The Common Good
July-August 2000

Not Your Average Book Tour

by Jim Wallis | July-August 2000

The last city on my recent Faith Works book tour was Milwaukee.

The last city on my recent Faith Works book tour was Milwaukee. There I visited an "overflow shelter" run by the Red Cross and the Milwaukee Interfaith Conference, the sponsor of the "Faith Works Forum" here. At about 1:30 p.m., the makeshift gymnasium was still empty and quiet.

By 7 p.m. it would become a very noisy place, as 50 bunk beds would be filled with homeless women and their children.

On many of those beds I saw little stuffed animals and toys marking the places of the homeless kids who sleep there every night. They looked like my son Luke's animals and toys. By this time I should be used to poverty, but now I'm a dad and I felt like crying.

The Red Cross often runs shelters such as this after natural disasters like floods, tornadoes, and hurricanes. What was the natural disaster in Milwaukee and the other 16 cities we visited in the last six weeks? Virtually every city had overflowing shelters and food banks and soup kitchens stretched beyond capacity. This disaster is called prosperity. It's a prosperity that has left far too many people behind, then made things worse for them - such as housing costs that have risen so steeply that even poor working families can't find a place to live. To put it in the plainest moral terms, this just isn't right. In a record-breaking economy, one out of five children in America are still poor. Something is terribly wrong with this picture.

But there's some very good news. The faith community is getting mobilized like never before in my lifetime. I saw evidence of that again and again in city after city across the country. Publishers like to send authors out to do media interviews and sign books in bookstores. Instead of bookstores, we decided to do Call to Renewal town meetings to launch my new book, Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher. This nationwide tour has demonstrated the message of the book: that there is a movement in the making. Faith Works Forums were sponsored by churches and faith-based groups that are doing the work profiled in Faith Works. The book is really about them.

For example, the book tells the story of my visit two years ago to Sing Sing prison in upstate New York. We had an amazing night with the New York Theological Seminary program inside Sing Sing that prepares prisoners for ministry. One man spoke movingly of a "train" that leaves poor neighborhoods like his. "You get on the train when you are 9 or 10 years old," he said, "and it ends here at Sing Sing." He vowed that when he got out, he would go back to his old neighborhood and help stop that train. At the first Faith Works Forum in New York City, two of the men I had met at Sing Sing were helping to lead the town meeting. They were home now, doing just what they had promised.

Also sponsoring the New York City forum was the People of Faith Network, based in Brooklyn's Lafayette Presbyterian Church. This middle-sized church has taken on the issue of sweatshops and built a network of 8,000 congregations. They won a code of conduct from the Gap when a Jewish rabbi threatened to tell his congregation of 2,000 that shopping at the sweatshop-using Gap "violates Jewish law and ethics"!

THE TOWN meeting in Boston's Dorchester neighborhood featured testimonies from the Ten Point Coalition, whose inner-city ministers have been given credit by the police department for a dramatic drop in youth homicides in the city, and the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, who told how they were organizing churches to fight for affordable housing.

A forum at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government on "The Faith Factor in Politics" drew a capacity crowd of students and faculty who discussed how this election campaign is debating the role of faith-based organizations in solving some of our most entrenched social problems. Sen. Alan Simpson, Rev. Jeffrey Brown, Father Robert Drinan, and E.J. Dionne joined me in a discussion that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.

Our forum in Chicago drew a large and enthusiastic audience. Fifteen faith-based sponsoring ministries and projects demonstrated the political breadth of Call to Renewal. Each group gave moving two-minute testimonies and ended with the same litany, "So join us in the Campaign to Overcome Poverty!" My spirits soared as we clapped with a gospel choir entirely composed of men who were former addicts and alcoholics and now sing of liberation.

Then came a Jubilee 2000 rally back home in D.C., after which several thousand people joined hands in a human chain around the U.S. Capitol. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, a forum sponsored by the Inner City Christian Federation brought together churches, civic groups, mayors, city council members, and state legislators to discuss overcoming poverty in western Michigan. A quick trip to speak to members of Congress about "values" showed me again that this movement will not begin in Washington, D.C.!

