If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you.
— Leviticus 25:35 ESV
Why is there still so much poverty in Philadelphia?
As a pastor, community leader and champion for the voiceless, this is the question that I struggle with and worked to resolve every day.
Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared on Jan. 8, 1964, during his State of the Union Address an “unconditional war on poverty in America.” For Johnson, poverty was a “national problem” that required organization and support from the national, state, and local levels.
When President Johnson introduced the War on Poverty bill, officially known as the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, it had one central objective: “to eliminate the paradox of poverty on the midst of plenty in this nation by opening…to everyone … the opportunity for education and training, the opportunity to work, and the opportunity to live in decency and dignity.”
As political historian Barbara Cruikshank noted, “the poor” initially did not even think of themselves as a “collective” poor or a “diverse” group of Americans.
However, after President Johnson declared a war on poverty and “identified” the poor as a “diverse” group, poverty transcended race and ethnicity and became a moral dilemma for America:
How can the richest and most prosperous country in the world have 35 million Americans living below the poverty line?
While President Johnson was hailed for his courage in charting a “new course” for America, the bill quickly lost steam because of the president’s and the nation’s growing focus on the ever-expanding war in Vietnam.
Fed up with the deliberate progress of the war on poverty, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. conceived the idea of the Poor People’s Campaign in May 1967 and began to publicly advocate for an Economic Bill of Rights for the nation’s poor.
By August 1967, King released a report, “The Crisis in America’s Cities,” in which he advocated for mass civil disobedience to highlight poverty and the conditions of the poor as shown by that year’s summer riots in Newark and Detroit.
For King, poverty had to become the nation’s focus again. He believed that the poor had to force the politicians to “see” them — the poor — and stop ignoring their needs.
In order to build a movement, King and other civil rights leaders traveled the country and encouraged all Americans — African Americans, whites, Hispanics, etc. — to come to the nation’s capital for the Poor People’s March on Washington:
“We ought to come in mule carts, in old trucks, any kind of transportation people can get their hands on. People ought to come to Washington, sit down if necessary in the middle of the street and say, ‘We are here; we are poor; we don’t have any money; you have made us this way … and we’ve come to stay until you do something about it.’”
Today, and specifically in our beloved city of Philadelphia, the poor are still with us.
According to the Mayor’s Office of Community Empowerment and Opportunity, “28 out of every 100 Philadelphians live in poverty.”
That means that nearly 440,000 people live below the federal poverty level, including 39 percent (135,000) of our children, 27 percent (265,000) of work-age adults and 17 percent (32,000) of seniors.
To put it more poignantly, of every four persons you see daily in Philadelphia, one of them lives in poverty!
Certainly, there is a plethora of reasons why poverty still exists in Philadelphia and has not been eliminated in America, but the question we all must and should constantly ask ourselves is: What are we collectively doing to eliminate it?
To his credit, Mayor Michael A. Nutter’s “2013 Shared Prosperity Philadelphia” report is a very good start. The report is thorough and highlights that the effects of poverty extend beyond the individual to “lost tax revenue, increased tax burdens, and deterrent to location of new businesses, jobs, and income earners.”
However, to address poverty in Philadelphia, a report is not enough. In fact, government is not enough.
In a 2002 PBS special, the late conservative economist, Milton Friedman, noted that President Johnson’s war on poverty policies had a negative impact on the poor. Instead of poverty decreasing, it actually increased.
To get to the root of the challenges between government and poverty, the question we must ask is: How do we use government resources to eliminate poverty in Philadelphia?
First, if we want to eliminate poverty, then we have to invest more in public education and community colleges than in traditional poverty programs (i.e., welfare, food stamps, etc.). While some of the traditional services are needed for the very despondent, I believe the social improvement resources can better be used in creating a more literate and learned citizenry, such as early childhood education and increased funding for public schools.
Education is the best medium to eliminate poverty.
In the recently released 2013 Philadelphia Manufacturing Task Force report, the problem we face in our city is not solely unfriendly tax laws and regulations, but rather a poorly functioning educational system. To be blunt, we currently do not have a literate or prepared work force for today’s jobs and careers.
As a result, we cannot even talk about eliminating poverty unless we improve our public school system and strengthen our community colleges and institutions of higher learning. And we cannot talk about improving our public schools until we have a pro-public school governor in Harrisburg, committed to adequately funding Philadelphia public schools.
Secondly, if we want to eliminate poverty in Philadelphia, then we must offer tax incentives to businesses that create high-paying jobs and careers in Philadelphia.
Yes, I am aware of the business mantra: “A good state is one that understands the private sector pays for the public sector and makes it easy for the private sector to conduct business and grow.”
