Religion and the Poverty Breach


Used to be when one of us clerical types changed parishes we could count on a lunch invocation invite from a local club full of what Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman called the “well-liked” – affluent and affable folk whose names were atop the town’s factories, businesses and new car dealerships.

Grateful for the chance to glad-hand the local shakers and movers, we bowed our heads in prayer, blessed the already blessed, enjoyed the meal and drove back to the office to check the messages.

But this is not then. Nowadays the well-heeled may ring us up, but more likely are the calls from directors of threadbare service agencies like the overnight shelter/breakfast program, where the occasion is not a white-napkin luncheon but a bowl of oatmeal with a room full of folks whose names adorn little more than the nightly sign-in.

We bow our heads, I bless the unblessed, help serve the meal and drive back to the office dispirited (yet again) by the unassuageable scope of human suffering.

Ministry is and has always been a bell-weather job – a pulse-taking profession tracking food pantry by food pantry the conscience of a given zeitgeist.

For every cut in food stamps there’s an uptick in backpack programs for hungry children. For every hit to the WIC program the lines for baby formula grow longer. It’s not that hungry kids and besieged parents are strangers to service-minded congregations.

What’s new is the increasing loneliness those congregations are experiencing when it comes to taking care of the least among us.

This was not always the case. At least not like this. A quick primer: My colleagues who came of age during the Johnson years could count on three layers of government – federal, state and local – as imperfect but empathic allies in a war on poverty.

Assistance programs were at times half-baked and wasteful, frustrating both secular and religious efforts to affect change.

Yet for all the ineptitude and infighting there was for a time a joint secular/religious paradigm: poverty is a disease and poor Americans, full persons caught in its throes.

But the unofficial church-state alliance against economic inequity grew untenable as Johnson’s War on Poverty faded, eclipsed by the Vietnam War and its drain on resources material, intellectual and spiritual.

Some of the leading clerics at the time (foremost among them Vatican II Catholics, Neo-orthodox Protestants and Reform rabbis) correctly predicted that the War was the beginning of the end for large-scale, church/state poverty relief efforts.

Fortunately the significance of this sea change was not lost on practically-oriented seminaries. Led by activist faculty, they retooled themselves to produce graduates who could alternately serve as preacher, social worker, grant writer, community organizer and in some cases mess cook, triage nurse and job placement specialist.

Clergy, especially progressives, were now equipped to step into the poverty breach. But while this increased emphasis on service has revitalized ministerial preparation (and some would say whole religious traditions) it has over time given rise to the symbiotic co-opting of activist congregations to do for the disadvantaged what a morally engaged government should.

This ongoing skating of responsibility is egregious. Yet perhaps equally egregious is the loss of dialogue between political powerbrokers and progressive “this world” religious voices that once informed public policy and lawmaking – an influence that reached its apex in the 1960s as a Baptist preacher from Birmingham boldly gained audience with not one but three branches of government.

Circumstances have since conspired against a second massive governmental campaign on poverty. And any semblance of a strong poverty-conscious religious presence in D.C. faded with the changing of the decade. Meanwhile in lieu of sustained cooperation, activist-minded religious progressives have largely stopped pining for the days when the state had their backs on poverty, learning instead to glean what they can of remaining governmental resources, partner with likeminded nonprofits and pool resources with congregations across theological lines.

But none of these efforts can counter the passing of the mantle of responsibility – a state of affairs that is neither sustainable nor efficacious. If you doubt this just ask the guy who wants me to tour his clothing bank next week.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Tarpon Springs, Fla. Email

From The Progressive Populist, November 1, 2013

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