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date: 09 May 2021

Social Justice, Anti-Poverty Work, and Religionfree

  • Lara Rusch, Lara RuschDepartment of Political Science, University of Michigan–Dearborn
  • R. Khari Brown, R. Khari BrownDepartment of Sociology, Wayne State University
  • Ronald E. BrownRonald E. BrownDepartment of Political Science, Wayne State University
  •  and Francine BannerFrancine BannerDepartment of Sociology, University of Michigan-Dearborn


Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s spiritual vision of a Beloved Community, equally valuing all humans, called for direct, transgressive action for political and cultural change. Despite his and others’ effective mobilization for racial justice, this vision of an economically just society has largely not been achieved. The 20th century witnessed a growing chasm in political interpretations of American Christianity, between those who believe their faith requires challenging the roots of poverty and those who believe such inequality reflects fair judgment on personal behavior. These dynamics affect the charitable and political choices of religious institutions as well as individual support for social programs. Most clergy in the United States report preaching about issues social justice, and the vast majority of churches provide some social services; however, less than a third engage in political action toward similar goals. Regional inequality, the mobility of people and capital, and dynamics of congregational adaptation create challenges for religious leaders who seek to educate and engage congregants on social justice. Still, a persistent minority of leaders and institutions actively seek Dr. King’s vision, often working in community coalitions, such as innovative programs for court reform, addressing the criminalization of poverty. More research is needed to assess what kinds of anti-poverty programs and activism are the product of congregations across ideology, and what belief systems or contexts shape their choices to assist the needy. Additionally, future work could consider the appropriate roles for religious institutions in negotiating their own religious mandates and community pressures in relation to the interests of the state, such as through the criminal justice system or public social programs, and the interests of vulnerable community members.


On June 3, 1958, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached a sermon at the inaugural convention of the newly established United Presbyterian Church, United States, in which he asked religious leaders to envision a letter from the Apostle Paul. This envisioned letter encouraged attendees to stand with the nation’s denizens: the poor and segregated Blacks (King, 1958). King also pushed attendees to consider a Beloved Community in which the Church identified and suffered with the poor.1 In this Beloved Community, the Church has a moral obligation to work at creating a community that recognizes the uniqueness, creativity, and talent of all persons, as all are made in the image of God. Such a community is only possible, he intimated, by engaging in what Sheldon S. Wolin (1996) calls “transgressive acts” that shatter class, status, and value systems.

While civil disobedience resulted in the dismantling of dehumanizing aspects of Jim Crow, King sensed that without the capacity to earn wages high enough to take care of one’s self and family, voting rights and/or racial integration would do little to improve the plight of the poorest of the poor. Economic justice was a major theme in the June 23, 1963, Detroit March to Freedom and the subsequent March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in August 28 of the same year in which King delivered his I Have a Dream speech. Four years later, on December 4, 1967, King, as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, announced the formation of a Poor People’s Campaign (King, 1967). The campaign’s intention was to generate a “sympathetic understanding across the nation, followed by dramatic expressions of nonviolent demonstrations in Washington and simultaneous protests elsewhere” (King, 1967). On February 6, 1968, King presented President Lyndon B. Johnson, Congress, and the Supreme Court with the Campaign’s Economic Bill of Rights, calling for increased federal funding for anti-poverty programs, affordable housing, full employment, and a guaranteed income at a livable wage. In an effort to pressure the federal government to respond to their demands, activists within the campaign set up a 3,000-person protest camp on the Washington Mall, where they stayed for six weeks, beginning in May of 1968.

King’s articulation of the intersection between racial and economic injustice as a moral problem occurred during a period when the “explicit, public linkages between Christian theology and economic uplift of the poor” were no longer common in the United States, as they had been from the Civil War through the post–World War II era. The social gospel, which Matthew Wilson has described as a consensus across American Christians requiring economic uplift of the poor, had begun fragmenting in the 1920s. Evangelicals increasingly turned to “a theology of personal responsibility and redemption” and the religious sanction of laissez-faire capitalism (Wilson, 2009, pp. 9–10).

