The Common Good
March-April 1995

A Street Blessing

by Jim Wallis | March-April 1995

Well, it finally happened.

Well, it finally happened. After more than two decades of living and working in many of America's meanest streets, I was mugged. As a veteran urban pastor, organizer, and even a gang truce adviser, I'm embarrassed to say that they took me by surprise. It

was only 6 o'clock in the evening-during rush hour. I suppose I watch my back better after midnight. But these guys were so fast and bold, I'm not sure it would have made any difference.

Needing a few things at the store before an early morning flight, I headed out to my pick-up truck parked at 13th and Fairmont Streets NW, right around the corner from where I live in D.C.'s 14th Street corridor.

Looking over my shoulder in response to the sound of running feet, I saw four young men bearing down on me. The first one hit my slightly turned head with something sharp enough to open a cut above my left eye. The force of the blow and a push from two others sent me to the pavement. One of them yelled, "Keep him down! Get his wallet!" It finally registered. These guys were trying to roll me over.

I popped up quickly, which seemed to surprise them. Seeing no weapons flashed, I squared to face my attackers. This was the first chance we had to really see each other face to face. They were just kids-three about 15 or 16, and one little one who couldn't have been more than 13.

The boys backed up a little when they saw I was bigger than they had expected. I'm a strong believer in nonviolence, but have learned that being a weightlifter often helps in these potential confrontations. The one who had hit me moved into a boxing stance while the others circled. The little guy began attempting some ineffectual karate kicks, which I assumed he had seen on television.

Intending not to hurt them, only to fend them off, I instinctively began to scold these lost young souls. I told them just to stop it, to stop terrorizing people, to stop such violent behavior in our neighborhood. Finally I shouted at them, "I'm a pastor!" And I told them if they wanted to try to beat up and rob a pastor, they should come ahead.

Maybe it was my desire to confront these kids with what they were doing and give a personal identity to their potential victim. I don't think the young stalkers who prowl our streets ever confront the reality of what they are doing or who they're doing it to. But invoking the authority of the church in the street is hardly a sure thing these days, when our churches often have such little involvement in those streets.

Whatever it was that changed their minds, my assailants turned and ran. "Get back here," I shouted after them-then instantly realized it probably wasn't a good thing to say at that point. But then something unusual happened.

The littlest kid, who couldn't have been more than 4 and a half feet tall, turned back to look at me as he ran. With a sad face and voice, the young karate kicker said, "Pastor, ask God for a blessing for me."

He and his friends had just assaulted me. The little kid had tried so hard to be one of the big tough guys. Yet he knew he needed a blessing. The young boy knew he was in trouble.

Here were young people demonstrating social pathologies that make them a very real threat. Yet they are themselves also vulnerable and alone. Their dangerousness should not be underestimated, as some socially concerned individuals who live at a safe distance sometimes do. On the other hand, these young perpetrators are much more than just social pathologies, as the new political victors in Washington, D.C., seem to imply.

Driving to the doctor to get stitched up, I was especially conscious of other people out walking, many just coming home from work, and most more vulnerable than I am on the street. So many potential victims of my gang of four. All these people deserve to be safe on the streets of their own neighborhoods and city. That must be a bottom line to which we commit ourselves.

But we must also commit ourselves to those kids. They too must become our bottom line. What they need most is nurture, discipline, and a real opportunity. Many of them have none of those right now. And as long as they don't, our streets will get more dangerous.

How do we rebuild the relationships, structures, and environments that provide these essentials for our young people? The current Washing-ton rhetoric of "cutting them off and locking them up" won't do it. And it's certain that what's needed is beyond just what the government can do. This will take all of us-our families, churches, and communities. It will test our moral resolve and political will and require both the private and public sector to become involved in new and creative ways. No one gets to opt out.

The violence must be stopped. The violent behavior of street criminals must be stopped. But the four young men who attacked me are more than just criminals. They are also children-our children-and they are in a great deal of trouble. The violence will only be turned around when the young people who now roam wild are included in our future. Young people who feel like they are part of society's future will not be attacking the rest of us on the streets. If we can find the ways to include them, we will all receive a blessing.

THE SOUL OF POLITICS

I had just flown across the country from Seattle to Boston's Logan Airport. I was right in the middle of a book tour that would take me to 16 cities in 30 days, which also happened to fall in the middle of the nastiest political campaign in most people's memory. It was late, and I was very tired. But the cab driver who picked me up was very talkative.