Everywhere we went the tour and book attracted media attention - most days were filled with radio talk shows, and the breadth and diversity of the audiences shows the great potential of this movement. For example, in Los Angeles I did interviews and talk shows on the NPR affiliate, the Pacifica station, the biggest conservative Christian radio outlet, a syndicated black radio program, and the mainstream local CBS station. Newspaper stories and/or book reviews and excerpts appeared in most of the cities we visited.

In San Diego, my old friend George Mitrovich invited me to speak to a lunch meeting of the San Diego City Club and the Catfish Club (the black "City Club"). Rockridge United Methodist Church, a vibrant congregation doing great things in an inner-city Oakland neighborhood, hosted a forum. David McKeithen, their pastor and former member of Sojourners Community, calls them "urban guerrillas who love Jesus." We enjoyed evening "book parties" at the homes of good friends including Marty Coleman, Arianna Huffington, and my long-time editor Roy Carlisle. Perhaps the liveliest gathering was the one hosted by my friend Michael Lerner of Tikkun magazine at his Berkeley home. The Jewish-Christian dialogue we had that night was a real high point.

NEXT WE HEADED for the Pacific Northwest. The Portland Oregonian story about our event said, "Imagine attending a town meeting on ending poverty and coming away feeling hopeful instead of hopeless." In Portland I also spoke to 2,000 high school students holding a mock political convention, and said that unless their generation helps create a "new politics" in this country, all our future political conventions were destined to be "mock" ones.

Seattle featured hopeful meetings with a cross section of church and community leaders. The most moving experience for me was a speech given by Richard Stearns, the new president of World Vision, at the relief and development organization's annual "Washington Forum." Before coming to World Vision, Stearns was CEO of Lenox China. What does a successful businessman who sold fine china know about the poor, some critics asked when he was named World Vision's president. In a talk he titled "A Letter to the American Church," Stearns eloquently described the lives of two very different churches in the world today - one an affluent suburban American congregation, and the other a poor rural African faith community. Stearns took every line of his letter to the American churches from the scriptures themselves so that these would be "God's words, not just mine." His talk epitomized the turn-around in churches in relation to poor people.

Sometimes I think Sojourners is more a school than a community, with our alumni scattered around the country. Former Sojourners staffers Aaron and Wendy McCarroll Gallegos organized a wonderful town meeting in their new home town, Toronto. I also spoke there to several hundred clergy and lay leaders at a nationwide conference of the United Church of Canada.

Doug Maben, an ex-intern who is a Presbyterian pastor, organized the Denver town meeting, and one of the most moving local speakers was another former intern, Mara Vanderslice, who challenged the enthusiastic audience to join the Jubilee 2000 campaign. And it's always a blessing to see my teacher and mentor, Dr. Vincent Harding, who introduced the evening.

The Midwest has always been a stronghold of support for Sojourners and now for the Call to Renewal, and some of the best days of the tour were at the end in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Former Sojourners editor Bob Hulteen, who now works for the Minnesota Council of Churches, organized the town meeting we held at my dear friend Rev. Al Gallmon's Fellowship Missionary Baptist Church in Minneapolis. Madison-area Urban Ministries hosted a town meeting, and even a highly unusual monsoon rain storm didn't dampen the spirits of the people who came out to the Archbishop Cousins Center in Milwaukee to talk about a new movement to overcome poverty in America.

That night, a young evangelical pastor talked about relationships, as evangelical pastors often do. But that's why, this young minister said, he supports a living wage for anybody who's willing to work hard. "It's because I know Joyce," the minister said, "and how hard it is for her to support her kids."

That's really it, I thought as I sat in that Milwaukee overflow shelter at the end of a long tour. If the faith community is really ready to get to know those kids who would be sleeping in the bunk beds that night, we won't just be willing to provide them shelter. We'll start asking why the shelters are needed in the first place.

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.

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