Since the second half of the 20th century, mass public opinion research has documented a persistent negative association between evangelical faith and support for social welfare programs in the United States (Barker & Carman, 2000). However, the sources of this ongoing association are not entirely clear. Scholars continue to question how much this pattern reflects a deep-seated belief in the Protestant work ethic, is evidence of “partisan bundling” across economic and other more politically salient issues, or is a result of the material and psychic benefits of religious belief and community membership that renders social insurance less desirable (Scheve & Stasavage, 2006, p. 261). Perhaps, as Martin Gilens (1999) argues, it was the linking of poverty to race by the civil rights movement, in concert with racist attitudes, that undermined Americans’ sympathy for the poor in general and, correspondingly, their support for universalist, rights-based social welfare programs.2 In the U.S. context, it is difficult to extricate a preference for social programs that are controlled by and directed to one’s own community from the nation’s history of racial exclusion.3

Looking beyond the fraught American context, there is a vibrant debate about the link between religion and support for the welfare state. On the one hand, the state may be seen as an agent of religious principles, so that religious conservatives see the appropriate aim of the state to punish wrongdoing (i.e., sin; Barker & Carman 2000; Hunter, 1991), while religious progressives aim to protect people from the powerful secular forces of the market (Wald & Calhoun-Brown, 2014). Since religious conservatives are far more plentiful than progressives across the world, this would explain why religious individuals across nations appear less likely to support redistributive policies in comparison with their secular peers (Huber & Stanig, 2011; Stegmueller, Scheepers, Roßteutscher, & De Jong, 2012).

On the other hand, it is possible to see the state as a substitute for the role that religious institutions once occupied to provide for the temporal and ultimate security of believers, functioning as a tangible and psychological “safety net” (e.g., Gaskins, Golder, & Siegel, 2013; Gill & Lundsgaarde, 2004; Norris & Inglehart, 2011; Scheve & Stasavage, 2006). Indeed, these studies show that states with more developed welfare programs tend to have lower rates of religious adherence. However, there is another way to think about this question that helps to explain when believers express support for welfare states. In this “moral cosmology” view, those who believe that God is in control of the world map God’s control on to the state (Davis & Robinson, 1996). State provision of welfare is seen as an extension of God’s plan. Davis and Robinson have found support for this link across the world, including in the United States (1996), Europe (1999), and the Muslim world (2006). There is even experimental support for this relationship from Be’ery and Ben-Nun Bloom (2015): respondents that were primed with the message that God is in control were more likely than others to support more generous welfare policies.

Looking at these multiple individual-level and country-level factors simultaneously in a comparative data set from 49 democratic countries, Arikan and Ben-Nun Bloom (2019) show that individual-level religiosity affects attitudes toward redistribution via competing personal orientations—conservatism as well as prosocial values (mediating the effect of religious beliefs) and a psychological safety net (mediating the effect of religious social behavior). In turn, the generosity of state welfare influences the way individual religiosity affects attitudes towards redistribution, such that lower levels of state-level welfare generosity increase the positive effect of prosocial orientations and weaken the negative effect of conservative identification, leading to positive or null indirect effect of religiosity.

This article focuses on the organizational and local roots of religious activism on welfare and poverty. Although King’s Christian-based social activism was cut short by an assassin’s bullet that struck him on April 4, 1968, while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, progressive-minded religious leaders and laity continue to stand in solidarity with the hungry, homeless, and incarcerated. Thousands of religious congregations nationally, and increasingly internationally, affiliate with faith-based community organizing firms that pressure local and state governments to increase funding for job training, education, and safety net programs for persons living in economically distressed communities (Warren, 2001; Wood, 2002). Many more religious bodies provide clothing, food, shelter, and other social services to those in need that attend and/or live in proximity to their religious congregations. According to the National Congregations Survey, roughly 90% of congregations provide at least social programming for the communities that surround their congregation (Chaves, Anderson, & Eagle, 2014).

This article presents the case of Street Outreach Court Detroit (SOCD) as an example of King’s aspiration for a Beloved Community in metro-Detroit today. A problem-solving court for homeless and near-homeless clients, the SOCD is a unique community coalition in which two Catholic religious organizations, St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen and the Franciscan Capuchin Brothers, play pivotal roles.4 This article uses the SOCD to illustrate the potential for religious organizations to play multiple, overlapping roles as moral allies in anti-poverty work by offering shelter, clothing, and food for those in need and participating in community organizing with and on behalf of the needy. In exploring the case study of the SOCD, this article highlights how these two religious organizations support and encourage the idea of King’s Beloved Community. Inherent in this faith belief is the liberation theological thesis that Christians are doing God’s work when they serve the poor and challenge institutions that exploit the poor and powerless (Cone, 1970; Gutiérrez, 1973).

