I recently returned from the Mobilization to End Poverty in Washington D.C. sponsored by Sojourners. The event was advertised as “a history-making gathering. Christians from across the country will come together in a powerful movement committed to the biblical imperative of reducing domestic and global poverty.”
So did we make history?
There were many things to celebrate about this gathering (despite the disappointment that President Obama was unable to be there in person, he sent along a personal video greeting). As someone who has attended past mobilizations by Sojourners, this gathering was by far the largest gathering I have attended. I remember one conference where it felt like there were about 100 people gathered in a church basement. So to be part of a gathering of over 1100 Christians committed to end poverty felt like a major step forward.
Previous gatherings tended to skew to an older demographic with a large percentage of the participants from mainline denominations. 2009’s mobilization was successful in drawing from the wide range of American Christianity. Individuals from more evangelical and theologically conservative churches joined with mainline churches to form a stronger Christian voice. The mobilization’s most significant step forward was the large number of younger participants who are deeply concerned about addressing the social injustice of national and global poverty.
This broader coalition bodes well for Biblical social justice movements in America. In American church history, there has been a historical divide between theologically liberal Christians and the Biblically conservative ones. Twentieth century Christians split their priorities with liberal Christians focused on social justice and the conservative Christians focused on personal evangelism. (The major exception to this rule would be the lack of such division in the Black Church which has consistently had a healthy intersection of justice and evangelism.)
Despite Christianity Today’s insistence, this movement is not the religious left. It is instead a broad coalition of Christians concerned and committed to the Biblical call for social justice. It was a pleasure meeting many evangelicals who are increasingly becoming an important part of the dialogue on Biblical social justice. I met many individuals who previously had no concern about social justice issues (who saw this as a politically liberal agenda) actively participate in the plenary sessions, workshops, and even the visits to Capital Hill. The Mobilization to End Poverty was a historic event in that we are clearly moving beyond the liberal-fundamentalist divide of a previous generation. Younger evangelicals are no longer encumbered by the artificial and unbiblical divorce between evangelism and social justice.
But we must be aware that significant challenges still exist in our quest to better live out God’s call for social justice. A key aspect of political advocacy is the ability to genuinely and legitimately reflect the perspective of the poor. Advocacy requires a high level of relational power. In other words, we can not represent the voice of the poor if we are not actively involved in the life of the poor. Talking about the poor is very different from genuinely engaging the poor. A noticeable gap in this mobilization was the absence of those who are actually struggling with poverty. That gap was to be expected when the registration fee averaged $250 and hotels in the area could not be found for under $150. It is imperative that the movement to combat poverty in America genuinely engages and reflects the poor. It is very easy to become advocates for the poor while losing touch with the actual conditions of poverty.
During my elementary school years, I grew up in a rough inner city neighborhood in Baltimore. My neighborhood was comprised of poor blacks, poor whites, and recent Korean immigrants. Gang activity and violence were common place in our neighborhood. My family was on food stamps and had a block of government cheese in our freezer. (We’re Asian, we didn’t know what to do with cheese – it just sat in the freezer for several months). Our apartment was infested with cockroaches and there were five of us crammed into a small two bedroom apartment.
But our mom (who raised us as a single mom after our dad walked out on our family) worked multiple jobs to get us out of that neighborhood. By my middle school years, our family had achieved the American dream of leaving “the hood” and moving to the middle class suburb of Columbia, MD. With a much better school system, there were more opportunities for our family. I was able to attend an Ivy League undergraduate college that bordered a rough neighborhood, but was not actually in the neighborhood. I went on to attain three different graduate degrees while faithfully moving up the socio-economic ladder. As my wife and I have started our own family, we have always lived in urban communities among the poor but our family would not qualify as actually being poor. It has become easy for me to create more and more of a distance between my poor upbringing and my current work with the poor. If the Mobilization to End Poverty is to be an authentic movement of transformation, then we must engage with, connect to, and hear from the actual poor, rather than relying on our memory of poverty.
So was the Mobilization to End Poverty a history making event? More like history in the making. As in, we still have a ways to go. But at least we seem to be headed in the right direction.
 Some full disclosure before going further. I serve on the board of Sojourners and have been a fan of Sojourners magazine and the ministry of Jim Wallis for many years.