Institutes & Initiatives

Institutes & Initiatives

KAIROS*: The Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice

*An ancient Greek word for a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action; the opportune and decisive moment; also a moment when the eternal breaks into history.


Kairos: the Center for Religion, Rights and Social Justice aims to strengthen a mutually reinforcing relationship between the world’s religions and the global struggle for human rights and to challenge efforts to create a conflict between them. Through rigorous scholarship, applied research, reciprocal education, and shared practice, it works to contribute to transformative movements for social change that can draw on the strengths of both religions and human rights.


We live in a time of both tremendous possibilities and severe challenges for the global struggle to advance dignity and rights. Waves of mass movements, including the Saffron revolution in Burma, the 2008 global food riots, the Arab Spring and the 2011 Occupy protests, have given strong voice to widespread popular demands for dramatically better lives for all people. They have also further exposed and mobilized powerful economic, political and social forces deeply opposed to change and prepared to do what is necessary to stop it. The possibilities demand action. 

The challenges require action based on the most serious reflection and analysis. Religions play a critical role in these struggles. Believers in religions are activists and often leaders in these movements, finding in their different religious traditions an inspiration and deep legitimacy for their demands and a source of great and lasting strength for the hard fight to realize them. At the same time opponents also often use religious beliefs to oppose change, to create divisions, justify inequality and oppression, and to fuel an antagonism between religions and human rights.

Kairos and the Poverty Initiative:

The Kairos Center on Religions, Rights and Social Justice will incorporate, build on, and expand further the work of the Poverty Initiative (PI). Through its work, PI has developed a theological framework that is grounded in Biblical and historical study, and driven by contemporary struggles for human rights. This framework asserts that poverty is not a permanent feature of society and as such, that there is a moral imperative to end it. From the Poverty Initiative's first National Poverty Truth Commission in 2005, where it raised the contradiction of poverty in a time of plenty as a violation of human rights and a central focus of theological study, to its most recent publication and national book tour for “Pedagogy of the Poor,” PI has maintained a singular focus on growing economic inequality in contemporary American society, on the twin roles of religion and human rights in combating this worrisome trend, and the need to combine critical analysis, coherent strategies, and a competent and committed core of leaders on the ground that can provide overall direction for a broader social movement that can respond to this crisis. 

As described further below, the Kairos Center will embed, build on and expand and enrich the work of the Poverty Initiative. PI's Poverty Scholars Program has historically partnered with and provided technical assistance, leadership training and strategic support to organizers, and organizations leading successful campaigns (including the Campaign for Fair Food of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Domestic Worker’s Bill of Rights of Domestic Workers United and Caring Across Generations, Living Wages for Camden Yards of the United Workers, and Universal Health Care of the Vermont Workers Center) via gatherings, seminars, on-site trainings and consultations. 

With the expanded use of a human rights framework, the Kairos Center will continue to develop this growing network by partnering with more grassroots organizations focused on such pressing human rights issues as, among others, criminal justice, gender justice, and LGBTQ equality, facilitating the sharing of successes and lessons learned, and joint actions while also building bridges between US- based and global human rights work.

The Kairos Center will work to deepen and broaden the related network of religious organizations, seminaries, and people of conscience started by the Poverty Initiative. In the past two years, the Poverty Initiative has traveled to at least 26 states in the United States on the Pedagogy of the Poor organizing book tour, connecting with thousands of new leaders representing hundreds of colleges, congregations, seminaries, and community organizations interested in the intersection of rights and religion. The Kairos Center will expand the partnerships with other faith based organizations and coalitions, both globally and nationally, and develop a clearing house of compelling religious resources to be used by diverse communities and religious bodies and create space for innovative religious ritual and practice. Read more about the Poverty Initiative>>

The Program:

The Kairos Center’s work operates in three inter-related areas:

Engagement and Action

The primary aim of the Kairos Center is to link scholarship and education to engagement with on-the-ground struggles for human rights and to contribute to the expansion and strengthening of the work of faith communities and organizations actively engaged in struggles for economic and political equality and against oppression.

Its starting point will be the work of the Poverty Initiative which through its Scholar-in-Residence, Poverty Scholars, Fellows Programs, and activities including Strategic Dialogues and Leadership Schools, and Religious Strategy and Outreach has developed a network of nearly 1000 trained community and faith leaders affiliated with more than 200 community organizations and religious bodies worldwide. The Kairos Center will seek to both expand the number and geographic and thematic diversity of partners in this network. It will develop a cutting edge media infrastructure—a rich web of interactive communication tools and social media interfaces—for sharing information, mutual learning, strategic support, and mobilization.

The Kairos Center will become a resource and a space for individuals, organizations and communities of faith working for rights and social justice to reflect on and critique their efforts and build ties with human rights leaders, organizations and struggles round the globe. Most importantly, the Kairos Center will use it resources to collaborate with, draw attention to, and connect people with other institutions and faith based and human rights organizations engaged in work on peace and social justice. 

Training and Education

Drawing on the rich resources of Union, as well as the nearly decade long innovative educational work of the Poverty Initiative, the Kairos Center will develop programs to train both religious and human rights leaders on the relationship between religion and human rights and how to draw on this relationship in their ongoing work. These trainings will highlight concrete example of how religious communities and human rights organizations and social justice groups have worked, and are working, together and how they have met the challenges such work inevitably entails.