Why Detroit?

Detroit, Michigan, is a particularly illustrative site to examine the role that religion plays in confronting poverty because it is one of the most highly racially segregated and poor cities in the nation. As the population migrated out of Detroit beginning in the early 1950s into the surrounding suburbs, automobile manufacturers and suppliers also began their migration out of the city proper (Sugrue, 1996). Unfortunately for workers in Detroit, the automobile industry was one of the first American business sectors to fully embrace the neoliberal doctrine of globalization. Encouraged by the voracity of neoliberal capital to amass quarterly profits to enhance shareholder profitability, the “Arsenal of Democracy” was outsourced to low-wage countries with little regard for the economic devastation left in its wake in the abandoned communities (Sugrue, 1996). Detroit African Americans were particularly hard hit by automation and the movement of low-skilled manufacturing jobs out of the city because, due to racial discrimination, they were largely restricted to low-skilled jobs and housing in certain sections within the city (Sugrue, 1996). Thus, when low-skilled manufacturing jobs dried up in the city, Black neighborhoods became areas of greater unemployment, poverty, and poverty-related problems, including street-level crime, resource-poor schools, and limited influence over elections and the policy agendas of elected officials (Massey & Denton, 1993).

The history of the Catholic Church in Detroit was also central to the city’s population decline in the mid- to late- 20th century, as it was to supporting its rise in earlier decades. Historians have documented how identity, including class status, race, and religion, intersected with policies (such as federally insured mortgages and a mass highway system) to encourage out-migration by some groups faster than others. Middle-class and elite community members tend to drive the creation and sustaining of religious institutions, their priorities, and their demise (Gamm, 1999). Protestant and Jewish congregations, more free from denominational authority than the Catholics, moved out more quickly in response to racial tension and unrest, while working-class Catholics’ neighborhood cohesiveness and investments in the grounded parish supported a preference to stay. Combined with pernicious racism, these preferences motivated discrimination and violence against African Americans, themselves attempting to move from overcrowded enclaves. Concomitantly, John McGreevy (1996) has argued, the civil rights movement and the Second Vatican Council influenced Catholic clergy toward leftist politics, producing “a church almost unrecognizable to longtime communicants.” As neighborhoods integrated and jobs moved outward, Catholic communal bonds and centralized authority could not compel congregants to stay, and the Archdiocese increasingly built new parishes in suburban and exurban Detroit to serve the spiritual needs of displaced parishioners. Thus the structure of the religious institution morphed into “de facto congregationalism” and the ecology of the regional religious market evolved (Ammerman, 1997; McGreevy, 1996, p. 261).5

This partially abandoned landscape rendered the remaining hundreds of thousands of residents particularly vulnerable to predatory lending and the vagaries of the auto industry and financial markets. The fiscal crisis of 2007 hit the city hard as housing foreclosures in Detroit further weakened the city’s tax base. In addition, as a partial consequence of six decades of wealth and influence exiting Detroit, the city filed for municipal bankruptcy in 2013—the largest city to do so in American history. While the city has recovered from bankruptcy, fiscal oversight by the state is gradually ending (Rhodes, 2014; U.S. Bankruptcy Court, n.d.). Since the mid-2000s, the Woodward Corridor of Detroit, which includes Downtown, Midtown, and New Center neighborhoods, has experienced increased economic investment, which has attracted young urban professionals to these areas. Nonetheless, the city continues to lose working- and middle-class families to its surrounding suburbs, as one in three Detroiters live in poverty (Mark, 2017). In addition, over the past several years, those living in Detroit disproportionately have borne the burden of the “policing for profit” model that pervades the U.S. criminal justice system (Harvard Law Review, 2015). The urgent need to fund an expanding criminal justice system coupled with engagement of aggressive, broken-windows policing strategies has proven to be a hazardous combination for those struggling economically. To that end, Detroit is an ideal site to examine the religious factor in anti-poverty work.

