Liz Theoharis

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Liz Theoharis

Template:TOCnestleft Liz Theoharis... is Co-Chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival with the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II that organized the largest and most expansive wave of nonviolent civil disobedience in US history. She is the Director of the Kairos Center for Religions, Rights, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary. She has spent over the past two decades organizing amongst the poor in the United States.

Radical background

Her mother, Nancy Theoharis, was in those days a full-time activist — the work rooted in her Presbyterian faith — and deeply engaged in interfaith dialogue. Her father, retired Marquette history professor Athan Theoharis, is considered a foremost authority on the FBI, including its domestic surveillance programs.

Athan Theoharis defended Americans spying for the Soviet Union in the 1940s by arguing that most of the information turned over by Soviet spies was frivolous and besides, by giving the USSR information that emphasized America’s industrial and military might, the spies were actually serving America’s interest, since their material might have deterred the USSR from acting rashly.[1]

Says Liz Theoharis:

“I was going to protests at the age of three. I was a deacon in the church by the age of 16,” said Theoharis, whose family attended North Shore Presbyterian Church in Shorewood. “I was raised to see that my faith must be linked to practicing social justice.”

In 1994 Liz Theoharis moved from her hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to attend the University of Pennsylvania. While there she became involved in Empty the Shelters, a student organization dedicated to ending homelessness related to the National Union of the Homeless, and the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. In 1995, as part of KWRU, she participated in the takeover of St. Edwards church in Philadelphia by dozens of homeless families, after it was closed by the Catholic diocese. In 2003, along with other leaders from KWRU and the related Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign, she established the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary and the "Poverty Scholars Program" to build a network of grassroots organizations united around ending poverty.[2]

IPS/PPC connection

The Institute for Policy Studies produced a report "in support of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival:"

"This campaign, marking the 50th anniversary of the Poor People’s Campaign led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders, aims to build a broad and deep national movement rooted in the leadership of the poor and dispossessed as moral agents and reflecting the great moral teachings to unite our country around a transformative agenda to combat poverty, racism, militarism, and ecological devastation. We worked in collaboration with the Co-Chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, and the Tri-Chairs of the Campaign's Audit Committee, Rev. Dr. James Forbes, Dr. Timothy Tyson, and Shailly Gupta Barnes.[3]

Border trip

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, wrote Aug 1, 2019.

(Religion New Service, July 30, 2019) — Sixteen years ago, when I and other human rights advocates were deported from Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s regime just days before its collapse, we were welcomed into a United Nations refugee camp on the Jordanian border, where we received medical attention, food and accommodations in spacious air-conditioned tents.

The same can’t be said for those staying at the makeshift camp at the U.S. border in Juarez, Mexico, where 200 migrants from Central America and Africa have found temporary shelter.

When we arrived there on Sunday (July 28), we met migrants in the dirt courtyard outside a block building without air conditioning and heard their stories under the desert sun.

I had traveled to Juarez with fellow leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign, the Revs. William J. Barber II, Liz Theoharis and Robin Tanner, as well as Imam Omar Suleiman of the Yaqeen Institute, Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism and Shane Claiborne of the Red Letter Christians network.

We were there at the invitation of the Border Network for Human Rights, a grassroots advocacy group that has organized in the borderlands for more than 20 years.

In each of our religious traditions, we minister to families in the midst of marriage and child-rearing, sickness and death, economic hardship and unexpected tragedy. The migrants we met in Juarez have faced challenges that would threaten any family. They shared stories of gang violence, domestic abuse and political turmoil in their home countries, along with the trials of their precarious journeys through Mexico.[4]

Pastoral Letter on the El Paso Shootings

Recently, we were in El Paso at the invitation of the Border Network for Human Rights to highlight the violence that their community has been suffering. We heard stories of families separated, asylum seekers turned away and refugees detained like prisoners of war. We heard how their community has been militarized and how poor border communities have been especially targeted. We promised that we would do everything in our power to compel the nation to see this violence. Just a few days later, a terrorist opened fire in El Paso. And then another attack occurred in Dayton.

In reflecting on these outbreaks of violence, our hearts are broken. This moment demands a moral reckoning with who we are and who we want to become as a nation.

