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Above: Scenes from the two-day anti-poverty mobilization event Jan. 30-31 in Columbia, S.C. 

National Council of Churches Renews Mobilization to End Poverty in the U.S.
Coordinating Committee Will Meet in Chicago March 2 to Expand 2004 Efforts

Columbia, S.C.—In what represents the beginning of a new phase of work to end poverty in the United States, representatives from the National Council of Churches USA (NCC), its member denominations and other groups met for two days of activities in Columbia, S.C. to plan how the faith community and grassroots organizations can work together to overcome poverty.  

As a result a new coordinating committee has been formed to plan the work of the NCC as it relates to ending poverty and economic injustice. The Poverty Mobilization Coordinating Committee has scheduled a follow-up planning session for Tuesday, March 2 in Chicago.

The South Carolina activities began Jan. 30 with a day-long civic event sponsored by the Center for Community Change, focused on a forum featuring six Presidential primary candidates being confronted with the concerns of poor people in what was called, “The People’s Agenda for Economic Justice: A Dialogue with America’s Families.”

After the forum, nearly 500 people of faith representing nine faith traditions attended an NCC-sponsored interfaith worship service at Washington Street United Methodist Church, where songs, testimonies, dramatic readings and a sermonic charge by Rev. Darrell Jackson prepared the group for a faith-based strategy session the next day on how to best organize around issues affecting poor people.

“As people of faith the greatest question that we can ask ourselves is ‘What does God require of us?’” asked the Rev. Jackson, the pastor of Bible Way Church of Atlas Road and a state legislator in South Carolina. He contended that an answer to the question is found in the Old Testament Scripture Micah 6:8—to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly before God. According to the Rev. Jackson that means doing the right thing even if it has political consequences. 

“This is not a charge given to you by the government; in fact, this is the charge of a higher authority,” said the Rev. Jackson.

Taking the Rev. Jackson's charge seriously, a group of about 130 religious and grassroots leaders from across the country gathered on Saturday to map out a plan of action for the 2004 elections and beyond so that the elimination of poverty would become a top priority in the United States. Although much of the fanfare and media frenzy of the day before had ended, this group participated in an intense strategic planning session to discover how the faith community could collaborate with grassroots groups and one another to overcome poverty and economic injustice. Organizers of the event said they wanted participants to focus on ways to organize voter education/registration activities and make sure that the voice of the faith community is heard on poverty and economic justice issues. 

The group began by first examining the reasons America is losing on issues of poverty, how the faith community can reclaim the moral ground on these issues and why faith demands engagement in issues of poverty and economic justice. 

State legislator and Pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Chester, S.C., the Rev. Joseph H. Neal, said that he believes poverty could be eliminated in this country if we chose to do it. “There is enough wealth in America to do away with poverty if we choose to do so. All we choose to do is allow poverty to continue,” said the Rev. Neal. He also contended that people of faith allowed the religious right to “co-opt” the language of faith, leaving a void in public discourse about the issues that impact people living in poverty like unemployment, health care and schools.  

“All evil needs is silence and it wins the day,” he said.  

Those of true faith, argued the Rev. Neal, understand that people living in poverty do not need “pie in the sky. They need someone who understands that they have to eat, have a place to stay, health care and employment.  We (people of faith) have to find our voice and never, ever again let people…define us. If we don’t, people will die. People will suffer. It’s our responsibility.” 

The Rev. Mary Louise Frenchman, a minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and a Native American who works with Native Americans in Charlotte, N.C., pointed out that people of faith must walk in solidarity with poor people and ask them questions like, "What is your pain and what do you need?," not, "Are you saved?" 

“My faith demands that I listen to people, find out what their needs are and do something about it,” said the Rev. Frenchman. 

She also urged people of faith who want to work with poor people to treat them with dignity and respect. “I see the faith community as a bridge," she said.  "We are here to walk without fear.”  

One of the major themes of the day was the importance of getting people to register and vote in the 2004 election and beyond. Various grassroots groups that are organizing voter registration and education efforts encouraged the faith groups to mobilize and inspire people in their congregations to be engaged in this aspect of the political process. 

Kim Baldwin of The Interfaith Alliance pointed out that people of faith do not make the connection between civic responsibility and voting. In fact, according to a survey done by The Interfaith Alliance, the number one thing people of faith think of as being their civic responsibility is paying taxes, not voting. “We need to get the message across that voting is a civic responsibility,” said Baldwin. “If we can make that connection, it is one of the easiest things we can do to impact issues of poverty and economic justice.” 

The Rev. Brenda Girton-Mitchell, NCC Associate General Secretary for Public Policy, envisioned people of faith working together to empower people, particularly as it pertains to voting. “People of faith have to get mad enough to stand up and say, ‘no more,’” she said.  

Other issues that were identified as having an impact on poverty and economic justice, and that were areas where grassroots and religious organizations could work together, included tax and budget fairness, hunger; advocating for living wage laws that would prohibit companies from paying employees less than what it costs to live in a community; and inequality in the criminal justice system, among others.  

According to Charlene Sinclair, the principal organizer for the Center for Community Change’s People’s Agenda for Economic Justice events in Columbia, “Poverty in this country is an immoral state of being…it is a responsibility as well as a mission for people of faith to deal with this issue.” She challenged those assembled to step boldly in their beliefs so that other families might say, "I know that tonight I will eat."

The National Council of Churches USA and the Center for Community Change organized the “Faith Mobilization To Overcome Poverty” session, which had participation from the following groups:  Project Vote, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, the University of the Poor, Protestants for the Common Good, the Presbyterian Church (USA), The Interfaith Alliance, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Alliance to End Hunger/Bread for the World, Call to Renewal, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Columbia, the Gamaliel Foundation, the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the South Carolina Christian Action Council along with local, regional and national leaders of churches, synagogues, mosques and temples. 

In addition to the numerous faith groups and grassroots organizations that attended, approximately 30 students from seminaries also participated in the day’s activities, representing the next generation of leadership on this issue. This included students from The Divinity School, Duke University; the Interdenominational Theological Center; Candler School of Divinity, Emory University; Union Theological Seminary in New York, Harvard Divinity School and Asbury Seminary in Indiana.  

The Rev. Joe Darby, Senior Pastor of Morris Brown A.M.E. Church and former president of the South Carolina NAACP, told the group to be bold in their actions because many will look to the faith community for leadership. “Be strong and be courageous,” said the Rev. Darby during the closing service. “And, remember that you are not alone,” he told the representatives of various faith traditions and grassroots organizations.  

The Rev. Dr. Paul Sherry, Director of the NCC’s Poverty Mobilization, assured the group in his closing remarks that the fight against poverty would continue. “We will not cease until poverty is no more,” he said.


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