This article begins with an overview of the Capuchin Soup Kitchen program and the activism and partnership that emerged from it. It then turns to survey research to discuss the state of religion and anti-poverty work across the nation, specifically to compare the extent to which American congregations engage in varying forms of anti-poverty work. Finally, the article discusses the challenges facing religious bodies that minister to and with the poor through social programs and political advocacy.

Religious Institutions and Partnership in the Detroit Action Commonwealth

In Detroit, the Catholic Brothers in the Order of St. Francis serve hundreds of people each day out of two Capuchin Soup Kitchen dining rooms. Founded in 1929, the Capuchin organization includes multiple social ministries. The organization’s mission echoes King’s theology, going beyond the provision of basic human needs to include the effort “to understand and address root causes of social injustice in our community.”6 The Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, which is the regional body overseeing these kitchens, describes the purpose behind their Office of Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation:

Saint Francis believed that Christ and the gospel called him to be one with all people and all Creation. For followers of Francis, this universal and all-inclusive kinship demands resistance to injustice, exploitation and all oppression that mock what God so lovingly expressed through the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus.

(Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, n.d.)

“Demands resistance to injustice” is a forceful mandate for Capuchins to recognize and challenge unequal social relations. A long-standing point of tension among organizations concerned about poverty and human suffering is the extent to which they should focus on social service delivery, community development, and/or political action to maximize their impact (Pyles, 2014; Schutz & Sandy, 2011; Stoecker, 1997). In practice, however, many community organizations engage in multiple strategies of community change simultaneously. The Capuchins fall in this category, though as a spiritually driven institution they maintain a supportive role and do not directly organize civic discussions or protests. And yet, by embracing and serving the most under-resourced and exploited population through multiple means, they symbolically engage in a political act of discrediting the stigma of poverty and the institutions of capitalism that perpetuate it.

Similarly catalyzed by community need, the St. Leo Soup Kitchen was founded in 1968 following Detroit’s uprising the prior year. The kitchen was begun by alumnae from St. Leo’s Catholic High School as a way to bring the mission of the parish to the surrounding community (Meloy, 2017). Part of an ongoing restructuring of parishes in response to population loss, the Archdiocese merged St. Leo Catholic parish with St. Cecilia parish in July 2013, creating St. Charles Lwanga parish, both led by Rev. Theodore Parker.7 In May 2017, the Archdiocese of Detroit decommissioned St. Leo Church as a worship site and subsequently sold the site to a private entity.8 However, St. Leo’s Soup Kitchen remains open, organized by a board and volunteer supported by graduates from what used to be St. Leo Catholic School, and is seeking to establish itself as a 501(c)3. The kitchen currently feeds about 300 people a day out of the church basement, and clothing donations are often spread on empty tables for visitors to peruse.9 The organization has a five-year lease to continue operation; dental and medical clinics also operate on site (Meloy, 2017).

In 2007, Greg Markus, a professor of political science from the University of Michigan, initiated discussions with the Capuchin friars in Detroit to begin an organizing effort in the Capuchin Soup Kitchens. He sought and gained permission to bring students to the Conner Street kitchen and regularly meet with community members to discuss their interests and concerns. These discussions have evolved into regular meetings and the development of a member-led organizing group in the Connor Street kitchen, which named itself the Detroit Action Commonwealth (DAC). The DAC’s first victory involved addressing unsanitary conditions at a local homeless shelter. Since then, with ongoing assistance from student volunteers, the group has focused on helping members attain legal state identification. The rapid growth in membership led to the creation of a second DAC chapter on the East side in 2009, in the Capuchin’s Meldrum Street kitchen, and a third chapter in St. Leo Soup Kitchen in 2010. Visitors to the kitchens can eat lunch before weekly meetings and are invited to listen to presentations, participate in group discussions, and join the organization if they wish. More recently, another chapter has begun at the Networking, Organizing, and Advocating for the Homeless (NOAH) Project for the homeless at Central United Methodist Church, Detroit.

