Ralph Jones and Dick Hasbany
A week or so ago, Ralph Jones and I joined other elders and clergy from the three presbyteries in New England for a winter retreat. It was led by the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, New Testament professor and head of the Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary. She co-chairs the Poor People’s Campaign with Rev. William Barber, the dynamic North Carolina pastor who built a broadly diverse movement of people called Moral Mondays.
Drs. Theoharis’ and Barber’s work to build a new Poor People’s Campaign revives an effort of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the fall of 1967, Dr. King announced the first Poor People’s Campaign, a project that called poor people to gather in Washington to meet with government officials to demand jobs, a fair minimum wage, and better education for adults and children. Add secure access to adequate health care and this 1967 demand sounds oddly like an agenda for 2018. Fifty years later, the work is unfinished. The new Poor People’s Campaign is planning forty days of actions culminating on June 23. Some of those actions will take place here in Connecticut.
We focused on the Biblical basis for poverty work. Dr. Theoharis led us through a careful reading of Matthew 26. That’s where we find Jesus chillin’ with friends at the leper Lazarus’ place (not the typical kosher way to prepare for the high holy days), where he reminds the disciples of his immanent crucifixion; the chief priests and elders conspire to kill him; an unnamed woman enters and anoints Jesus with costly oil from an alabaster jar, angering the disciples who think this a waste of money; and Jesus tells them, “‘Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.”
What? Were the disciples wrong? Was this an economically responsible action? Is it OK to ignore the poor, since they’ll always be with us? Far too many have taken this as justification for worrying about personal salvation while ignoring the needs of the poor around them. Again, Jesus challenges us to listen.
The disciples knew the dominant scriptural theme of God’s care for the poor. They knew Deuteronomy 15, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.’” There is blessing in caring. The woman’s mitzvah is also the anointing of the chosen one.
Dr. King’s assassination in April of 1968 prevented him from bringing his prophetic message of mutual care and equality to Washington in person. But people of faith carried on the work, first on Mother’s Day 1968, when Coretta Scott King led thousands of women in one of the first mass women’s marches. The following day a temporary settlement of tents and shacks called Resurrection City was built on the Mall.
The current Poor People’s Campaign is planning forty days ending with a mobilization on June 23rd. This will involve many kinds of witness, including marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience. It’s a commitment to resist the powers and structures that keep people in poverty.
We are working to bring Rev. Theoharis to First Presbyterian Church so we can hear first hand about the effort to re-frame and re-energize a movement based in scripture and our sense of moral duty and common sense. Check out the Poor People’s Campaign website and start thinking about your response.
“Are we ready to participate?” Are we ready, as Dr. King encouraged us, to stand up, to sit down, to risk arrest, to be counted, to pray with our feet?