However, growth of business should not be at the expense of jobs and careers in Philadelphia.
Certainly there are additional ways to eliminate poverty in Philadelphia and America. For me, education and jobs are the twin Euphrates of our redemption.
We must educate and prepare our citizens for highly skilled manufacturing jobs and also ensure that those jobs remain here in America, particularly in Philadelphia.
If we do not address poverty, then Frederick Douglass’ words will forever haunt us:
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Follow him on Twitter @drkrj.
“I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.”
— Charles Dickens,
This quote from Charles Dickens’ classic book, “Great Expectations,” resonated with me as we enter the New Year. For many Americans and certainly a significant population of Philadelphians, 2013 was not an optimal year.
With draconian cuts to education, reductions to SNAP and other food programs, increasing incarceration and persistent joblessness, the situation looks bleak for many of us.
But, Charles Dickens’ quote reminds us that even when circumstances are dire, it is our hope that change can come which will cause us to literally shift our position.
This is the year we should dare to live with great expectations.
Many of us go through the daily routine of life, but if we truly take a moment to examine our lives some of us are not living with great expectations. We are not “living” but we are surviving.
And we are certainly not living with the expectations that God can and will do something great in and through us. Rather, we have resigned ourselves to accept, versus to believe.
In the Bible, we encounter two groups of people: Those who lived with great expectations, and those who did not. There are those who firmly believed that something was going to happen in their lives, and those who accepted their lot in life and never rose from their bed of complacency.
Yes, living with great expectations means that you wake up every morning with the belief that God is not done with me yet. And you know in the core of your being that no matter how bad the situation, your future is going to be greater than your past (Habakkuk 2:9).
In Genesis, Sarah, Abraham’s wife, was a woman who was childless and believed that she would no longer be able to have children. In fact, when Sarah learned that God would bless her with a child, the Bible shares with us that she began to laugh instead of embracing the news with excitement and great expectation.
Indeed, Sarah laughed because she did not believe God could move in her senior years and allow her to birth a child. She did not believe that God was going to do what He promised. Sarah was the ultimate cynic. She failed to live with great expectations.
On the other hand, in the New Testament, when we encounter the woman with the issue of blood, we meet a sister who has been hemorrhaging for 12 years. She had sought the help of many physicians, but no one was able to cure her illness. She has real problems. Yet, she never lost her faith. She never stopped expecting the great.
Hence, when this woman heard that Jesus was nearby, she struggled to make her way through the crowd. She did not care what others thought about her, but she moved with great expectation, assured that Jesus was the solution to her suffering.
Living with great expectations often times means that you may be the only one who believes that something great will happen in your life. You may be the only one who will dream it. You may be the only one who God has spoken to and revealed that something is going to happen.
So, the questions today and this year are: Are you living with great expectations? And if not, why not?
God wants us to live with great expectations. One reason we ought to live with great expectations is because God’s will prevails. In Jeremiah 29:11 God says, “I know the plans that I have for you …” And if God has a plan, that is all that matters.
It doesn’t matter if your spouse, family, boss, coworkers or friends don’t understand the plans God has for you.
They don’t have to understand it. They don’t have to believe it. They don’t have to embrace it. Only you need to believe it and walk into your divine destiny.
Beloved, this year live with great expectations. Dare to expect that this year will be different than the last. Dare to believe that this year you will get the job you have been waiting for. Dare to believe that this year your marriage will be saved. Dare to believe that this year our children’s education will be prioritized.
Dare to believe that God can and will move in our nation, our state and our city. Dare to believe that this year is the year for change, joy, and fulfillment in your life.
I believe in my heart that God is about to do something great. In Isaiah 43:18-19, God tells us, “Remember ye not the former things, neither consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing; now it shall spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
In 2014, let us all dare to live with great expectations!
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church in Philadelphia, PA. Follow him on Twitter @drkrj.
Last month, my family and I attended a church fellowship in the Frankford section of Philadelphia. This was not our first trip to Frankford, but it was the first time that my 12-year-old son asked a question that has gripped me ever since: “Daddy, are we still in Philadelphia?”
It is not that our son has been sheltered from urban America. We live in Philadelphia, work in Philadelphia, our three children attend public school in Philadelphia, and our church, Bright Hope, is located in the city’s bustling urban renewal community — North Philadelphia.
The question our son raised about Frankford had little to do with “location.” His question arose because of the absence of city-wide urban “inspiration” and “transformation.”
Like many of you, we recognize that our city is faced with profound challenges. We cannot avoid urban ills. Rather we seek to transform them — one life, one family, one block, and one community at a time. And with persistent, unwavering commitment, hope is born.
