In the past 18 months Bishop William Barber, the longtime president of the North Carolina NAACP and leader of the state’s Moral Mondays movement, has given a blockbuster speech at the Democratic National Convention, appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times, helped topple a Republican governor, received attention from major Democratic funders, and otherwise established himself as a rising star of progressive politics.
But when, in May, Barber announced that he was stepping down from his North Carolina positions to launch a national campaign, he didn’t join a big progressive organization. Instead, Barber announced that he would partner with the Kairos Center—a little-known anti-poverty organization housed at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.
In 2004, a group of Union students founded a center at Union called the Poverty Initiative, which relaunched as the Kairos Center in 2014 with a large gift from the Ford Foundation. Their mission, said the Kairos Center’s co-founder and current co-director, the Rev. Liz Theoharis, is “to support and help grow grassroots movements, particularly drawing on religion and on a human rights framework.”
One of the center’s longstanding goals has been to revive Martin Luther King’s last great political project, the Poor People’s Campaign. King announced the campaign in December of 1967; he was murdered four months later while planning another march on Washington, this time focused on poverty. Now the Kairos Center, Barber, and their allies are trying to bring the Poor People’s Campaign back—right in the middle of the Trump era, and just in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination.
“Our friends at the Kairos Center have a deep and long-term commitment to a Poor People’s Campaign that is led by directly impacted people,” Barber wrote in an email to me, after I asked why he was joining with Kairos for this project. “For the past decade, they have been listening closely to grassroots movements across the country, learning from their wisdom and connecting them with one another.”
Now, next Monday, fifty years to the day after King held a press conference in Atlanta to launch the Poor People’s Campaign, Barber and Theoharis will hold an event in Washington, D.C., where they will outline a strategy of mass civil disobedience and national protest that they are calling the New Poor People’s Campaign. If they succeed, it will be the largest progressive, faith-oriented movement in the United States since the Civil Rights Era.
Most of the attention has been—and will continue to be—on Barber. He’s a charismatic leader, a commanding speaker, and, by this point, moderately famous.
But in order to understand how the New Poor People’s Campaign fits into the larger shifts in the progressive American religious world, it’s worth paying attention as well to Theoharis, the Kairos Center, and Union, which have quietly become central to this movement.
After all, these are strange times for Union. Having Barber in the school’s orbit is a coup for the seminary. So was bringing on Michelle Alexander, a legal scholar and the author of the bestselling New Jim Crow. Alexander recently resigned her law school post to take up a position at Union, where she is teaching classes on social justice and theology, and working to “expand my thinking about the possibilities for prophetic advocacy,” as she put it last year.
All of this is a sign that the 180-year-old Manhattan divinity school, long a bastion of progressive Christian thought, can still attract agenda-setting thinkers on the left.
Still, these are challenging times for the school. Mainline Protestant churches are grappling with declining membership, and divinity schools around the country are facing cuts and closures as their enrollments drop. Union is also in the midst of financial setbacks and tough decisions about how to make ends meet while upholding their social justice values.
And so the school finds itself in an odd position, one that perhaps is shared by many other institutions in the progressive Christian mainline: at once facing the prospect of decline, even as it finds itself, arguably, on the brink of a whole new era of political prominence.
THERE’S A PERENNIAL QUESTION about religious progressives: Why, despite the extraordinary political power accumulated by religious conservatives in the past four decades, has there been no comparable movement on the American left?
Pose this question to a group of religious progressives, and you’ll get a range of answers. Some of them will agree that it’s a problem. Others will dispute the question’s very premise, arguing that lots of faith-based organizing simply goes unrecognized. And still others will agree with the question—but then argue that the era of Trump is exactly when we’re going to see a muscular religious progressive movement re-emerge.
It is the strange situation of Union Theological Seminary today that the school could be held up as evidence for all three of those positions—at once emblematic of the legacy, challenges, and possible surge of progressive religious organizing in the United States.
