Diversity, Hospitality, and the Face of Poverty

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

The Reverend William Briggs died this July at the age of 86. Bill Briggs was a Presbyterian minister born in Pennsylvania, whose distinguished ministry was lived out in Ohio. Among other things, Bill served with my dad as the minister for community outreach at Central Presbyterian Church in Zanesville, Ohio, a medium-sized, county seat congregation.

Bill Briggs was the first exposure I really had as a kid to a vision of the church’s mission beyond its walls. In this case, his ministry was extensively with the Appalachian poor who dwelled throughout southeastern Ohio. Bill Briggs worked hard at an important task, dismantling the boundaries and blurring the lines between those with means and those without in that very economically diverse community. He remains a kind of iconic role model for me.

Our Confession of 1967 states that: “The reconciliation of humankind through Jesus Christ makes it plain that enslaving poverty in a world of abundance is an intolerable violation of God’s good creation. Because Jesus identified himself with the needy and exploited, the cause of the world’s poor is the cause of his disciples. The church cannot condone poverty, whether it is the product of unjust social structures, exploitation of the defenseless, lack of national resources, absence of technological understanding, or rapid expansion of populations. The church calls all people to use their abilities, their possessions, and the fruits of technology as gifts entrusted to them by God for the maintenance of their families and the advancement of the common welfare. It encourages those forces in human society that raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living. A church that is in different to poverty, or evades responsibility in economic affairs, or is open to one social class only, or expects gratitude for its beneficence makes a mockery of reconciliation and offers no acceptable worship to God.” (9.46 c., Inclusive Language Version)

Read that paragraph over several times. Though 50 years old, it could have been written this very day, with its political and cultural analysis and its theological clarity. That phrase in particular, “enslaving poverty in a world of abundance,” convicts us, does it not?

There is no doubt in my mind that among the important discussions about equity and justice, the church is called to have a sustained conversation and hatch a rigorous action plan to combat “enslaving poverty.” Our political and economic worlds ignore it. The church is not sure where to begin, let alone what to do. This is a confession – it is not as if I have a clear plan as well. I simply know the gospel mandate and the demands of our confession and ordination vows.

In Rochester, New York, we discuss the “crushing concentration of poverty” that has educational implications and racist underpinnings. Black and Hispanic people in our community, and particularly children, fare worse than white people in nearly every measure of quality of life. Even with blue ribbon panels and significant public money going to the effort, the needle moves barely, if at all. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. Do we believe that? And if so, what are we doing about it?

But in a blog series about diversity, the question takes on even deeper meaning. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said that 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning is “the most segregated hour in this nation.” That was true racially. It certainly remains true economically, and perhaps even more so.

Along with every other form of diversity, what would it look like for the church to pursue economic diversity? What would it look like for rich and poor to co-exist in the life of a congregation, so that those surface differences would remain just that?

It’s a difficult challenge. Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, where I am privileged to serve, seeks to address the despairing impact of poverty through housing and hunger ministry, through educational ministry in public schools, through direct service and efforts to change the economic status quo. Yet as important as those programs and efforts are, they rarely take the next step of engaging the poor in the journey itself.

Our presbytery recently closed a congregation called Calvary-St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. We are attempting to resurrect mission and ministry in its former building. What I loved about Calvary-St. Andrew’s was that it was one of the few congregations I’ve ever experienced where there was no distinction in participation and membership between those with financial means and those without. No distinction. That caused people to recalibrate expectations all over the place. And such recalibration was very good.

What would it look like for more of us – congregations in rural settings, in suburban and urban ones as well – to embrace the vision of seeking true economic diversity? Can we imagine and envision it? Can we move beyond whatever barriers that we’ve constructed within our own spirits and within our own congregations?

Paul wrote in Galatians: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

What if we simply extended that metaphor to say “there is no longer rich or poor…”

Bill Briggs modelled that vision for me long ago, and then lived that vision in his ministry. I am grateful for that witness. May we “raise hopes for better conditions and provide people with opportunity for a decent living.” And having done that, may our congregations and communities reflect the true diversity and full hospitality that God dreams for us all.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.