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  • Writer's pictureAda Wood

The least of these

How is the Christian church responding to Atlanta’s cost of living crisis?

 
The Central Outreach and Advocacy Center helps people access food, medical care, shelter, and job opportunities. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

By 10 a.m. on a recent Thursday, there is already a line out the door, through the courtyard, and up the stairs outside Central Presbyterian Church. Dozens of people are here for the Central Outreach and Advocacy Center, an independent nonprofit housed at the church that helps low-income and unhoused people access food, medical care, shelter, and job opportunities. I meet Sonja Hodges, an employment specialist at the center, near the courtyard for a tour; just inside, people sit in a brightly colored library, waiting for their turn to visit the main office. 


The mural on this wall—of hills, rivers, and a blue sky dotted with clouds—was painted by an artist who has also taught classes for the center’s visitors. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

The mural on the wall—of hills, rivers, and a blue sky dotted with clouds—was painted by an artist who has also taught classes for the center’s visitors. From here, folks head to the main office (aka the Main Frame) for access to phones and computers and help with resume building and job searches. The walls are lined with fliers for career fairs and in-house workshops like Money Management and Interviewing 101. A man with a blue drawstring backpack and a southern drawl says “I love you” into a landline before hanging up. His grandmother was buried yesterday. Without Central Presbyterian’s phone, he says, he wouldn’t have been able to connect with his family members, who had gathered in Tennessee for the funeral.


Kimberly Parker, Executive Director of Outreach and Advocacy Center | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

With support and funding from Central Presbyterian, the outreach and advocacy team serves around 300 people each month; about 1,400 people without home addresses receive their mail here. “We meet folks where they are and see how we can help them take the next step towards stability and health,” says Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner. “We feel committed to using some of our community’s resources to care for our most vulnerable neighbors. They are small acts of kindness and compassion that, over time, have real impact. And it is driven by the conviction that every single person is beloved and we are to treat them as such.” 


Christianity, from evangelicalism to fundamentalism to Pentecostalism, is deeply embedded in American culture—and especially in the Bible Belt South. Georgia alone has nearly 14,000 churches and religious organizations; together, they bring in more than $1 billion in revenue a year and hold at least $2 billion in assets. In metro Atlanta, which is home to more than 8,000 religious organizations, more than 40 percent of adults attend religious services at least once a week—that’s about 10 percent higher than the national average. 


At the same time, people outside those buildings are fighting the financial pressures of the rising cost of living, struggling to cover their basic needs. Atlanta has the highest income inequality in the country, and more than 17 percent of the city lives in poverty. (That’s higher than the national rate, which is around 11.5 percent.) The 2023 Point-in-Time Count recorded 2,679 people experiencing homelessness just within the city limits, though the number is likely higher. Nonprofits across the metro have reported that people are seeking support more now than they have in the past. The Christian Bible often discusses economic justice, wealth, inequity, and charity. How are those messages interpreted and implemented in Atlanta today?


“Jesus speaks more about money than just about everything else,” says Kershner. “He does not talk about sex. He does not talk about the role of women in the church. He does not talk about most everything the postmodern church argues about these days. Rather, he speaks about generosity, giving, and grace. He speaks about the role of possessions in our lives and helps us to figure out if those possessions are actually possessing us—and if we are using what we have in a way that oppresses or liberates.”


“Jesus speaks more about money than just about everything else.” — Rev. Shannon Johnson Kershner

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With support and funding from Central Presbyterian, the outreach and advocacy team serves around 300 people each month. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

Ashlyn Strozier, director of undergraduate studies in Georgia State University’s Department of Religious Studies, says Jesus spent his life concerned about the “least of these,” referring to a verse in Matthew 25. The Book of Luke also says that people cannot serve both God and money. (“When you start to only care about capitalistic gains,” Strozier explains, “your God is not the God of justice.”) In fact, the Bible goes so far as to say it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.