The truth is that, while every generation has worked to push us toward becoming a more perfect union, we have also tolerated lies that beget violence. America’s founding fathers spoke of liberty, while drafting documents that called Native Americans savages, accepted the enslavement of Africans, and ignored the voices of women. This hypocrisy created space for slaveholder religion to bless white supremacy, pseudo-science to justify eugenics, a sick sociology to pit people against one another, and predatory policies to scapegoat non-white immigrants and blame poverty on the poor.

To our religious leaders and people of faith, we call on you to offer moral leadership in the public square. If you have condoned the lies of white nationalism or remained silent, you have failed to keep your sacred vows. We ask you to recall the struggles of our ancestors so we can work together to build up a more perfect union in our common life.

We call on all people of faith and conscience to sign on to this letter and share it throughout your networks. Let us prevent this violence from defining who we are as a nation and people.

Forward together, not one step back.


In 2009 Liz Theoharis, The Employment Project, New York, NY served on the board of directors of Healthcare-Now! .[6]

Left Forum 2008

Poverty and Poor People's Movements - Social Analysis and Reflections on Strategies:

This workshop analyzes the political economy of today ís poverty and discusses the potentials and difficulties of re-igniting sustainable poor peopleís movements today, looking at theoretical debates and the experiences of current anti-poverty movements in the US.

Left Forum 2011

Reading the Bible from the Left: St. Paul the Community Organizer:

Philadelphia comrades

Todd Wolfson in his book "Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left" thanked activists from the Media Mobilizing Project and Philadelphia, including Shivaani Selvaraj, Mica Root, Phil Wider, Nijmie Dzurinko, Desi Burnette, Ron Blount, Alix Webb, Bryan Mercer, Rebekah Scotland Phillips, Kristin Campbell, Hannah Jane Sassaman, Erika Almiron, Rachel Goffe, Megan Williamson, Fred Pinguel, Amalia Deloney, Martin Lautz, John Hough, Steve Chrevenka, Al Alston, Carmen Cuadrado, Amendu Evans, Audra Traynham, Peter Bloom, Lawrence Jones, Charles Clark, Koby Murphy, Quon Chance, Willie Baptist, Liz Theoharis, Liz McElroy, Mohammad Shukur, Bill Zoda, Tekle Gebrehmdin, Patrick Animah, Gary Broderick, Dina Yarmus, Ron Whitehorne, Patricia Eakin and others. [7]

Poor People’s Campaign

In 2018 the Poor People’s Campaign is being organized by Rev. William Barber and Rev. Liz Theoharis of Kairos Center. They are reviving Martin Luther King, Jr.’s unfinished Poor People’s Campaign of 1968. They plan to draw organized poor people into direct action targeting state and federal authorities to demand that poverty and inequality be addressed. It grows out of the Moral Mondays movement, which helped slow North Carolina’s race to the far right after the state government fell under total Republican control in 2012.[8]

Leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival marched with hundreds of striking fast-food workers here Feb. 12 on the 50th anniversary of the historic Memphis sanitation worker strike.

The Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the campaign, and the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a member of the national steering committee, met with McDonald’s workers on a lunchtime strike line in Memphis, hearing about workers’ struggles to get by on minimum wage pay and their fight for $15 and union rights. The action kicked off a two-month national tour by the campaign to shine a light on the harshest poverty in the nation and lift up the leadership of poor and disenfranchised people who are organizing for change.

The tour by the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, campaign co-chair, and Rev. Dr. Theoharis will stretch from Appalachia to the Rust Belt to the Central Valley of California, reaching more than a half-dozen cities nationwide. [9]

Poverty Initiative/The takeover of St. Edward's Church

The takeover of St. Edward's Church had a history behind it according to Liz Theoharis an organizer from the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. In 1999 the KWRU helped to found the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign.

In May 2003 Liz Theoharis and Willie Baptist established the Poverty Initiative at Union Theological Seminary in New York City with Chris Caruso, Amy Gopp, Dawn Plummer and Alix Mariko Webb.

In 2006, working with Joe Strife and other faith-rooted organizers in the student group Empty the Shelters Theoharis recruited students from Villanova, University of Pennsylvania and other colleges. The student activity centered on a house called Jubilee which was part of the Life Center Association, a network of intentional community co-housing created by the Movement for a New Society - social justice movement led by among others Dale T. Irvin president of New York Theological Seminary.

With the help of this network which included William Sloane Coffin Baptist and Theoharis were able to institutionalize the work of ending poverty at Union Theological Seminary under the administration of president Joseph Hough.