As I have processed my son’s question, I now realize the profundity of it: Where is the hope? Where is the transformation?
In 1859, Charles Dickens’ novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” underscores the plight of the French lower-class and how demoralized they had become by the French aristocracy. As a result of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer, the French Revolution was born and brutality surfaced from the oppressed and marginalized. Dickens’ novel seeks to highlight the injustice inflicted upon the disregarded and the disparities between the aristocrats and peasants, the rich and the poor.
Yes, when our son raised the question, “Are we still in Philadelphia?,” it was a question of a curious child trying to morally understand how “two cities” can co-exist in a metropolis that is the birthplace of democracy, home to some of the nation’s most outstanding institutions of higher education, and headquarters to some of the nation’s Fortune 500 companies.
Whether we want to admit it or not, we are witnessing the creation of “two cities” in Philadelphia.
If we open our eyes, we will see that some people, neighborhoods, and communities are not getting better but getting worse.
Some neighborhoods are clean, while others are not. Some are safe, while others are war zones. Some are budding with hope, while others live in the abyss of despair.
While there has been a tremendous resurrection of select neighborhoods like Center City, University City, Fairmount/Art Museum, Brewerytown, Northern Liberties, Yorktown (now coined “Templetown”), or Queens Village, there has yet to be a major revival commenced in the most needed neighborhoods of Philadelphia.
We are not becoming the City of Brotherly Love, but the City of Brotherly Division.
According to the August 2013 U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics report, Philadelphia County joblessness is 10.4 percent — the highest rate of joblessness in the region and much higher than the nationwide unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.
Moreover, the most recent U.S. Census reports show that 27 percent of Philadelphians, and more than one-third of Philadelphia children, live below the federal poverty level. As a result, Philadelphia is No. 1 in the urban poverty metric and has recently been labeled the “poorest big city in the United States.”
The prophetic query our son raised, as we drove home through the dark streets of Frankford, represents a larger and more profound moral dilemma: How can we renovate Dilworth Plaza with $50 million of taxpayers’ money, rehab only select row homes near the universities of Pennsylvania and Temple, and provide home tax-abatement programs to most high net worth individuals in the city, while the neighborhoods of the masses in Philadelphia continue to decay and become havens of the poor?
If transformation is going to come to every neighborhood, every block, every ward, and every community, then it will require strong leadership and a clear vision for the “haves” as well as “have-nots” in our city.
In 2014 we will elect a new Governor. In 2015, Philadelphia will elect a new mayor. And in 2016, this nation will elect a new president. Currently, there are no true frontrunners — of declared candidates — in any of these races.
As I have reflected on the needs of our beloved Philadelphia, it has become crystal clear to me, and other citizens, that our city needs now, more than ever, leadership and vision from the political and business realms.
We need leaders who will not only have the courage to challenge the status quo, but also who are committed to ensuring that every community and neighborhood in Philadelphia thrives and prospers.
Our next gubernatorial and mayoral elections will be quite telling. Will Philadelphia’s 21st century continue as a “tale of two cities” with one of those “cities” in greatest decline? Or will Philadelphia reemerge as the beacon of hope for all its citizens — as it was originally envisioned? We will soon see.
As always, keep the faith.
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Follow him on Twitter @drkrj.
I prayed to the Lord my God and confessed: “Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. — Daniel 9:4-5
Our prayers will never be truly answered unless we understand the importance of confessing our sins and making a commitment to live a more righteous life.
At Bright Hope, for the month of October I have been preaching and teaching from the theme: “iPray: Prayer Changes Things.”
This has been a phenomenal Bible study and sermon series. Lives are being change. People are drawing themselves closer to God. And more importantly, people are understanding that being “right” with God can often have an impact on how God will bless your life.
As I have been meditating, seeking God’s face, and preparing to preach on Sundays at our 10:15 a.m. worship service and Bible study on Wednesdays at noon and 6:30 p.m., I finally understood James 5:16,
“Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
Often times you, like me, have focused on the second part of the verse, particularly from the King James Version, “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
Yes, some of us pray earnestly and fervently. We pray with much passion.
We can call upon the names of the Lord. We know that He is Jehovah-Jireh — our “provider.” We know that He is Jehovah-Nissi — our “protector.” We know that He is Jehovah-Shalom — our “perfect peace.” We know that He is El-Shaddai — our “God almighty.”
Yes, we know the many names of God and can call upon Him with deep passion. But at the end of the day, we are compelled to deal with the heart wrenching question: “Lord, did You not hear my prayer, and why have You not answered me?”
