By Kelly Gallagher
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these siblings of mine, you did for me.” Matthew 25: 35-36,40
The Rev. Dr. William Barber and the Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis have created a core principal in the Poor People’s Campaign that they have held firm to and modeled over and over again – to lift up and deepen the leadership of those most impacted by racism, poverty, environmental devastation, and militarism. I like the language of “most impacted” better than “the least of these,” because “least of these” in today’s society can have connotations of “not as good as” or “not as important as.” Either way, the point is the same. Like Jesus, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, is calling us to engage the margins in an intimate and profound way. A way, I daresay, that has become foreign for many in the mainline church.
A moment of clarity came for me in one of our very first organizing meetings of the Poor People’s Campaign in western Massachusetts. As the principles and strategies were being explained to a gathering of about 60 organizers and representatives of a wide variety of groups, one well known and respected organizer raised a question that was clearly on the minds of many in the room, given the vigorous nods of affirmation and vocalized “yups” in response. “How can I ask the people I work with, prostitutes and drug dealers, to stand with church people? How am I supposed to assure them they will be safe and can trust those they are standing shoulder to shoulder with? How do we know they won’t be judged and dismissed for who they are?”
I know we do a lot of wonderful work in our churches. Even the tiniest of churches has a food cupboard – or gives to emergency needs such as hurricanes or earthquakes – or walks in the CROP walk every year. These things are wonderful and important and valuable. This is not the question, though. The faith community as a whole is recognized as a charitable institution. The question is, person to person, are the people in the churches, and the churches themselves, seen in the community as individuals and places that those most impacted can trust – do they know we are Christians by our love?
On the whole I would have to say no. We have a bad reputation, church. Walking down the street, if any one of us were to say to someone, “It’s OK, I’m a Christian,” that would not be a universal signifier the person could take a deep breath and relax. Someone afraid of deportation, or worried because they are transgender and a person of color, or an addict going through withdrawal, would not necessarily breathe easier because they knew we followed Jesus. In fact, I have discovered in working on the Poor People’s Campaign, it often has the opposite affect – some people tense up and become defensive. And that gives me pause.
Returning to the scripture I see one clear mandate that perhaps in our busy world has been overlooked, that has perhaps contributed to this gulf between the ones Jesus would be with and the ones we are with in our every day lives. The mandate of relationship, the being with, the raising up and engaging those most impacted, to use the words of Rev. Barber. The call to personal relationship is clear in this passage from Matthew. Jesus doesn’t welcome the sheep for “seeing to” his needs. Jesus says, “You gave me something to eat,” not “you supported the organization feeding me;” “you invited me in,” not “you advocated for better welcoming policies;” “you clothed me,” not “you donated your old clothes.” There is an implied intimacy – a required proximity that cannot be replaced with a check or collection or good intentions.
This is our challenge – let us begin to consider relationship with those who are most impacted by poverty, racism, militarism and environmental devastation. While we continue to support and advocate and donate, let us also take steps toward being with, raising up and engaging those most impacted. May we be honored to be accused, as Jesus was, of eating with prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners – that we might know the glory of God in the people of God…All the people of God.
~Rev. Kelly Gallagher, Associate Conference Minister for Justice and Witness, Massachusetts Conference of the United Church Christ