On 14 June, my final formal meeting in my study leave took me to uptown Manhattan, to Union Seminary in New York City to hear about their Poverty Initiative. I’d been to Union before. During my time as a student at Princeton, the Scottish Fellow at Union was Ian Alexander, now General Secretary of the Church of Scotland’s World Mission Council. Although Ian was an Edinburgh graduate, we knew each other through the Student Christian Movement, and he was kind enough to give me somewhere to sleep sometimes when I wanted to spend time in New York. At the end of our time in the States I was delighted to be able to attend Ian’s graduation, held in bright sunshine in the quadrangle of the seminary. Ian went on to work for the Presbyterian Ministry at the United Nations, and was recently a peace monitor with the Ecumenical Accompaniment Programme in Israel/Palestine.
Next to Fosdick’s non-denominational Riverside Church, Union is an non-denominational seminary not attached to a university (although it lies close to Columbia). Famous teachers have included Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich, and, briefly, Dietrich Bonheoffer, who was offered a post there but chose to return to Germany in the run up to war. It’s probably now regarded as a centre of liberal theology and left-wing social ethics. To learn about Union’s Poverty Initiative I spoke to Liz Theoharis and Willie Baptist- I’m grateful to them for giving generously of their time for me.
According to the Poverty Initiative website:
Liz Theoharis is the Coordinator of the Poverty Initiative. She has spent the past 15 years organizing amongst the poor in the United States. Liz received her MDiv from Union Theological Seminary in 2004 where she was the first William Sloane Coffin Scholar. Currently, Liz is PhD candidate and Henry Berg Scholar in New Testament and Christian Origins. Liz was ordained in 2012 to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) as Coordinator of the Poverty Initiative.
Willie Baptist is a formerly homeless father who came out of the Watts uprisings [in Los Angeles in 1965], the Black Student Movement, and working as a lead organizer with the United Steelworkers has 40 years of experience organizing amongst the poor including with the National Union of the Homeless, the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the National Welfare Rights Union, the Poor People’s Economic Human Rights Campaign, and many other networks. Willie serves as the Poverty Initiative Scholar-in-Residence and is the Coordinator of the Poverty Scholars.
The Poverty Initiative is a brave attempt to bring together the academic world and grassroots activists. Its mission was described to me as ‘raising up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty- led by the poor’. It seeks to develop leaders, to do strategic and theological analysis, and be a place for debate and discussion, dealing with complex issues but still attached to real-world problems. It provides a space for leaders to think through problems. There is a Poverty Scholars Program, and they run strategic dialogue schools and Bible studies. They are dealing with problems which need solutions which match the complexity of the issues. It’s a project which has no other parallel in any other seminary in the US.
US social movements have often had religion at their heart (as a young Barak Obama discovered when he started Community organising in Chicago). Poor people often have their values shaped by religion. Yet often people blame themselves for their plight (e.g. today’s black criminal underclass in the US, or homeless persons); but religion can help ‘wake people up’.
It was interesting to hear of with the Poverty Truth Commission in Scotland, which sought to bring the voices of the poor- which are often overlooked and unheard- to the attention of the public and policymakers. This had been a two-way process: the Scottish process was based on an American model, with the Americans following with much interest the work of the Scottish project, including a visit to Scotland by a US group and continuing conversations with, among others, Martin Johnson, secretary of the Church of Scotland’s Priority Areas committee. These covered matters such as theological education and the definition of the Church and the role of pastors.
The Scottish project had a hard time brining the voice of the poor into the mainstream media. The Union Poverty Initiative is also involved with a media monitoring project in Philadelphia. Starting from the insight that ‘movements begin with the telling of untold stories’ this also seeks to bring the truth about poverty to public consciousness. During the Civil Rights era, there was a good deal of sympathetic media coverage, symbolised by the reportage of journalists such anchorman Walter Cronkite. But to some extent, the coverage was, perhaps self-serving, as the big media companies could be said to have benefited from the Civil Rights movement; the Civil Rights narrative was not antithetical to the media companies’ narrative, so that perhaps it can be said the media got more out of civil rights than poor black did. Today, with the corporations which largely own the media so caught up with ideologies which seem antithetical to the needs and hopes of the poor, the media is more likely to be seen as part of the problems. And so (as we have seen in the UK recently in the coverage of benefit changes by parts of the media), there is almost a sense in which the poor need their own media which reflects their reality.