Also inspired by the St. Edward's takeover some students from Eastern University including Shane Claiborne formed The Simple Way, which went on to "become a national leader in raising issues of poverty and justice in the Evangelical community and beyond."

Since that time the church has been the home of The Simple Way. Shane Claiborne and his wife Mary Jo were married there as were two other The Simple Way founders Michael Brix and Michelle Brix.

Shane Claiborne writes:

It was at St. Ed's that I was born again...again.[10]

MDEQ protest


(L-R) Kim Redigan, Jay Cummings, Pastor Emeritus, Claire McClinton and Rev. Liz Theoharis.Valerie Jean.

The event that triggered the arrests in front of the MDEQ in Lansing, MI, that blocked the doors to the building.

“We blocked all the doors (and eventually the parking lot) of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) headquarters, plus surrounded the building with crime scene tape because of environmental concerns,” said Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann, one of some 30 people arrested. Concerns included the role of the MDEQ in the Flint water poisoning, oil spill threat of Enbridge’s Line 5, and permitting the expansion by US Ecology and Nestlés in the Great Lakes.

The action was part of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. “This contributed to the largest focused and coordinated campaign of civil disobedience in US history . . . the MDEQ needs to make public health the priority, not corporate profit,” said Wylie-Kellermann.

“Some of those arrested took a ‘diversion program’ offer. Others pled ‘no contest’ to a misdemeanor. Thirteen prepared for a trial;” Rabbi Alana Alpert; Carolyn Baker; Claire McClinton; Justin Sledge; Carlos Santacruz; Baxter Jones; Rev. Liz Theoharis; Rev. Deb Hansen; Rev. Ed Rowe; Rev. Bill Wylie-Kellermann; Richard Levey; Sylvia Orduno; and Leah Wiste.[11]

Living Broke in Boom Times

Living Broke in Boom Times: Lessons from the Movement to End Poverty.

Includes excerpts from three documentaries on poor Americans organizing to end poverty: Takeover, Poverty outlaw, and Outriders. The films were produced between 1989-1999. Abstracts are interspersed with commentary from activists Willie Baptist, Liz Theoharis, and Cheri Honkala. Special features: 74 min. version of film divided into 5 thematic chapters for educators ; 13 min. mini-doc "Documenting the movement" with filmmakers Peter Kinoy and Pamela Yates ; slide show of Harvey Finkle's photographs. Produced and directed by Kathleen Dara Kell.[12]

People's Tribune


In July 2006 Liz Theoharisthe co-coordinator of the University of the Poor, the educational arm of the Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign, and a doctoral student at Union Theological Seminary in New York City contributed an article to the People's Tribune "Spirit of the Revolution: Poverty and Empire".

New Testament scholars interested in the historical Jesus have asserted that Jesus was a sage, in the tradition of Hellenistic and Jewish sages of his day. Some propose that Jesus was a revolutionary with a social program and a leader of a grassroots movement of peasants and other oppressed people. One particularly known scholar, Marcus Borg, combines the role of Jesus as teacher with Jesus being a social justice activist/prophet and a healer. He proposes that rather than the founder of a revolutionary movement, Jesus served to catalyze a movement.
The model of an historical Jesus, a poor peasant himself, but who was an organic intellectual striving to solve the problems of society and wake people is a necessary counter to the villainization of poor people. This principle defies much of the media and social service system's portrayal of the poor. The voices of the poor are not usually listened to, let alone followed for strategy and organization. When poor people are political and organized it is usually covered up. The names of their organizations rarely appear in the paper or other forms of media. And most people's reaction to a movement led by poor people is that they are incapable of such a responsibility, such organization and leadership. This principle also defies many messages circulating around poor communities. Many poor people are isolated in their poverty. Coming together with other people faced with similar struggles, and learning that poverty is not their individual problem but a huge system of control, helps them to break their isolation and become committed to leading this struggle. Jesus the poor peasant intellectual is a powerful inspiration to this movement.[13]

League of Revolutionaries for a New America



  1. [1]
  2. [2]
  3. , accessed 12-31-2015
  4. [3]
  5. [4]
  6. Healthcare-Now! Board
  7. [Digital Rebellion: The Birth of the Cyber Left By Todd Wolfson. Acknowledgements]
  8. [5]
  9. [6]
  10. [ Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World By Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, Peter Heltzel pages 60 and 61]
  11. [7]
  12. [8]
  13. [9]