One of the greatest challenges faced by those with housing insecurity is obtaining valid identification (Wiltz, 2017). As a result of the DAC’s organizing efforts, the Michigan Secretary of State now has a policy to waive ID card fees for applicants who can prove they receive state welfare or federal disability benefits (Markus, 2015, p. 21). The DAC also met successfully with county officials to facilitate homeless persons’ access to personal records, such as birth certificates and social security cards, which are necessary to apply for state identification. The Capuchin Soup Kitchen’s coordinator of volunteers assisted with arranging the DAC’s meeting with representatives of the Department of State and of the local office of the Social Security Administration. The Capuchins donate funds to reduce the cost of state identification for DAC members and cover the fees required for individuals to acquire state identification and birth records, with members contributing as they are able (Markus, 2015, p. 30).

While learning of the identification challenges facing homeless and low-income Detroiters, the group became more aware of another common burden: outstanding minor traffic violations, which accrue fines and warrants and render residents unable to attain employment. After some research, the group decided to pursue a model of problem-solving justice under the jurisdiction of the 36th District Court in Detroit.

The Capuchin Brothers and two Catholic pastors participated in the DAC’s first meeting of allies to discuss the possibility of creating an outreach court. But they needed access to legal professionals in the 36th District. Father Theodore Parker approached on of his parishioners at St. Charles Lwanga, Judge Cylenthia LaToye Miller, for assistance. This connection proved critical for the eventual creation of the Street Outreach Court as a specialty court.10 Attorneys at the legal aid organization Street Democracy worked with the DAC, the Capuchins, and other participating service providers to develop the necessary legal processes to provide relief to clients.11

The first session of the Street Outreach Court Detroit convened in summer 2012 at the Capuchin Soup Kitchen on Meldrum Street, once the initial applicants had completed the action plans worked out with the social service partners and had them approved in pre-hearing meetings with the judge, prosecution, and defense (Markus, 2015, p. 21). The SOCD adjudicated its 100th case in early 2015 and it reports very low client recidivism.12 The SOCD has met monthly since 2012, except for a two-year hiatus beginning in fall 2015, in response to the need to codify the court’s unique procedures in compliance with Michigan’s court system. Having finally received approval from the Chief Judge of the 36th District and the state, the SODC resumed operations in January 2018, again holding court at the Meldrum soup kitchen.

Religious Institutions’ Contributions to the Street Outreach Court Detroit

As summarized earlier, the religious partners of the organizing group and resulting outreach court have played multiple roles in support of justice for the poor. The Capuchin Kitchens and St. Leo parish allowed these fledging organizing efforts to take place in the soup kitchens, including the listening sessions and early organizational development that set the stage for the creation of the DAC. They support weekly membership meetings in the cafeterias and allow the use of additional meeting rooms and office space. They commit staff time toward the necessary tasks of processing the casework of the court program, including identification of member-clients, in-take applications, development of action plans with clients (e.g., applying for identification or for housing), discussing casework with the defense team, and maintaining contact with clients, who often have shifting addresses and phone numbers, if any.

Significantly for the existence of the SOCD, the Capuchin Kitchens host the legal hearings of the specialty court cases. Using community space (the kitchens) to host legal proceedings was the result of a negotiated agreement among judges, magistrates, and clerks representing the 36th District Court, representatives of the DAC, defense lawyers, city prosecution, and partnering social service agencies.13 This arrangement was possible because of the active networking and commitment to partnership of the religious institutions. When asked if partnership in a broad coalition is unique for their organization, Brother Ed explained that partnership is one of their core functions, and that “we pull coalitions together pretty easily because, thank God, most people trust us.” He has found that participating organizations themselves are affected by the spirit of the group, where all want to answer, “How can we make this work?” He reflected, “I’ve watched [the partnership] change each organization a little bit because, as one person takes on that attitude, and then they see the fruit of what that does, they start to take on that attitude more and more; it’s really like the Kingdom of God.”14

The religious partners also fulfill a counseling component for DAC member-clients. For instance, in order to stay in the program, applicants at the Meldrum Street kitchen are required to attend Brother Ed Conlin’s weekly 12-step recovery and spiritual group. The discussion in these meetings is intimate and includes significant interaction among participants responding to each other’s testimonies as well as to Brother Ed’s guiding prayers and reflections.15

The combination of social service provision from religious partners and other agencies and leadership development by the DAC is crucial for the involvement of low-income and indigent people in civic life (Markus 2015). A stable “home” for community meetings, one that welcomes the presence and contributions of all people, holds special significance for homeless and near-homeless members. Aside from the lack of basic physical and psychological security that stable housing affords, the homeless also lack a spatial base from which to socially or politically organize.16 In fact, poor people are increasingly ostracized from revitalizing communities and criminalized for simply being in public spaces.