Union was founded in 1836 by a group of Presbyterians who were hoping to forge a moderate path as their denomination threatened to schism. The schism happened anyway, but Union stuck around. In 1910, the ecumenical school moved to its present campus, a gothic, one-block-square quadrangle in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, across the street from Columbia University (with which Union is affiliated) and just a couple hundred yards from the Hudson River.
Today, the school anchors a quartet of religious institutions in Morningside Heights—the others are Auburn Theological Seminary, the Jewish Theological Seminary, and Riverside Church—that, together, have shaped generations of politically progressive organizers and clergy.
Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, and Cornel West all spent time on Union’s faculty; James Cone, who pioneered black liberation theology, has taught there for more than 40 years. Jacquelyn Grant, Katie Cannon, and Delores Williams helped develop the field of womanist theology while getting their doctorates at Union.
Today, the school can sometimes seem like a social justice school with a seminary attached. When I visited Union President Serene Jones in her office earlier this year, she began the conversation with a striking statistic: “For the past five years,” Jones said, “a third of our entering classes have been unaffiliated millennials who are coming to seminary because they are interested in our social justice history and our educational focus on these major social issues.” Even students who do report a religious affiliation are often coming from Buddhist, Muslim, or Unitarian backgrounds, rather than the traditional Protestant mainline that fed Union’s classrooms in previous generations.
Little exemplifies the institution’s emphasis on social justice work more than the Kairos Center. The center runs trainings and conferences, offers support to a national network of grassroots partners, and produces and collects study materials with titles like “Lessons from History: The Last Days of Archbishop Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jesus.” (The Good Samaritan is a popular theme.) Their work, Theoharis told me, has been focused from the start “on looking at the Poor People’s Campaign of 1967, ’68, and the theory and theology that Reverend Dr. King was laying out in the last year of his life around building a human rights movement and organizing the poor across racial and geographic lines.”
Theoharis, Barber, and their growing list of partners aim to build a national campaign in 40 states, with tens of thousands of people committing acts of civil disobedience, within an explicitly spiritual framework, in order to advance a progressive cause.
The question is whether it can work—and what role, if any, a seminary like Union can play in making it happen.
IF THERE IS A COMMON THREAD that unites Barber’s sermons, Michelle Alexander’s scholarship, the Kairos Center’s manifesto, and the overall Zeitgeist of the religious progressive vanguard, it is a growing conviction that the progressive victories of the 1960s—the War on Poverty, the Civil Rights Movement—have been undermined, overturned, and, in some cases, actively rolled back.
The country’s growing wealth gap illustrates this phenomenon. When King launched his Poor People’s Campaign in 1967, he described poverty as a crisis that was “impossible to underestimate.” Since then, the gap between the wealthy and the poor has actually grown—and, in particular, the gap between white families’ average wealth and black families’ average wealth has increased dramatically since the 1960s.
Catherine Flowers, an environmental justice organizer in Lowndes County, Alabama, who is part of Kairos’ national network of activists, understands the impact of that shift well. Lowndes County is nearly three-quarters African-American. It is one of the poorest counties in the United States. Nearly 30 percent of residents there live below the poverty line. Many residents don’t have access to clean water or a functional sewage system. A recent Baylor University study found that hookworm—a disease common in tropical areas of the developing world, but that has been largely eradicated from the United States—is returning to Lowndes County (Flowers is among the paper’s 10 co-authors).
A delegation from Kairos had connected with Flowers in 2015, when they were in Alabama for the commemorations of the Selma march. Since then, Flowers has served on a center commission and traveled with a Kairos delegation to rural Appalachia. Her organization, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise, recently endorsed the New Poor People’s Campaign. It was, she said, the first national campaign of its kind that she has seen in her 17 years of anti-poverty organizing.
Flowers grew up poor, in Alabama. “This is nothing new,” she told me. “It’s just never been articulated on a national platform before. And it’s still not being articulated.” She pointed out that Martin Luther King’s famous 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery passed right through Lowndes County.
“If [poverty] is not in the news, we act like it doesn’t exist,” said Flowers. “It still exists every day for people around this country. And particularly in a place like Lowndes County, where it’s in plain sight, where everybody goes to commemorate what was then a victory—but my question is, where are we now, when people are going back there and living in a condition that was never addressed? And we’re still celebrating?”
