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.” …

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.”

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