Scholars of civic engagement and activism have termed these “free spaces,” “protected spaces,” and “cultural laboratories,” where otherwise marginalized voices can support each other, raise consciousness of shared experience, develop relational practices and leadership skills, and ultimately influence public debate and policy (Dodge, 2011, p. 191; Evans & Boyte, 1986; Polletta, 1999). For a free space to exist for poor people, community members need safety, trust, and the opportunity to communicate as equals on issues that matter in their lives. The official public spaces of the court system, a new transit system, and even the sidewalks of the streets of Detroit are too often exclusionary and threatening for its poorest residents. In this context, only those community spaces that are intentionally inclusive, based on moral or ethical grounds, allow for meaningful engagement of the poor in civil society.

Survey Research on Religion and Anti-Poverty Work

At the Capuchin Kitchens, St. Leo’s Kitchen, and Central United Methodist Church, the time volunteers dedicate to serving the residents of their immediate community is likely far beyond that of the average religious congregation. That said, the clergy and laity of most American congregations express concern about and work at alleviating the suffering of the poor. Survey data consistently reveal that many Americans hear sermons that may require them to envision the Apostle Paul writing a letter to their congregation; 80% of American worship-goers report hearing at least one sermon over the course of the year meant to raise awareness about hunger and/or poverty (Pew, 1996, 2006, 2010). Roughly 70% of clergy report preaching about social justice (Dudley & Roozen, 2001) and, depending upon the survey, between 50% and 70% of clergy say that social justice is a key part of their ministry (Dudley & Roozen, 2001; Smidt, 2001). As stated earlier, nearly all congregations, around 90% according to the National Congregations Study (Chaves, Anderson, & Eagle, 2014), provide at least one social program to their communities, including soup kitchens, clothing distributions, homeless shelters, and other programs. Many fewer, however, roughly a third, report involving themselves in community organizing, lobbying, and protest demonstration efforts to push elected officials to increase economic opportunities for the poor and working classes (Chaves et al., 2014; Dudley & Roozen, 2001).

Figure 1. Probability estimates of congregation-based community organizing by congregation-based social service programs.

Note: Controlling for Congregation Race, Faith, & Organizational Resources

Source: FACT (2000) & NCS (2012).

Figure 2. Probability estimates of congregation-based civic engagement by social justice commitment.

Source: FACT (2000).

Figure 3. Probability estimates of congregation-based civic engagement by congregational theology.

Source: NCS (2012).

It is not immediately clear why fewer congregations engage in community organizing than directly provide programs that help those in need. It may be that much more time, staff, volunteers, and expertise are required to participate in organizing than in directly providing services on an intermittent basis. In some cases, the clergy and congregation may be theologically and ideologically opposed to pushing government bodies to redistribute wealth from those they perceive as hardworking citizens to the undeserving poor. Some may feel, as argued by Rev. Dennis A. Jacobsen, a retired Lutheran pastor, that it is psychologically and pragmatically safer to hand out clothes, food, and shelter, than to directly challenge institutions and powerful elites that ensure the suffering of the poor. Those that serve the poor are often lauded for their Christian compassion, he argues, while those that challenge power are attacked as being un-American. In making this point, Rev. Jacobsen quotes Don Helder Camara, “When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist” (Jacobsen, 2001, p. 42).

That said, for those that engage in social change ministries, providing food, clothes, and health services may lead to feelings of solidarity with those they serve and, ultimately, to questioning why these services are needed in the first place. In discussing why his outreach ministries moved from providing housing, tutoring, and job training to also engaging in lobbying and public demonstrations in Goldsboro, North Carolina, in 2005, Rev. Willie Barber, Senior Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church and leader of the Poor People’s Campaign, stated:

No matter how many people we helped in our little neighborhood in one Southern town, we knew things weren’t going to change for them and for so many others in this world unless we challenged the power structure and changed the way our society works.

