National Council of Churches logo represents the church 
as ecumenical ship, serving the world

DRAFT -- 10/24/00
Unto the Least of These…

"The continued existence of poverty in the 21st century is the moral equivalent of slavery in the 19th century."

The Honorable Andrew Young, President
National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA

Background—The National Council of the Churches of Christ and its member communions have long sought effective means to address poverty within the United States and abroad. Acting in faithfulness to a just and loving God, many programs to address poverty over the fifty-year life of the Council have provided education, direct service, community development, public policy advocacy, and coalitional activities with religious and secular partners in the United States. In this new century the Council and its member communions rededicate themselves to address in word and in deed the scourge of poverty which today enslaves and breaks the spirit of tens of millions of Americans.

As we seek to reconsider our work and witness, specifically in relation to the poor in the United States, we do so within the context of global society. In our highly interdependent world, the global context of U.S. poverty and the insights and standards of the international community will be critical in planning and analysis.

Offering authentic hope to the poor and acting in concert for the common good are values expressed in scripture and have historically been a core focus of Christian ministry. In every age the church has sought to address the needs of the poor in obedience to the Christ who redeems us all. Today as in every generation the church is called to prayer, study and discernment of its mission in response to the poor.

This discernment process is culturally and historically lodged within the longest sustained economic recovery in U. S. history. Even the renowned "National Debt Clock" in New York City’s Times Square has been stopped and its face shrouded in this era of burgeoning prosperity. Despite a federal budget surplus in the hundreds of billions of dollars and proportional surplus funds at state and municipal levels, there are sobering signs of deepening impoverishment for the bottom 30% of the U.S. population.

More than 34 million Americans are poor in this era of unprecedented prosperity. More than 13 million American children lack health care coverage and about one in six children in America now lives below the poverty line. There is evidence that an intractable culture of poverty continues to claim successive generations of some families. Disparity between the wealth of those at the top of the economy and those at its low end has continued to increase. The twenty percent at the top of the economic ladder control as much wealth as the rest of the population. Neither individual Christians nor the churches have been adequately reflective and self-critical about the nature of the U.S. economic system and its consequences.

The absence of critical analysis contributes to some misperceptions about poverty and about the nature of those who are poor. American culture has grown comfortable in accepting poverty as an unpleasant but unavoidable by-product of a free market economy. Such thinking gives rise to a conception that the poor are somehow responsible for their circumstance. This in turn often serves as an excuse to do nothing in the face of crushing poverty. Counter evidence exists concerning the intractability of poverty. The outcome of programs in the last decade to address poverty among the elderly has resulted in an astounding transition in the economic status of the elderly. The successful interventions have included the provision of health insurance and higher Social Security payments. Such success is encouraging and demonstrates the potential of systematically addressing poverty.

Most devastating and faithless of all has been the formulation of assumptions about what constitutes the "worthy poor", as opposed to those who are imagined to be impoverished because of some character flaw. Such assumptions diminish the poor, serve as an obstacle to enacting effective policies and give credence to a self-centered superiority and sense of entitlement that can only perpetuate the divisions within our society. In contrast to the prevailing cultural assumptions about the poor, many in the churches are discerning afresh and seeking to act in keeping with scripture’s preferential option for the poor.

In the name of history’s most famous poor child we give special attention to the needs of poor children in America. One in every six children lives in poverty and millions more lack adequate health care and nutrition. Even the public education system, long viewed as the unreplacable tool for advancement is threatened from within and without.

Poverty in America continues to thwart the full dignity of our people and denies them the lives for which they were created. The National Council of Church of Christ in the U.S.A. understands itself to be called to a ministry within our nation to mobilize people of faith to promote social change and social justice.

Effective social change requires a unified plan to address the problem of the continued impoverishment of human beings with its concomitant pain, isolation, hopelessness, and fear. Finding the means to speak, act, think and plan together is necessitated by our common obedience to God and the biblically founded preferential option for the poor. New skills will need to be developed if such progress is to be made around the issues of poverty.

A frank wrestling with such truths led the May Executive Board to a series of resolves which form the basis of this protocol and which together form the central vision for the work of the Council. In covenanting together we resolved to:

1. Commit ourselves and our institutions to a sustained (10 year) commitment to eradicate poverty in solidarity with, and on behalf of the poor.

2. Equip Christian individuals and agencies to be effective advocates with the poor and for public policies and private practices that intervene in the systemic arrangements of privilege that perpetuate poverty.

3. Amend our own NCCC practices of conceptualizing, prioritizing, staffing and funding our work to gain greater integration of our programs addressing various aspects of poverty.

4. Seek new sources of support and funding for our consolidated approach to overcome poverty.

5. Undertake the difficult and careful work that will be needed if we are to link our work coherently with other Christian partners especially Evangelicals, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics in a broadening table of Christian unity.

6. Place before this nation a compelling moral argument from the ecumenical community for eliminating poverty and a concrete program for improving the quality of life for the poor through provision of: housing, education and job training, health care, child care, dependent care, employment opportunities, housing options, and restoration of community.

Such a compelling call will link the activities of governmental agencies with the service of the private sector to forge a public/private partnership to utilize some of today’s wealth to secure justice and opportunity for all persons.

Building upon the churches’ existing direct service, advocacy and solidarity with the poor we will work to overcome poverty through our commitment to:

Covenanting Together— Next Steps

We recognize that in this journey we will need to live by faith, stepping off into a new direction not because our success there is guaranteed but because our calling draws us forward. To initiate our work, this protocol will be the subject of extended reflection at the November 2000 General Assembly meeting.

As a community of communions, we need to make and keep mutually binding commitments to each other, and to our coalitional partners including the poor so that an effective program for social change may emerge. In all that we do we will be reliant on God’s grace and the steadfastness of one another!

NCC News Service/2000 General Assembly Index
NCC Home Page