Grays Harbor County, Washington, is 2,700 miles away from central Alabama, along the sparsely populated coastline south of Seattle. The population is almost 90 percent white—but, as in Lowndes County, it’s very poor. Opioid abuse rates are rising and homelessness is epidemic. The day before a delegation from Kairos visited a longtime partner organization, Chaplains on the Harbor, earlier this year, a homeless resident of a tent city the church helps support died. Chaplains on the Harbor ended up having to balance the visit from Kairos with funeral planning. “Death is a constant fixture of our organizing,” said Chaplains on the Harbor organizer Aaron Scott, an alumna of Union and of Poverty Institute programming.
Sarah Monroe, an Episcopal pastor who runs the organization, said it was useful for her to know that there were people working “at a national level to create a different narrative, an alternative narrative, and be more outspoken in their efforts to do that.”
Kairos and the New Poor People’s Campaign, Monroe said, offer intellectual tools to help build that narrative—as well as a sense of solidarity. “Sometimes, it’s hard to remember that people around the country are experiencing the same things, especially when we’re talking about poverty. There’s a lot of shame around poverty in the United States. And the value for us was being able to see that people around the country were experiencing the same things, and break some of our sense of isolation.”
AT TIMES, UNION CAN SEEM like an Occupy Wall Street protester wearing an Armani suit. The school’s Manhattan campus is the picture of gothic elegance, with gargoyles, large stone towers, a fountain, and a family of resident ducks that waddle around under the quad’s trees. A year of tuition there can cost more than the census-estimated per capita income of Grays Harbor County.
Even as the Kairos Center at Union pivots toward this national campaign, the school has been accused by many of its own students, alumni, and faculty of contributing to the gentrification of the historically black Harlem area of Manhattan that it borders.* After a series of building inspections in 2012 and 2013, the city of New York notified the school that its aging buildings were not up to code, and that it would need to perform major repairs on its campus. The total cost of the required renovations, Jones has said, is expected to reach $150 million.
That number eclipses the school’s entire endowment. Desperate, Jones and the board decided to sell air rights for a condo development. The building will rise out of one corner of the school’s quadrangle—a luxury real estate development that will literally tower over a community that is, in large measure, devoted to radical Christian thought.
In our conversation, as she has in other interviews, Jones framed this as a basic question of Union’s survival as an institution. “We don’t have the choice between doing something that’s completely unambiguously perfect and something that’s completely unambiguously evil. We make decisions based on what we’re given,” she told me.
Members of the community held protests. “There’s zero trust. I didn’t know one student on campus who was saying we should actually build the condos,” Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons, a recent Union graduate who was active in the protests opposing the decision, says. “To advocate for our values in the public square, we also have to honor them in our institution.”
The challenges here go beyond a single building. While Union’s own enrollment and programming seems healthy, other seminaries are struggling, part of a larger disaffiliation of Americans from mainline Protestant institutions.
“Union enrollments are not declining yet, but the quality of their students is,” said Donna Schaper, the pastor of Judson Memorial Church in lower Manhattan and an occasional Union lecturer. “Union used to get all the Yale and Harvard people.” That, she said, is no longer the case. “I don’t mean to be condescending. I’m just trying to say how it looks from their alumni base.”
Those issues, Schaper said, could extend to the kinds of activism that Union hopes to be a part of. “Church decline is a huge issue. And it will be a factor in the national poor people’s movement, whether people can do it—have the bandwidth,” she said.
ONE THING IS CLEAR: the Kairos Center and Barber have an ambitious plan. And they’re taking advantage of a grim coincidence: the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination falls on April 4, 2018, right when the first major election cycle of the Trump era will be gearing up.
Theoharis told me that there would be actions during the forty days leading up to April 4, in at least 25 states and Washington, D.C. “The goal is to have thousands of people throughout the course of those 40 days do civil disobedience,” she said. “So, if really 25,000 people do civil disobedience, it will be one of the biggest simultaneous rounds of civil disobedience that this country has seen. I think the scale we’re talking about is pretty massive.”