These are questions that keep us up late at night. These are the questions that, quite honestly, lead some of us to lose faith.
We cannot comprehend why God will not answer us, and why things are not changing in our lives after we pray. To put it another way, “Lord, I am praying passionately and fervently, but nothing has changed.”
While God can choose to answer or not answer our prayers, I want to suggest to you that God may not have answered your prayers because you have not confessed.
In James 5:16, the writer tells us that we must first “confess” our sins and then be found “righteous” in order for our prayers to God to avail much. In other words, God will do some basic things for us. However, the special or “over and beyond” blessings may not happen until we “confess” and get “right” with Him.
In fact, if we are really honest with ourselves, we have had to come face to face with the question: Why should God bless us with something new when we continue to live our old life?
The purpose of confession is to reconcile or make us “right” with God. The only way to be “right” with God is to confess our sins and repent. If we chose not to do so, then God can also choose not to answer our prayers.
Daniel understood that before he could present his petitions to God that he had to repent not only for himself but for his people.
In the book of Daniel, Chapter 9, we hear Daniel saying, “So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.” Yes, Daniel confesses because he understands that nothing will change in his life, no matter how much he prays, until he confesses his sins and repents.
Beloved, I challenge and exhort you today to have the courage to say, “Lord, I confess … .” I don’t know what you have done or whom you have hurt, but I know it’s time to come before God and confess. It’s time to get right with the Lord.
I know what happened when I confessed my own sins to the Lord. It allowed me to get “right” with God. Getting “right” with God is a daily process, but once you do, God will begin to bless your life, as God has with me, beyond measure.
So, let’s confess our sins and repent so that we can get right with God and receive the many blessings He has in store for us.
As always, keep the faith!
Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Follow him on Twitter @drkrj.
The most important key to establishing and maintaining a healthy relationship in any area of life is communication. It is mandatory on the job, in our personal relationships and within our homes. Without the use of communication we are literally paralyzed and unable to move forward.
Prayer in its simplest form is communication with God. It consists of our sharing our deepest concerns with Him, while He shares His mind and heart with us. As we begin to make prayer a priority, we will be able to develop a listening ear and become more sensitive to the voice of the Lord. Therefore, we are able to make wiser, God-led choices in our daily lives.
In the book of Matthew, chapter 6, Jesus emphasizes and spends a great deal of time teaching his disciples how to pray. He explains that we should find a secret place that is set apart to commune with our Heavenly Father and gives us a simple model to follow when we talk to God. Because of our busy schedules, prayer, one of our greatest spiritual tools, is often overlooked. Aside from our Sunday morning worship service, we often place prayer at the end of our day just before going to bed, or say a quick prayer before a meal; but does that equate to the necessary time that we need to spend with our Almighty Father?
Our prayers must be offered to God on a regular basis, not from a legalistic duty, but from a humble heart realizing our dependence on God in every aspect of our lives.
In the Bible, there are many references in which people prayed, and they witnessed a miraculous change over the course of their lives. Elijah prayed and withheld the rain for 3 and a half years. Nehemiah sought God in order to rebuild the wall. David filled the book of Psalms with prayers of repentance, praise and adoration. Lastly, our greatest example, Jesus prayed without ceasing and was often found secluded on a mountaintop communing with His heavenly Father and he fostered change to the entire world.
As we change over into the natural season of Fall, let us fall to our knees and seek the face of God with our whole hearts. Let’s make a conscious decision to sacrifice our time for prayer, not just when we are faced with an unexpected dilemma, but on a consistent basis. James 5:16 states, “Confess your faults one to another and pray for one another that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayers of a righteous man availeth much.”
On Sept. 18, at 6:30 p.m., God has placed upon my heart to launch an 8-week Bible study series on the importance of prayer. I encourage you to invite your family and friends. Through this in-depth study, we will cover the lives of great men and women in the Bible who have demonstrated a committed life of prayer. You will leave with a greater understanding of the power of prayer and how it changes every area of your life:
• Prayer changes things in your family;
• Prayer changes things on your job;
• Prayer changes things in your finances; and
• Prayer changes things in your personal life
My prayer and hope is that your appetite for prayer increases, so that you will begin to see the fruits of a committed life of prayer. I challenge you today to begin to make prayer a priority. Let it be the first thing that you do before you begin your day. Remember that communication with God is important, and I am a firm believer that prayer changes things.
As always, keep the faith.
The Rev. Kevin R. Johnson, Ed.D. is senior pastor of the Bright Hope Baptist Church. Follow Dr. Johnson on Twitter @drkrj.