On the morning of November 8, my dad suddenly died. He had left behind an outline of the funeral service he would like, which included having me do the eulogy. I knew it would be the hardest sermon I ever had to give, but I wanted the words to pay tribute to my father. I will be grieving him for some time, but with the grief there is also profound gratitude for the legacy that his family and the countless people whose lives he touched will be blessed with forever.
I have glorified you on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4). These are the words of Jesus in the garden, but they also apply to his faithful servants.
From the most important to the little child, we were all special to my dad. So many people have used the word “encourager” when they talk about him. We had a president who was called the “Great Communicator”; we could certainly call my father “The Great Encourager.”
Someone said to me, “Your family must have felt jealous; so many of us had a piece of your mom and dad.” No, they always had plenty of love for us and amazed us with their love for others. I was amazed again, in these last few days, how my dad and mom touched so many people, and so deeply. Where did they find the time? What a blessing for our family and for many others.
Jim Wallis Sr. was vital until the end. Even near the end of his life, he became a favorite friend to so many—to a young woman who worked at the coffee shop he liked: “We’re really getting to know each other pretty well,” he would say. Or the nurse: “She’s so nice.” And the doctors: “How do they know so much?” When everybody thinks someone was his or her best friend, it says a lot about that person.
But what kind of man was Jim Wallis Sr., and how did he become the man we knew?
Actually, his family life growing up was very difficult. His own home was a rather cold, uninspired, and nonrelational environment. It’s hard to believe that the most relational man I’ve ever known came from such a background. Yet Jim Wallis excelled in everything he did. He was a very bright and strong A student, always curious and learning, and an athlete. From the beginning, he was a natural leader, the captain of his sports teams and student body president in high school and college.
Still, he was quite humble about it all. He hardly ever dated until he met the beautiful and feisty Phyllis Morrell, who became the love of his life. She was already a woman of deep faith who broke fundamentalist rules (as my parents always did) by dating an “unsaved” boy, and she led him to Jesus Christ. Faith took hold deeply in him and changed his life. I believe it was first my mom, then God and Jesus, who were teaching him how to love.
My father graduated from college, was commissioned in the U.S. Navy, and was married—all on the same day. A busy day! He liked busy days, and seems to have passed that on to his kids. Then he was off to the Navy and World War II in the Pacific as a naval officer who also volunteered as chaplain on his ship.
He came home to a successful career with Detroit Edison. But his first love was his family and the new church he and mom helped to start, Dunning Park Bible Chapel. People quickly and early recognized a teaching gift in this young man. He spoke clearly, deeply, and passionately—and he impacted people. And people responded. The young adult class that he taught every Sunday became the hottest thing at Dunning Park.
Every morning at 5 my father got up to study the Bible, and then he and my mom would get all of us up for school and work at 7. My father never went to seminary, but I’ve never known anyone who knew the Bible better. His Bible was full of colored underlining and notes on almost every page. He was always eager to learn more, and he was never satisfied with easy answers. I pray that I will be as open to the thinking and ideas of my children as he was with his.
He became a man of great heart and compassion. As we read in Matthew 25, Jesus cared about the “least of these,” and my dad did too. His understanding of Jesus always made my father challenge the easy assumptions of most people around him. He passed his social conscience on to all his kids, and it is a big part of our lives. He taught us to love. He taught us to be people of faith. And that’s the legacy he would have us pass on now, his commission to us today: Teach everyone you meet how to love. On a wall in his house, a plaque reads: “Love is not a feeling, it’s a decision.”
John 14 says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” Seven years ago, my mom passed on and got her “mansion/house.” If you knew her, you know that she started fixing it up, getting it ready for him, and for us. And if you knew my dad, you know he was about half of himself these last seven years. To be honest, his family, especially his grandkids, kept him alive and smiling. But how he missed her.
Today we can imagine them together again, hugging and smiling at all of us. My wife, Joy Carroll, a good priest and preacher, isn’t sure this is good exegesis of John 14. I can imagine the two of them planning a big open house. You see, their house was always open, their table was always open, and big enough to always include a few more. I think they would want me to invite you right now to the biggest and best party they ever threw. Jim and Phyllis would invite you to the “Wallis Heavenly Open House.” Whenever you are ready, they’ll be waiting, just for you.
One of his favorite passages was Philippians 2:1-11. I can almost hear him say, “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ Jesus.” My dad was always one to deflect attention from himself and give the glory to God. But on this occasion, we also pay tribute to him. James E. Wallis Sr.: A man of faith!
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. The full eulogy can be found on sojo.net.