"So why are you in Boston?" he wanted to know. Sleepy-eyed, I told him I was on a book tour. His interest perked. "What's the name of your book?" He became very pensive at my answer. "The Soul of Politics? I'll need a little time to digest that. I didn't think politics had a soul. But it's supposed to, isn't it?"

The cabby's response was typical of the many people I met as I traveled the country through the end of the year. After 25,000 miles, 120 interviews, 60 talks and town meetings, and countless turkey sandwiches, I learned a great deal about the soul of politics in America today.

Two strong themes emerged. First, people from many walks of life and across the political spectrum are deeply hungry for an alternative political vision with real moral values. Many would say spiritual or even religious values. And second, many people are especially hungry for an alternative to the Religious Right.

The old categories of liberal and conservative, Left and Right seem useless to a lot of people and helpless to lead us into a different future. Neither big government bureaucracies nor conservative economics that never quite trickles down have been able to resolve our deepening crisis.

In the many public and media forums along the way, I found more and more people who believe that community-based strategies which combine social justice and moral values have the best chance of success. In city after city, we had exciting conversations about new local political initiatives and partnerships that might help recover the "soul of politics." I have never been more encouraged by the deep and heartfelt response from such diverse people and groups.

Yet, as some early readers predicted, a book that challenges both the conservative and liberal establishments and points beyond their conflicting paradigms is not easily understood or welcomed by either. While the response to the book on local talk-radio shows and town meetings has been most encouraging, the response from the top of society has been resistant. The Soul of Politics may have to make its impact from the bottom up. I hope you will buy the book (from your bookstore or from us), read it, and use it in your churches, classrooms, and small groups.

Sojourners is offering a discount for bulk orders of The Soul of Politics. Five or more copies are $15 each (a $5 discount). Please write or call our Resource Center.

THANKS FOR YOUR HELP

You have never failed us. In this time of critical investment in our future, you helped us "Build the Bridge to the Future" that we so desperately needed. Your generous support brought in well more than $100,000 and enabled us to begin 1995 with a clean slate. In addition, you have already pledged more than $65,000 in major gifts for future projects. On behalf of all of us at Sojourners, I can't thank you enough. As reader contributions began to arrive in response to our end-of-the-year appeal letters, staff morale began to rise and smiles began to emerge on previously anxious faces.

After cutting more than $160,000 from our 1995 budget, we hope to get through the year without major financial crisis. We're still right on the edge, but at least not in the hole. The success of our budget this year depends both on continuing member contributions and the new member recruitment we are planning. We will again ask for your involvement in both.

I've learned that some right-wing political types are planning a hatchet job on Sojourners, partly in response to the publicity generated by The Soul of Politics. One of the things they're trying to figure out is where Sojourners gets its financial support, and how we've been able to keep going when other magazines and organizations have gone under. When they asked which rich "Far-Left organizations" are funding Sojourners, I broke out laughing. They wouldn't believe that virtually all our support comes from you, our members.

All of us at Sojourners know where our support comes from, and we are deeply grateful for it. And we promise to do our best to keep your trust. Thanks again.

A NEW BOARD FOR SOJOURNERS

We are very pleased to announce the formation of a new Sojourners Governing Board. Several people who are longtime Sojourners friends and contributing editors have graciously agreed to join with several members of our staff and community to form the new board.

The new members are: Rose Berger, Sojourners Community representative; Gordon Cosby, Church of the Saviour founder and pastor; Yvonne Delk, director, Community Renewal Society; Marie Dennis, Maryknoll Justice and Peace Office; Marian Wright Edelman, director, Children's Defense Fund; Roberta Hestenes, president, Eastern College; Bob Hulteen, Sojourners associate editor, elected staff representative; Karen Lattea, Sojourners managing editor, editorial department representative; Chuck Matthei, president, Equity Trust; Calvin Morris, vice president of academic affairs, Interdenominational Theological Center; Roger Rath, financial consultant, Alex Brown & Sons; Jim Rice, Sojourners outreach director, outreach department representative; Joe Roos, Sojourners publisher, business department representative; Barbara Tamialis, director, Sojourners Neighborhood Center; Jim Wallis, Sojourners editor and executive director; and Bill Wylie-Kellermann, theological educator and United Methodist pastor.

Yvonne Delk is the new chair of the board, and Calvin Morris is the vice chair. Joe Roos is secretary and Marie Dennis is treasurer. I serve as president.

The new board met December 1-2 and is off to a great start. We are excited about the new life, energy, and vision these committed people bring to the task of shaping Sojourners' direction and policies. Such a strong board helps both to stabilize and expand our ministry.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

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