(Barber, 2016, p. 43)

It is not clear how many religious congregations transition from social service to social service and change ministries. But it is clear that religious congregations that provide social programs such as soup kitchen, homeless, and clothing programs also tend to engage in community organizing work on behalf of and with the poor (see Fig. 1).17

Like the clergy leadership of Capuchin Kitchens, Central United Methodist Church, and others, those that view their congregation’s ministry as being in solidarity with the poor and marginalized tend to lead congregations that provide soup kitchen, clothing, and homeless programs and participate in community organizing work (see Fig. 2). Similarly, theologically liberal congregations are more likely than their conservative counterparts to provide soup kitchen and homeless programs and engage in community organizing (see Fig. 3).18 While in a minority nationally, these findings suggest that the Detroit religious organizations mentioned in this article are part of a larger religious commitment to serve and advocate with and for the poor. And while liberal and social justice-oriented congregations are more likely to engage in all types of economic justice activities (from clothing and food programs to community organizing), some congregations across ideology participated in all of the activities. More research is needed to assess what kinds of economic justice programs and organizing are the product of self-identified conservative congregations and, further, what belief systems or contextual factors shape their choices to assist the needy.


Saint Leo’s Soup Kitchen, the Capuchin Kitchen programs, and the Central United Methodist Church, the site for the NOAH program, are motivated by a theological belief that their covenant with God requires them to seek fairness and justice and reduce human suffering for all God’s children. Tens of thousands of religious congregations and millions of worship-goers similarly participate in ministries that clothe, feed, house, and offer hope to the poor and vulnerable. Fewer institutions, however, walk with the poor as Dr. King did, in challenging governments that do little to represent the interests of the poor.

To be fair, religious bodies that seek to create King’s Beloved Community via social change ministries, such as community organizing, face real challenges in doing so. For instance, they may face charges of excessive political involvement from outsiders and insiders alike, as well as significant tensions over the privileges of racial and economic elites in their congregations. The history of regional inequality, the mobility of people and capital, and congregational adaptation mentioned in this article speak to the challenges facing institutional leaders who seek to speak to congregants about economic and social injustice and engage them in community action.

Additionally, even those religious institutions with a solid base for social justice activism are faced with challenges in applying their faith to service provision and the reform of secular, public institutions. While public–private collaboration creates new opportunities to give voice to marginalized communities, it also bears potential risks, both to the integrity of the religious organizations and to the well-being of clients of their social programs. A beneficial focus of future research would be to address what the appropriate roles are for moral or religious institutions in negotiating the interests of a coercive state, such as the criminal justice system, their own religious mandates, and the interests of vulnerable community members, including those who may or may not be of the same religious background. This question is even more significant to address, as Pavolini, Béland, and Jawad (2017) note, “in a context of welfare state retrenchment and restructuring,” when resource-poor families often have few options for recourse in service provision or relief (p. 247).

Justice-minded religious organizations are also challenged to meaningfully impact inequality as long as powerful institutions profit from the poor, such as through mass incarceration and surveillance, particularly of the Black poor, and as those institutions have significant influence on public policy and issue agendas. That said, it is a testimony to the moral basis of their efforts that many affiliates of prophetic ministries do not serve because they expect immediate and tangible victories but because it is what they believe God commands (Barber, 2016; Jacobsen, 2001). As King stated, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Religious bodies that engage in anti-poverty work attempt to bend this arc a little closer toward justice.


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Appendix: Samples

Faith Communities Today (FACT), 2000

The Faith Communities Today (FACT) was funded by the Lilly Endowment and coordinated by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research (HIRR). In collecting data on 14,301 American religious congregations, 26 faith-based agencies and organizations representing 41 denominations and faith groups developed a mail survey. In 2000, the research team at HIRR mailed the survey to clergy and/or leaders of religious congregations in the continental United States. This sampling methodology yielded a return rate of roughly 50% and a 95% confidence level. Researchers developed weights for analyses to ensure a national sample of congregations that represents religious congregations in the United States. More detailed information about the sampling methodology and survey can be found on the FACT website.