Strategic dialogues will also be organized for religious leaders and human rights leaders already engaged with or interested in working on a specific issue. These trainings and strategic dialogues could take place not only at Union but in different communities both nationally and globally and would where possible also be carried out in conjunctions with other institutions and organizations.

Scholarship and Debate on Difficult and Cutting Edge Issues of Religion and Human Rights

Through books, papers, conferences, courses, seminars and lectures, the Kairos Center will foster well-informed and in-depth discussion and debate on the common ground between religions and human rights as well as the challenge each poses to the other. Building on the dozens of one day, immersion and full semester courses the Poverty Initiative has offered over the past nine years at Union, as well as the public lectures, conferences, and research projects the Poverty Initiative has initiated and the four books and dozens of other resources and materials it has produced, the Center will create movement relevant resources that take up the challenging yet essential relationship of religions and human rights. The Center will develop case studies that draw on historical and contemporary struggles and other methodologies to examine how and why in some instances religions have been critical in the fight for rights while, in others they have been a significant, if not insurmountable, obstacle. 

The Kairos Center will take on the most difficult, divisive, and pressing issues of religion and human rights such as the rise of intolerant fundamentalism within world religions and the use of religion to oppose equality for women and sexual minorities. While such scholarship would meet the highest academic standards, it would also be used as a basis for dialogue between practitioners involved in actual political and religious struggles in the United States and globally. 

Through its research programs and graduate certificate in human rights, the Kairos Center will also draw on the rich scholarship produced by Union’s faculty and student body. Utilizing the Fellows program described below, the Center’s research and scholarship program will actively provide UTS students opportunities and assistance in publishing and disseminating high-level writing on issues of religion, human rights and social justice. The Kairos Center will further draw on and serve as a clearinghouse for papers, documents, and other resources on religion and human rights from around the world.

Ongoing Activities:

To accomplish the Kairos Center’s objectives in these three areas it will engage over time in the following activities:

  • Developing, maintaining and servicing an active network of faith based organizations and coalitions around the world engaged in the fight for human rights and social justice. The use of inter-active web technology will enable participants in this network to contact, learn from, and develop actions with each other

  • Creating an on-line clearing house of individuals, organizations and coalitions engaged with religion and rights; and relevant articles, papers, and education and training materials on such work. The publication of books, religious resources and other online materials for use by human rights activists, religious congregations, and grassroots community groups;

  • Sponsoring meeting and conferences at Union and elsewhere on the most pressing issues of religion and human rights will be one of the staples. Kairos will feature public intellectuals, academics, human rights practitioners and grassroots leaders to address live audiences as well as people following us on- line.

  • Holding regular Strategic Dialogues, Leadership Schools and Intensive Studies and trainings at Union and in communities across the country and globe, bringing together leaders of various issues to share experiences, develop common understandings, and plan how best to support each other.

  • Organizing Truth Commissions across the country (and at Union), as a process of movement building where academics, religious leaders, legal experts, community leaders and public intellectuals review human rights violations, assess the moral imperatives of religious and civil life, and make strategic recommendations thereby bringing national legitimacy and attention to issue and geographic based struggles.

  • Hosting scholars-in-residence such as Willie Baptist, a grassroots organizer for more than 40 years and co-author of “Pedagogy of the Poor,” as well as other notable leaders in the global struggle against economic and political inequality;

  • Partnering with permanent and visiting faculty members on courses and projects related to religion and human rights including daylong courses (SU 190) and semester-long courses available to both the Union community and others.

  • Further developing and housing a Fellows program that will support both senior fellows (e.g., doctoral students or others with the requisite level of experience) as well as junior fellows (e.g., masters students or others interested in engaging in deeper levels of study of religion and human rights while also remaining connected and accountable to communities in struggle) who will be responsible for specific areas of work, research interests of the Center.

  • Developing and holding an annual immersion trip to US-based and international “hot spots” of human rights abuses and where significant human rights struggles are gaining traction and winning victories.

  • Creation of a human rights concentration (for master’s and/or doctoral students) and human rights certificate program (for human rights activists, pastors and other religious leaders, and other community practitioners) within the Academic Program at Union Theological Seminary.

The Launch: 

On November 15, 2013 from 9am-9pm, we will be launching the Kairos Center with an all-day Symposium. A gathering of scholars and activists from struggles around the globe to look at the positive and negative roles religion plays in the fight for dignity, freedom and justice. Participants will include Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock (Ebenezer Baptist Church), Rev. William Barber II (Moral Mondays Movement), Abdullahi An-Na’im (Emory University School of Law), Rev. Jennifer Butler (Faith in Public Life), Rachel Feldman (Bend the Arc), Martin Johnstone (Church of Scotland), Albert Ngubane ( Abahlali baseMjondolo (South African Shackdwellers Movement)), and leaders from Nuns on the Bus, Iraq Veterans Against the War, and more Poverty Initiative Poverty Scholars organizations. The day long symposium will conclude with a reflection and celebration of the sources of hope for the realization of the new reality that is struggling to be born.


Kairos: the Center for Religions, Rights and Social Justice is co-directed by Larry Cox and Rev. Liz Theoharis. Larry Cox is a longtime human rights activist who served as the Executive Director of Amnesty International USA and Senior Program Officer at the Ford Foundation most recently. Rev. Liz Theoharis is the founder and coordinator of the Poverty Initiative, an ordained Presbyterian minister, and has spent the past 20 years organizing amongst the poor in the United States and across the world.

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