The mission of the Freedom Church of the Poor is to be a spiritual home for movement leaders and a place to help nurture moral leadership for the struggle to end poverty, systemic racism, ecological devastation, militarism, and the false moral narrative of Christian nationalism. We reject the religion of empire, which blames the poor for their poverty, pits poor and dispossessed people against each other, and promotes the false narrative that poverty cannot be ended, only alleviated through charity. On Sunday, March 21, 2021 we commemorated the one year anniversary of the Freedom Church of the Poor. Leaders from Freedom Church and La Iglesia del Pueblo reflected on scripture reading from John 12:20-33, while remembering the mission that has brought us together and sharing testimony about why we need this church in these times.

Rev. Liz Theoharis, Director of Kairos Center and Co-Chair of Poor People’s Campaign

John 12:23 reads, “The hour has come for the soul to be glorified.” The hour has come for the soul to be glorified. This line speaks to me on this one year anniversary of Freedom Church as we have gathered every week at this hour for a year now to glorify the soul.

Yes, the hour has come. Now is the time. Kairos time. As South Africans fighting apartheid wrote in their Kairos document 35 years ago, “The time has come. The moment of truth has arrived. This is the KAIROS, the moment of grace and opportunity, the favorable time in which God issues a challenge to decisive action.”

This is the place. This online space. This zoom and facebook space. This place where we gather and send our prayers, our hopes, our cries into the universe and into cyberspace. And yes, we are the people, the ones we’ve been waiting for. 

And in this time for the soul to be glorified – to be honored, to be worshipped, to be made holy. We know from Exodus and from Deuteronomy and from Micah and all the prophets and from the whole of the holy scriptures that the way we are to honor and worship God is by welcoming the immigrant neighbor, by paying workers just wages, by organizing society around the needs of the poor and orphans and widows.

In this hour where we glorify Jesus Christ, we glorify a homeless, refugee, the Son of God and God God’s self, who came to earth so that all may have abundant life, who came to break every chain of injustice, who came to cancel debts and preach the good news of an end to poverty, who was anointed to reign in a revolution of values. 

But you see glorifying the soul is also about preparing for death – and not just death that follows a long life of comfort and health …. but a violent death, a life cut short, unnecessary, needless death – death by racism, white supremacy, poverty, gun violence, injustice, religious nationalism. 

Indeed in this passage, Jesus reminds his followers that he is soon to be turned over to the authorities to be executed as a revolutionary who turned over the tables, engaged in holy disruption, built a movement from the bottom up. And he also reminds us that through this crucifixion, new life and change is possible.

Indeed this line, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” reminds me of a favorite saying that I learned from indigenous activist Cherri Foytlin when she was organizing in Louisiana among poor white, and black, and Latino and Asian and indigenous communities against the devastation wrought by the BP oil spill and other forms of racism, poverty, ecological devastation, militarism. I have sung and chanted at many a protest over the past years, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know that we were seeds.” 

It reminds me of the climax of the political education video Mouseland that we have watched in this Kairos network for many many years now that “you can lock up a mouse or a man, but you can’t lock up an idea – a notion that we must be free.”

Yes Jesus teaches us, this passage in John 12 teaches us, Ivone Gebara, Oscar Romero teaches us that if you dedicate your life to what is right and just, that your life lives on in the world even when you’re gone, even if the police murder black lives with impunity, even if 8 people, including 6 Asian women are massacred by intolerance and hate, if families are separated and lives are lost at the border, even if policies murder hundreds every day because of poverty and inequality.

Now, this is not a message that all we can do is sacrifice. Not that salvation comes from sacrificing the poor, and immigrants, and people of color at the altar of greed and injustice. Rather, God desires mercy, God desires kindness, God desires justice – not sacrifice. 

Empire on the other hand is threatened by commitment and compassion, clarity, consciousness. Empire takes lives and livelihoods. Empire killed Jesus. Empire killed Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Empire killed Oscar Romero. Empire killed Patrick Braswell. Empire is a death dealing system. 

But death doesn’t have the last word. Not in this passage. Not in the life and resurrection of Jesus. Not in the ministry of Oscar Romero. Not in the experience of our movement. This saying from our movement “They buried us but didn’t know we were seeds” is truth. And John 12 continues, “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” 

“We, in this Freedom Church, know about the judgement of God. Where God reminds us that how we treat the homeless, how we treat the prisoner, how we treat the hungry is how we treat God.”

Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis

We, in this Freedom Church, know about the judgement of God. Where God reminds us that how we treat the homeless, how we treat the prisoner, how we treat the hungry is how we treat God. And we know just how injustice and unjust systems and structures are driven out. By building a movement, a fusion movement, led by those ravaged by poverty and racism, marginalization and exclusion. A movement that worships together, that prays together, that marches together, that meets together and that envisions what world is possible, what justice is necessary, and what empire of truth and love and peace and abundance for all must be and become. 

Freedom Church, Iglesia del Pueblo hear these words from Oscar Romero from his prayer Prophets of a Future Not Our Own. They are a message for us all: 

“This is what we are about.

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.

We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.

We lay foundations that will need further development.

We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities…

We are prophets of a future not our own.”

And let the church say amen.