One of the only times Jesus got angry—he flipped tables—was when he found commercial business taking place inside a holy temple. Worse, according to Strozier’s interpretation, was that the merchants were price gouging on food. Strozier finds this especially relevant today: “Big businesses are showing record profits because they are jacking up prices and inflation and getting tax breaks while we are just trying to live paycheck to paycheck.” She compares this to when churches bring in millions of dollars and spend extravagantly on the pastor’s salary and flamboyant displays.


“Big businesses are showing record profits because they are jacking up prices and inflation and getting tax breaks while we are just trying to live paycheck to paycheck.” — Ashlyn Strozier, director of undergraduate studies in Georgia State University’s Department of Religious Studies

In his book The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, theologian Marcus J. Borg argues that God is deeply invested in economic justice and describes Jesus as a “social prophet” and “movement initiator.” Borg writes that Jesus was an activist who rose against the economic and political injustice of the governmental leaders and political establishment: “Remarkably inclusive, [the movement during Jesus’s lifetime] subverted the sharp social boundaries of his day.” Borg expands on this saying, Jesus “ate with the marginalized and outcasts.” Borg believed Jesus was executed because of his activism, passion for justice, and radical criticism of economic systems that channeled wealth to the few and poverty to the many—convictions later held by Atlanta’s own revolutionary civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. as well. 


Central Presbyterian Church is located in downtown Atlanta. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

King, who grew up on Auburn Avenue, preached the “social gospel.” He believed that Christianity “at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being.” In a letter to his future wife, Coretta Scott, he wrote about the need for radical change in this country’s economic system and his hope for “better distribution of wealth.” After he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, King called poverty an evil that plagued the modern world: “Almost two-thirds of the peoples of the world go to bed hungry at night. They are undernourished, ill-housed, and shabbily clad. Many of them have no houses or beds to sleep in. Their only beds are the sidewalks of the cities and the dusty roads of the villages. Most of these poverty-stricken children of God have never seen a physician or a dentist.”


“The gospel at its best deals with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being, but his material well-being. Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and is not concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion awaiting burial.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Strozier believes many modern Christians would see Jesus’s (and King’s) teachings as radical. “If Jesus was walking around today, most of these people wouldn’t believe nothing Jesus was talking about. Jesus wouldn’t be popular,” she says. “Most people who speak truth to power are not popular in the moment that they live. I mean, think about it: King was on the CIA’s terrorist list and now y’all got a holiday for him?”


Ebenezer Baptist—where King was baptized, delivered his first sermon, and served as a copastor until his death—keeps his legacy alive by fighting voter suppression, promoting food justice, and striving to end mass incarceration. Strozier calls Ebenezer “liberative.” “They are working with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other,” she says. 


Religious institutions of all kinds, including churches, have the capacity to provide people with life-changing resources, from food pantries to housing assistance. Atlanta First United Methodist Church recently began the permitting phase for a mixed-income housing project that’s part of a broader plan by Atlanta faith-based institutions to build 1,000 affordable homes; UMC’s development, being built on its campus downtown, will also include space for educating children in need. Bishop T. D. Jakes, pastor of the Potter’s House Church in Dallas, is behind an effort to turn a portion of the former military base Fort McPherson into a mixed-use development that will include some affordable housing. Likewise, College Park First United Methodist Church partnered with Tapestry Development Group on a residential building, part of the new Ion College Park development, with most units set aside as affordable. 


About 1,400 people without home addresses receive their mail at Central Presbyterian Church. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

Other Atlanta churches include economic justice in their mission and values statements, such as Virginia-Highland Church and Kirkwood United Church of Christ. “God is deeply concerned about justice, and so are we,” the former’s website reads, citing “anti-racism, voting rights, LGBTQ equality and solidarity with and sanctuary for people without access to safe housing.” Kirkwood UCC hosts “Food with Friends”—offering “food and fellowship” to hungry neighbors—on the last Saturday of each month. 


