When You Lift From the Bottom, Everybody Rises

A Conversation with Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

Categories: Alums in the World, Staff Profile

3 min read 

“We envision a world without poverty, without racism, without the destruction of the earth. This kind of common good is big, but it is completely possible,” Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis urged. “We have no real scarcity. We just have a scarcity of political will and moral consciousness to do the right thing.” 

Image credit: S. Pavey

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is a Union alumna and serves as Director of the Kairos Center for Religion, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and Co-Chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Through activism, scholarship, and ministry, Rev. Theoharis is committed to the work of eradicating injustice and building a world where all can thrive. 

Raised in the Presbyterian church in a family dedicated to the work of social justice, Rev. Theoharis grew up with the understanding that faith and justice are one. “My mom’s favorite bible verse, and that which motivated our whole family, was Micah 6:8, ‘What does the LORD require of you but to do justice and love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’” she shared. When Rev. Theoharis moved to Philadelphia to attend college, she immediately continued organizing, getting involved with the National Welfare Rights Union and the National Union of the Homeless. There, she met notable activists and faith leaders who made a lasting impact, including Rev. Dr. Yvonne Delk, the first African American woman to be ordained in the United Church of Christ. “I remember [Rev. Delk] speaking at a survival summit in Philadelphia where she said, ‘It’s not that poor people are sinners, it’s that poverty is a sin against God and should be eradicated,’” Rev. Theoharis recalled. 

In 2001, after coming to understand that the call she felt to work towards the eradication of poverty was a religious call, Theoharis enrolled at Union Theological Seminary as the first recipient of the William Sloane Coffin scholarship. Her time was immediately marked with intensity, as her first day of Systematic Theology class, taught by Rev. Dr. James Cone, was on September 11. “Many folks were wondering, ‘how could God let this happen?’ And it made me reflect that so much of my faith had been shaped by people that had a faith – which is maybe similar to what Jesus had been talking about in the Bible – a faith that even though bad things are happening all around, even though racism and poverty is wreaking havoc on people’s lives, something else is possible,” Rev. Theoharis shared. “My whole seminary experience was really profound because I got to think about a theology and live into a biblical interpretation that asked: what do our texts and traditions say about justice? What is our responsibility to address those? And what are the possibilities for overcoming that injustice?” 

While at Union, Theoharis helped to conduct a national survey that found that there was a dire need for increased education and resources from seminaries in regards to what to do in the face of systemic racism and poverty. In response to the survey results, Theoharis, classmates, faculty, administrators and community leaders launched the Poverty Initiative, which then became the Kairos Center for Religion, Rights, and Social Justice at Union in 2013. Five years later, in 2018, the Poor People’s Campaign was launched in partnership with Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II. Today, after over 20 years of dedicated anti-poverty organizing housed at Union, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is continuing to work diligently with both Kairos and the Poor People’s Campaign. 

Image credit: S. Pavey

The Kairos Center at Union Theological Seminary is, as their website states, “a national organization committed to building a movement to end poverty, led by the poor.” Rev. Theoharis, who directs the center, articulated that their work is multifaceted and includes many different avenues for change-making. Kairos the home of Freedom Church of the Poor, which launched in 2020 as a spiritual community for movement leaders. As Rev. Theoharis explained, Freedom Church of the Poor is “putting out a liberative theology, confronting white Christian nationalism, challenging biblical interpretations that are used and abused to justify inaction in the face of injustice. It is a spiritual home for a broad-based movement with people coming together across racial geographic lines, holding out that the real moral values of our world are about how you are treating other people.” The Freedom Church of the Poor is in community with sister Spanish-speaking church La Iglesia del Pueblo, as well as Freedom Shul of the Poor. In addition to housing Freedom Church of the Poor, the Kairos Center also engages in arts and culture programming, contains a robust policy department, and is an anchor organization of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

Image credit: S. Pavey

The Poor People’s Campaign launched in 2018 with the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in the United States in the 21st century, mobilizing people in 40 states committed to, as their website states, “coming together to confront the interlocking evils of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism and the war economy, and the distorted moral narrative of religious nationalism.” Following the launch of the campaign, the Poor People’s Campaign hosted a presidential candidate forum that hosted all leading presidential candidates including now-President Joe Biden, released the Poor People’s Moral Budget, held the largest online gathering of poor and low income people, and this past June, held a monumental rally of poor and low income people in Washington D.C with 150,000 people gathered on Pennsylvania Avenue. At present, in addition to continued organizing and nonviolent direct action, the Poor People’s Campaign is focused on a voter mobilization campaign that seeks to outreach to over five million poor and low-income people, targeting 15 states. “In the Poor People’s Campaign we are trying to do two things,” explained Rev. Theoharis, who serves as Co-Chair of the organization. “First, we are trying to shift the narrative—who is poor, why are people poor, what are the real moral issues of our day, what can we do in the face of injustice? And part of how we shift that narrative is by shifting the narrators, empowering, organizing, and uniting those most impacted by racism, poverty, and injustice. Second, we are building power, building the kind of power Rev. Dr. King talked about, when he said ‘power for poor people would really mean having the assertiveness, the aggressiveness, the togetherness to make the power structures say yes when they may be desirous of saying no.’ When you lift from the bottom, everybody rises.” 

The work of the Kairos Center and the Poor People’s Campaign, and the work that Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis is so fiercely committed to, is work that needs all of us. “I think one of the biggest problems we have seen in our society over the last decades is this sense that it can’t get any better, that this is as good as it gets, that the problems of the world, especially when you’re talking about racism, poverty, the earth, war—it’s just too much, and you almost have to turn it off and do whatever we can do to get by. Part of my invitation is for people to really imagine that big change is possible and absolutely necessary,” Rev. Theoharis shared. “When I read our biblical texts, they are very clear and strong that it is absolutely our responsibility not to tinker at the edges of injustice. The world is abundant, we have to let justice run down, and everybody has to be in—with nobody out.” 

Image credit: S. Pavey


Kairos Upcoming Events:

  • Dia de los Muertos: Join the Freedom Church of the Poor on the Kairos Facebook page on Sunday, October 30, 2022 at 6pm ET as we mourn the inconceivable losses of those gone too soon to a system that has valued profit over people for far too long. We will grieve together, while celebrating life and the power of community.
  • Winter Offensive – From Sunday, November 27, 2022 through January 15, 2023 at 6pm ET, join the Freedom Church of the Poor on the Kairos Facebook page as we share how this season underscores the problem of poverty in the midst of plenty.

For more information on upcoming events with Kairos, please visit: https://kairoscenter.org/events/