Combating Poverty and Injustice

January 31, 2014
Combating Poverty and Injustice
Joshua Leach

When Joshua Leach was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he volunteered as area coordinator of an Amnesty International student group in Illinois. While serving in that role, one of his responsibilities included preparing a newsletter that was distributed to student groups.

To his surprise, it was putting together that newsletter that inspired him to consider attending divinity school.

"I kept trying to turn the newsletter into a sermon each time," he says.

Now a master of divinity degree candidate at Harvard Divinity School, back then Leach realized that, although he had dedicated several years of his life to fight for social justice and human rights, he was "burned out" in the nonprofit world and dissatisfied with the trajectory his work was taking in that sphere.

When he began to question the greater significance and the ultimate purpose of his work in the nonprofit sector, he felt that there wasn't room in the process of doing human rights work to either engage big questions or "to take the message to a deeper place." He was frustrated that there wasn't a consistent emphasis on the larger vision of society—one he wanted to move toward.

These intellectual concerns brought Leach, a lifelong Unitarian Universalist with a humanistic outlook, to HDS.

He was attracted to the School not only because of its UU history—"my two ministerial heroes, Theodore Parker and James Luther Adams, both went here and had a big impact here," he says—but also because of the blend of the critical study of religion and social justice-oriented ministry.

Even though disenchantment with the nonprofit world brought Leach to HDS, his time at the School has helped him discern that his ministerial vocation lies in fighting "the defining issue" in his lifetime in the United States—income inequality.

Hands-on work experience

A yearlong field education placement through HDS with Promise the Children (PTC) has been especially influential in this process. PTC is a UU organization located in Salem, Massachusetts, that advocates intervention at the earliest stages to provide holistic care for low-income children and youth.

The organization grew out of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in the 1990s. While its original focus was on public education reform, it has expanded its campaign in recent years to include nearly every issue that impacts the most vulnerable children and their access to support services—from food stamps to Medicaid to homelessness and budget cuts.

The HDS Field Education Program, a required component of the master of divinity degree, places students in a variety of internships at sites across Boston and Cambridge—and across the globe—from parishes to hospitals to nonprofit organizations. The program equips students with the hands-on technical skills required in ministerial and service-oriented settings. This is supplemented with regular theological reflection on students' experiences at their field ed sites.

Leach's day-to-day work for PTC involves researching policy issues, crafting action alerts for the organization's email alert network, and creating presentations, workshops, and fact sheets. He also helps with outreach to the UU community—usually churches in the local area.

He frequently represents the organization in public and informs interested audiences on the most pressing issues affecting low-income children and how to take action most effectively.

So far, the internship at PTC has been incredibly satisfying for Leach. He credits it with opening his eyes to the big extent to which there are gaping holes in the various social services and support systems that the U.S. government offers to keep people out of poverty and to provide for their basic needs, such as Medicaid and food stamps.

"Before I started the internship, I was under the impression that these programs mostly covered the people who needed them and ensured that there was some basic minimum threshold of material welfare below which people could not fall," he explains. "Having worked at PTC, I no longer have that impression. It seems to me now that these programs are inadequate and don't cover nearly enough people."

A Unitarian Universalist legacy

Though PTC is a small organization, Leach says that he's been impressed with their dedication and the amount of work they do.

"It's really important to me that UUs be involved in poverty issues in organizations like Promise the Children. It's not something that comes naturally all the time. UUs are very progressive and politically active, but they tend to gravitate towards middle class issues and things that have large middle class constituencies. Those issues can be really important, too, but I think if you look at a lot of the large anti-poverty organizations, there's a large presence of other [Christian] denominations, but not of UUs," he adds.

Leach's passion for social justice and human rights work is informed by his humanistic worldview and rooted in UU history and tradition. He notes that James Luther Adams—one of the most important UU theologians of the twentieth century—has been particularly influential.

"Adams said that his theology is founded in an ultimate optimism but it's based in an immediate pessimism. I think that contains a lot of valuable insight. You need some immediate pessimism to realize the extent of injustice and how difficult it is to combat it. You need some ultimate optimism and belief that human nature is not something you should give up on, that people will do the right thing; otherwise, it's impossible to sustain the world."

In addition to coursework and his internship with Promise the Children, Leach keeps busy as an active member of the Harvard Unitarian Universalist Ministry for Students. He leads historic walking tours of UU-related sites in Boston to groups of young Unitarian Universalists that come from around the country to see the city.

"Organizing tours and leading a fair number of them have helped me see myself in the role of a teacher. I would have been really uncomfortable with this idea before...but I realized that this is not scary at all."

Leach is seeking ordination in the UU church, and after obtaining his degree from HDS, he hopes to take the ministerial skills he has acquired to the nonprofit world. He wants to continue working on anti-poverty issues through organizations that have been informed by UU religious values.

—by Jahnabi Barooah