Both are members of the United Church of Christ, a mainstream Protestant Christian denomination with more than 5,000 churches and nearly one million members across the country. A decade ago, the UCC began educating members on a variety of social issues, including poverty, through its Economic Justice Movement. “There is enough for all our needs if we share God’s resources,” the website reads. “But we know that this radical equality is not reflected in the economic realities of our world. Some of us have very little while others have very much.” It goes on to ask whether everyone deserves “health insurance, affordable housing, and a good public education”; elsewhere, the church writes about justice for low-wage workers, medical and student loan debthunger and food insecurity, and poverty and public education


“They are working with a newspaper in one hand and the Bible in the other.” — Ashlyn Strozier, director of undergraduate studies in Georgia State University’s Department of Religious Studies

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Sonja Hodges, an employment specialist at the Outreach and Advocacy Center | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

Of course, Christianity and wealth can be interpreted much differently. The “prosperity gospel,” for example, teaches that there’s a connection between strong faith and financial success. Ministers who preach this often use their own wealth as evidence that it works. To critics, the philosophy represents “the worst of the conflation of American-style capitalism, religion, and Republican party politics.” Megachurches and televangelists often tout the prosperity gospel. According to the Hartford Institute for Religious Research database, Georgia has the third-highest number of megachurches in the country. Atlanta alone has more than a half dozen with more than 5,000 average congregants each. 


Creflo Dollar, of World Changers Church International, is one of the most prominent megachurch leaders alive today. According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dollar in 2018 had two Rolls-Royces, a private jet, homes throughout the country, and an undisclosed salary—all of which have contributed to a lifestyle mired in controversy. In College Park, where his church is located, the median household income is less than $48,000, and about 18 percent of the population lives in poverty. “World Changers is part of a prosperity movement that has specific aims, and its aim is not to feed the homeless,” Strozier says. “Its aim is to align people’s personal wealth with God’s favor.” 


“World Changers is part of a prosperity movement that has specific aims, and its aim is not to feed the homeless. Its aim is to align people’s personal wealth with God’s favor.” — Ashlyn Strozier, director of undergraduate studies in Georgia State University’s Department of Religious Studies

Prior to his death in 2017, Bishop Eddie Long of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church was also “known for his flamboyant lifestyle,” according to the Associated Press. Long drove a $350,000 Bentley, flew around the world on a private jet, and lived in a $1.4 million house. In Stonecrest, where his church is located, the median household income is just over $45,000, and about a third of the population lives in poverty.


In 2007, Republican Senator Chuck Grassley launched a congressional investigation into their (and four others’) alleged financial wrongdoing, though nothing came of it; witnesses feared retaliation and four ministries would not provide information, including Dollar’s and Long’s. A few years later, Dollar sought donations to buy a $65 million luxury jet. (Neither World Changers Church International nor New Birth Missionary Baptist Church responded to interview requests.)


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Guests can pick up underwear, socks, loafers, heels, and pressed suits and dresses from Alison’s Boutique. Pictured is Sonja Hodges, employment specialist at the Outreach and Advocacy Center. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

Back at Central Presbyterian Church, Sonja Hodges, the employment specialist at the Outreach and Advocacy Center, takes me to Alison’s Boutique. Here, people prepping for interviews can pick up underwear, socks, loafers, heels, and pressed suits and dresses. The center provides transportation to and from job interviews and, later, MARTA stipends to cover work commutes until a guest’s first paycheck. 


The Central Outreach and Advocacy Center team keeps hygiene kits, t-shirts, and tennis shoes on hand and helps guests obtain identification and documentation like birth certificates. | Photograph by Claudia Maturell

Four organizations are currently partnered with the center to provide an array of services: Mercy Care offers free medical services; Church of the Common Ground hosts a foot clinic where they wash people’s feet and cut their toenails; Atlanta Community Food Bank helps folks apply for food stamps; and Intown Cares helps them find housing. The team keeps hygiene kits, t-shirts, and tennis shoes on hand and helps guests obtain identification and documentation like birth certificates. They also host community-building events once a month: The most recent was a movie night where they watched the 2014 movie Time Out of Mind, complete with a big screen and popcorn. When I visited, they were planning a pop-up barber shop. The outreach center’s annual budget is around $577,000; some support comes from an endowment, but $50,000 comes from the church. 


“Though we give God anthropomorphic traits of legs and arms, God does not have those,” Strozier says. “That means God requires humans to be God’s arms and legs. So if one is given money, you’re required to help the least of these.” •

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