Arelis Figueroa, NY Poor People’s Campaign and La Iglesia del Pueblo

“I know that many are scandalized at what I say and charge that it forsakes the preaching of the gospel to meddle in politics. I do not accept that accusation. No, I strive that we may live and interpret this conflict-ridden reality, preaching the gospel as it should be preached for our people…The Church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such abominations.”
—Oscar Romero

“Truly I’ve learned more theology living in the poor neighborhoods than in classrooms. At times I wonder if the questions of traditional theology have any meaning for the poor, and for “the poor” here means eighty percent of the population.” —Ivone Gebara, Mev Pueblo

The two quotes we have just heard come from two of the leading exponents of liberation theology in Latin America. Oscar Arnulfo Romero was an archbishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador in the 70’s and 80s, when he reached that position, he was a traditional priest without any history of political involvement, much less progressive or social commitment. Rather, Monsignor Romero was converted, thanks to his coexistence with the poor and dispossessed of his land. Monsignor Romero witnessed first hand how his people were murdered, tortured, impoverished day by day, and that was where his conscience was born, it was there that he was able to articulate and understand the theology of liberation, which was spreading throughout Latin American. thanks to the work of theologians such as Gustabo Gutierres, Ruben Alves, Leonardo Boff, Elsa Tames and  Ivone Gebara, from whom came the second quote we heard this evening. 

I have learned more about theology living in the poor neighborhoods than in the classrooms“. affirmed Guebara.  I had the great privilege of meeting Ivone and studying with her in Brazil, while attending a course at the CESEP Institute in Sao Paulo Brazil. Something that she made very clear from the beginning was her coexistence with poor people in Recife, Brazil. Ivone Gebara recognizes and applauds the contributions of the theology of liberation, in its preferential option for the poor, on removing the poor from that traditional generality and abstraction of “poor in spirit’ to become concretely poor. She also agrees and supports Liberation Theology political and economic analysis, however, she is very critical of this theology for precisely not criticizing more the traditional theological scheme: the structure of the creator God, the only son, who suffered for us, etc. Ivone understands that this criticism and correction must be made to Liberation theology, because, among other things, we live in a very sacrificial society, and theology has to come out of this sacrifice that society imposes on us, especially to women.

In articulating her theology (feminist, ecofeminist-liberation), she does not take the theories of evil, sin or suffering but rather the witnesses of that evil that are, according to her,  first of all, women who share their day to day pain and suffering. Women, she affirmed,  do not make a theoretical and systematized discourse about pain, but rather it is mixed in their lives, and all this Ivone learned in her daily living with the poor. She always tells a story, which seems to me to be very similar to the story of Jesus and the Syrophoenician woman, she says that she was teaching a group of men, probably one from the base community. She says that the wife of the man, who was the leader of the group, never stayed in the class no matter how much she invited her, she always made an excuse, that’s why she decided to go talk to her alone, and after several excuses she told her:  I’m going to tell you the truth, I do not stay in your meetings because you speak like men, what do you know about women’s lives? Did you know that Friday is the hardest day for us? (men get paid on Saturday, by Friday there is almost nothing to eat.) What do you know about our intimate life with our  spouses, about our sexuality? She had to admit that she did not know and from that point on she  changed her way of doing  theology forever and started to listen, listen to women. In 1994, Ivone was censored by the Vatican for her position in favor of the decriminalization of abortion, they asked her to retract and she said no. She has been listening and witnessing women struggle with this deeply personal issue. 

Women’s pain is not normative, men’s pain is. The crucifixion of Jesus (the man) makes more sense than the pain of her mother Maria. The blood of Jesus is redemptive, but the blood of the woman is never spoken of, and it is rather considered impure, and this shows the contradictions of religion. There is a social and sexual hierarchy that must change. There is a narrative that must be changed, and this is why I am part of the The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival. The first time I heard Rev. Barber speak about PPC, it took me right back to Brazil with Ivonne and my encounter with Liberation Theology. Here, in PPC we listen, we listen to the stories of people who are directly affected by the evils of Poverty, Racism, Militarism, Ecological Devastation and the distorted narrative of religious right. Here in New York, I have participated on two Van Tours (Freedom-School) where we listen, we listen to the stories of our people, like the one we just saw on this video, an immigrant dairy farmer looking for the American dream, just to realize that there is no dream for them.

That is the way we organize because we know that it does not have to be this way, we can change this reality, we can change this narrative by changing the narrator.

That is the way we organize because we know that it does not have to be this way, we can change this reality, we can change this narrative by changing the narrator.

Arelis Figueroa

Pauline Pisano, New York Poor People’s Campaign

My whole family (I mean my whole family) watches this service, and then we discuss it. First spiritual home in 20 years. I was able to testify at the service in December after being treated horribly by the NYPD during an anti-eviction protest, exposing the story and sharing my truth healed me. This is why shifting the narrative by shifting the narrators is deeply important. It’s about building a way of being, right now. Shifting the narrative by shifting the narrators is not about pleading with the powers that be, it’s about claiming our human dignity by adding to the great story of what it means to be human, what it means to be human versus empire, what it means to love and do what is required because somebody is hurting our people and we will not be silent. The building of the world starts now, it starts here. It starts in community.  There is healing to be had when we listen and share with one another. To this we are bound, which also means, we are bound to win.

Shifting the narrative by shifting the narrators is not about pleading with the powers that be, it’s about claiming our human dignity by adding to the great story of what it means to be human, what it means to be human versus empire, what it means to love and do what is required because somebody is hurting our people and we will not be silent.

Pauline Pisano