The National Congregations Study (NCS)

The National Congregations Study (NCS) was conducted in collaboration with the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) at the University of Chicago. In 1998, 2006–2007, and 2012, the research team at NORC asked GSS respondents who said they attend religious services at least once a year to report the name and location of their religious congregation. These congregations constitute the 1998, 2006–2007, and 2012 NCS congregational samples. In total, 4,071 religious congregations are included in the sample. The average response rate for these surveys is 75%. Researchers developed weights for analyses to ensure a national sample of congregations that represents religious congregations in the United States. The NCS received funding from the following sources: Lilly Endowment, Smith Richardson Foundation, Louisville Institute, Nonprofit Sector Research Fund of the Aspen Institute, Henry Luce Foundation, National Science Foundation, Kellogg Foundation, Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project, Louisville Institute, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at IUPUI, Rand Corporation, and Church Music Institute. For more about the sampling methodology, consult Chaves, Anderson, and Eagle (2014).


  • 1. See discussion about social identity and the church in Taylor (1991, p. 47) and Elstain (2008, p. 220).

  • 2. Gilen’s work has also shown how the discourse on welfare in the United States has been highly racialized.

  • 3. Emblematic of the nation’s conflicted and punitive approach to social welfare programs, landmark welfare reform legislation in 1996 created time limits and work requirements for cash assistance, excluded immigrants, and increased funding opportunities for faith-based service delivery (“charitable choice”). Public moral discussions about the law at the time focused on out-of-wedlock births and individual responsibility for economic outcomes rather than any sense of group responsibility for the plight of the poor.

  • 4. The development of this unique partnership of activist, professional-legal, state, and religious organizations will be the subject of future research.

  • 5. For Catholics across race/ethnicity who hold a moral commitment to serve the less fortunate, as well as for those who maintain a connection to the churches of their families and former neighborhoods, church mergers and closures in the city have often been a contentious issue (Crumm, 1988a, 1988b).

  • 6. Initiatives of the Capuchin Ministries–Detroit includes Earthworks urban farm, a children’s program, and food and clothes distribution, among others. This article focuses on the kitchens as central to the development of the unique legal and social justice partnerships. See the full mission online.

  • 7. Note that Rev. Park is part of Black Catholic Ministries group of the Archdiocese of Detroit, briefly mentioned in Keenan (2012). For more on the parish, see its website.

  • 8. Personal communication with DAC adviser and Street Court service provider Valgene Hill, March 16, 2018.

  • 9. For more on the parish, see its website.

  • 10. Rusch and Banner, interview with Judge Cylenthia LaToye Miller at the 36th District Court in Detroit, February 11, 2016.

  • 11. Rusch interview with defense attorneys Jayesh Patel and Patricia Carey, Street Democracy, at TechTown Detroit, December 3, 2015.

  • 12. For more information on the Street Outreach Court Detroit, see its website.

  • 13. A full explanation of the process of compromise will be discussed in future research.

  • 14. Rusch and Banner, interview with Fr. Ed Conlin at the Meldrum St. Capuchin Kitchen, Detroit, March 25, 2016.

  • 15. Rusch, recovery group field notes, March 16, 2016.

  • 16. Home meetings have long been a basis for the development of significant organizing efforts in American social movements, for example, in the United Farm Workers movement (Ganz, 2000).

  • 17. In the FACT survey, the probability estimates listed in Figure 1 are derived from logit regression analyses in which the community organizing dependent variable assesses the degree to which religious congregations participate in community organizing or issue advocacy. In the NCS, community organizing examines the degree to which religious congregations engage in lobbying and/or public demonstrations or marches on behalf of the poor. In both surveys, the independent variables assess the degree to which congregations provide soup kitchen, clothing, and homeless programs. These analyses also account for the number of congregants, clergy education, religious faith tradition, race of congregation, region of the nation, and number of staff. As such, the estimates reported in this figure reflect the probability of congregations that do not provide soup kitchen, clothing, and homeless programs engaging in community organizing relative to those that provide such programs. That being said, the estimates for Figure 1 are based upon the following formula: Pr(y=1|X¯,max,xk)Pr(y=1|X¯,min,xk) in which Y represents community organizing and X represents soup kitchen, clothing, and homeless programs.

  • 18. The probability estimates listed in Figures 2 and 3 are derived from logit regression analyses in which the community organizing, clothing, homeless, and food programs are the dependent variables. In the FACT survey, the social justice commitment of congregations is based upon how clergy characterize their congregations. Similarly, in the NCS, the theological commitment of congregations is based upon clergy self-reports. As in Figure 1, these analyses also account for the number of congregants, clergy education, religious faith tradition, race of congregation, region of the nation, and number of staff.