They also expect celebrities to get involved. The Sankofa Foundation, which works to help enlist celebrities for action, has endorsed the campaign, although the organization has not spoken publicly about the details of their involvement and did not return requests for comment.
More recently, Theoharis and Barber have been on a national tour. I caught up by phone with Theoharis when she was leaving Topeka, Kansas, where they had spoken to more than 1,000 people at a Methodist church. She told me that they had pulled in 1,200 people in Charlotte, and another 1,200 in Albuquerque. “A lot of people have been coming up to me at these events, saying, ‘I just don’t know what to do with my anger,’” she said.
The challenges here will be real. Barber does have a large following, but the campaign and its leaders do not yet have national name recognition. The news cycle under the Trump presidency has been mercurial, and it’s not hard to imagine a series of scandals or made-for-TV spats overshadowing a grassroots civil rights protest. And progressive funders are not always eager to fund faith-oriented initiatives.
When I discussed the campaign with Thomas Jackson, a scholar at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro and the author of a book on the original Poor People’s Campaign, he pointed out that much of the organizing infrastructure that King’s campaign could draw on—including major tenants’ rights organizations, a national welfare reform movement, and a strong labor movement—simply do not exist today.
And, arguably, there are already campaigns doing this in the United States: Movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter don’t necessarily have a nostalgic Civil Rights Era cachet, and neither has used much religious rhetoric. But they have captured the public imagination on many of the same issues that the New Poor People’s Campaign hopes to engage.
WHEN I MET WITH JONES in her office earlier this year, she was eager to argue that the religious left was ascendant—but that it would not be a copy of its historical predecessors. “Our experience is that, if you’re looking to the religious left, and you’re looking for the old mainline religious left, it is there,” Jones said. “But the growth is happening as what it means to be spiritual in this country is transformed.”
As I have argued before, it can seem as if, for many young Americans, political commitments are more foundational, and more divisive, than particular religious beliefs. Even as traditional religious affiliation may continue to decline, young people may still be hungering for more moral clarify and force in their political leaders.
Can institutions like Union—and religious intellectual-activists like Barber—help to reframe the moral terms of American politics? In doing so, do they represent a viable path forward for struggling religious institutions, looking for relevance in a time of disaffiliation? Those are questions that will, perhaps, begin to be answered in the coming months.
The urgency behind them, at least, will be hard to ignore. Nkosi Anderson, an alumnus of the Union M.Div. program who is now getting his PhD at the school, has been active with the Kairos Center since his first year at Union. “You know, folks are going to have to make choice, and stand on certain principles,” he said. “Are you for the mistreatment of immigrants in this country, undocumented folks in this country, or are you not? You’re going to have to make a choice. Are you for scapegoating Muslims in this country, and banning them in this country, or are you not? Are you for black folks being able to walk down the street without getting shot by the police and get away with it, or not?”
“There are lines of demarcation being drawn,” he continued. “And folks are going to have to take a stand. And so are faith institutions. They’re going to have to decide what they’re going to be about. Or they’re just continuing to lose their relevance in society. Because people are hurting! And people are struggling. And they’re looking for institutions, they’re looking for leaders, they’re looking for communities and resources to support them and to have their back.”
Often, it can seem as if the Kairos Center and its partners are trying to articulate a kind of American-style liberation theology for the Trump era—one that’s relentlessly focused on inequality and white supremacy. Theoharis, Barber, and Union faculty have gone so far as to describe right-wing ideas as heretical to Christian teachings.
When I asked Theoharis about this kind of language, she affirmed the possibility of “grace and reconciliation.” Then she doubled down: “There are some things that are wrong, and they’re wrong in the eyes of God. And those kinds of things are not paying people what they deserve, and dispossessing people from their homes, and excluding people from community,” she said. “So it sounds like you’re being extreme. But the reality is, for folks that are struggling, life is extreme. Folks are already living in a hell on earth, right now.”
Michael Schulson is a freelance journalist and a columnist for Undark Magazine. He writes about religion, science, and culture.
*Correction: Updated to clarify the location of the seminary