Fighting Poverty IS Ministry: Liz Theoharis ’93 and the Founding of the Poverty Initiative

Emory University Youth Theological Initiative
March 21, 2013

Liz Theoharis ’93 knew that her call to anti-poverty activism was a religious one.  It took the Church a while to catch up.

In December, Theoharis was ordained by the New York City Presbytery as Coordinator of the Poverty Initiative, a program affiliated with Union Theological Seminary.   In many ways, her ordination simply formalized a role Liz had taken on in 2003, when she co-founded the Poverty Initiative, whose mission is “to raise up generations of religious and community leaders dedicated to building a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor.”
Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of a “Freedom Church of the Poor,” the Poverty Initiative seeks to empower poor leaders and their organizations by offering training programs, building a grassroots anti-poverty network, and sponsoring educational events, “truth commissions,” and a host of other programs that help congregations and activists act strategically and think theologically about poverty.

The idea for the initiative grew from a gap Theoharis sensed in the course of her own work as an activist.  At protests and prayer vigils, she realized, religious people regularly came together for social justice – but with no explicitly theological reflection on why they did so.

“I found myself at Union Seminary and realizing that my call to do social justice was a religious one, and yet saw that most churches weren’t really equipped to do the kind of work that we were called to do as religious leaders,” she explained. 

Neither did seminaries train ministers to tackle poverty, much less teach them how to empower poor people to work for their own liberation, Theoharis added.   The Poverty Initiative responded, in part, to those gaps.  The results have been impressive, with affiliated, grassroots groups winning victories in places like New York (where domestic workers won wage increases) and Vermont (where grassroots group won universal health care).

“What I’m most proud of is our connection to real people on the ground who are winning real victories and improving people’s lives and trying to connect up with something bigger, knowing that we can’t just stay in our states and in our issue oriented activities, but that actually we need to come together,” Theoharis said.

In fact, Theoharis’s whole career – her activism, her 12-year road to Presbyterian ordination, and her ongoing Ph.D. work – have involved a conviction that YTI intensified:  that faith and justice go together.

By becoming ordained, Theoharis explained, she was insisting, against the Church’s conventional wisdom, that building an anti-poverty movement was as much a part of Christian ministry as preaching.  Of course, being ordained has also allowed her to minister to the poor in tangible ways — like offering memorial services to those who can’t afford it.

In her dissertation, Theoharis is also reinterpreting the verses in which Jesus asserts that “the poor you will always have with you.”  Jesus, Theoharis explains, was actually echoing Deuteronomy 16, a passage which suggests that “God’s people can get out of poverty by obeying God’s commandments, including and especially the Jubilee, which is the forgiveness of debt … and the elimination of slavery.”

As the only verses in which Jesus is anointed the Christ, Theoharis continues, the verses also suggest the inauguration of a new kingdom, one marked by economic justice.

Although the Poverty Initiative works with leaders of all ages, Theoharis is especially excited about its work with youth, aiming to have young people as “at least a quarter if not a half” of the program’s participants.  Youth organizations, campus groups, and youth groups have all partnered with the Poverty Initiative.

Of course, Theoharis also continues to ask the big questions for herself.

“One of my favorite passages is Micah 6:8 which is what does the Lord ask of you, but to do justice and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” Theoharis explained.  “And I just regularly meditate on that given the current situation and the great injustice and lack of kindness … How do you be a disciple of God when there’s so much injustice and so little kindness?   And for myself personally as well as on a larger congregational and society level of what are we called to do? What is discipleship today?”

To find out more about the Poverty Initiative, access anti-poverty resources, and find out how to get involved, visit