for what is right and good and just and not selfish, but sacrificial. Because we love we march, we call on our leaders to help us make America a shining city on a hill and not a place of darkness and despair.”
After Curry spoke, multiple people shared testimonies about the impact that living in poverty has on them and their families. One woman (identified as Callie) talked about losing both of her children, one to gun violence and one to disease, and said, she wailed because her children are “no more.”
Following the first set of testimonies, Liz Theoharis, the co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign and a PC(USA) pastor, shared statistics about poverty including the fact that 140 million Americans live in poverty and 700 people die every day in the U.S. as a result of the conditions brought on by poverty. She talked about the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on those living in poverty and stated, “The richest corporations in the world are paying essential workers expendable wages.”
William J. Barber, the other co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, spoke next and thanked all who were attending this digital rally. He reminded listeners that they are called to hear the stories of those living in poverty, and to put a face and voice to the 140 million poor and low-income people in the U.S. “You change the narrative by changing the narrators. You have to have a face and a real story.”
The rest of the event featured interviews with economists, professors, pastors and celebrities interspersed with stories of people directly impacted by poverty. They highlighted the intersectional justice issues related to poverty including the disproportionate impact on women and children and the LGBTQ population, climate change, voter suppression, homelessness and housing rights, public education, mass incarceration and the military industrial complex. The rally also included the song, “What Doth the Lord Require” sung by Yara T. Allen, a group performance of “Somebody’s Hurting my Brother” and a virtual choir singing “Hold on Just a Little While Longer.”
The rally closed with Barber offering a call to action: “You have heard from the prophets and the people on the frontlines. We promised to build this stage so that America would see the face and hear the voice of those impacted by poverty. It is time for transformation, reconstruction and revival in America. It’s time, because the time is right now.”
He encouraged people to go to the rally website and get involved. Part of the call to action was the presentation of the “Legislative and Policy Priorities of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.” Barber urged all listeners to send the platform to their legislators for consideration.
While the Hands and Feet initiative looks different because GA is virtual this year, this rally provided a way for Presbyterians to learn about issues impacting those living in poverty directly from those experiencing it — and it offered ways to get involved.