Before Sept. 11, the Rev. Jim Wallis was garnering growing audiences for the anti-poverty message he has been preaching for the last 30 years.
But since that watershed date, the Washington, D.C., evangelical minister and convener of Call to Renewal, a religious anti-poverty coalition, laments that the poor have been pushed to the edges of the nation's radar screen.
“Before Sept. 11, we were finding tremendous success across the country ... People were paying attention. Sept. 11 really took this issue off the agenda,” said Mr. Wallis, who will speak in Toledo tomorrow and Monday.
Rather than allow one of the greatest tragedies in American history to divert the nation's attention from the country's poorest citizens, however, Mr. Wallis thinks Sept. 11 has the potential to transform the country and bring it together in a way that includes the poor and makes them a part of the nation's new sense of unity.
“America suffered when those towers fell. We really suffered together. Now, will we heal together?”
A longtime advocate of social justice causes who also serves as editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine, Mr. Wallis believes churches have to lead the way in fighting poverty by exercising their prophetic role.
If people are not thinking about poverty, he said, it is the job of the church to redirect their thoughts and also to ask hard questions about attitudes and practices that keep people poor. Call to Renewal, he said, is planning such an effort at Pentecost in May, a time on the church calendar that, Mr. Wallis said, “is a lot about including the poor in our lives.”
Plans are to assemble delegations in Washington who can talk to every member of Congress. The effort, he said, will point to churches and faith-based organizations as “armies of compassion” who can let legislators know what they are learning in their work with America's poorest families and what will make a difference in their lives.
Churches, he said, must continue to lead by example in helping the poor by doing the work and expending resources themselves. But he doesn't think they can do it alone, a point he raised during a recent meeting of religious leaders at which President Bush introduced Jim Towey as the new director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.
When Mr. Bush told the group that their leadership was important, Mr. Wallis said he responded, “You know we're going to offer as much leadership as we can, but we can't do this by ourselves. It will take the full commitment of the entire society, every sector, not just churches and charities.”
Mr. Wallis said the President agreed with him and even mentioned that the corporate sector should be included in their efforts.
A test of Mr. Bush's response to him, Mr. Wallis said, will be the position the President takes on welfare reform in upcoming legislation that he says will be more important to poor working families than anything in decades.
Churches, Mr. Wallis said, are doing an excellent job in many places helping support families in the transition from welfare to work, whether it is by providing child care, or partnering with companies to offer training. Some programs, he said, agree to follow a new employee for two years, helping him or her with child care, car pools, and other needs.
But he said some things that need to be done are beyond the reach of the churches.
For example, he said, “I don't know how churches can solve the problem of health care in America. There has to be some public-sector involvement in health-care reform. If you don't like Hillary's program, fine. Find a better way. But we've got to deal with health care, affordable housing, and making work work.”
Mr. Wallis said he believes that while most Americans didn't like the old paradigm of subsidizing people on welfare, they also want former welfare recipients who are working hard and obeying the rules to succeed. “Most Americans would believe that if you're working full-time in America, you shouldn't be poor. If we can move to that paradigm and if we can build in support systems for child care and things that make work work, it should appeal to both conservatives and liberals.”
As a person whose political and social views do not fit neatly into one party or category, Mr. Wallis often finds himself stepping into the chasm between conservative and liberal in a quest to find solutions upon which both can agree.
“I talk about how liberals and conservatives bring something to the poverty fight. Conservatives are right about the need for personal responsibility and better choices in sexual behavior and family structure. This is a huge factor in poverty. Only 9 percent of the people who are poor live in an intact, two-parent family household. But the liberal side is saying things like wages and health care reform are important ... because the majority of people who fall below poverty lines, 54 per cent, have at least one person in the household as a full-time worker.”
Because Mr. Wallis and Sojourners refuse to be politically correct, however, they have lost friends when they fall on the “wrong” side of an issue for a particular group or associate with the “wrong” people.
For example, Mr. Wallis said that after he met with Mr. Bush in Austin while he was still governor of Texas, “Some people called and said they took Sojourners out of their will.”
Mr. Wallis never formally endorsed a candidate in the election, although he talked with Bill Bradley, Ralph Nader, and the Bush campaign and also agreed to help write some of former Vice President Al Gore's speeches on faith-based initiatives.
For many liberals, Mr. Wallis and Sojourners landed on the wrong side of the faith-based initiatives issue, which is the subject of Mr. Wallis's latest book, Faith Works: How Faith-based Oranizations Are Changing Lives, Neighborhoods, and America.
Mr. Wallis calls the debate over faith-based initiatives the most partisan debacle he has ever seen on both sides.
“Some black leaders are against it because it might help black churches and they think people might look to George Bush instead of them. Some Republicans are shamelessly trolling for votes in black churches using faith-based initiatives instead of saying, `what's going to help poor kids and families?'”
He said he believes faith-based initiatives can receive government help in a way that respects the separation of church and state. “I think we can do it and must do it in ways that are respectful of the First Amendment. We can. There's nothing about this that makes it impossible to do.”
Mr. Wallis has discovered, however, that voices like his often are drowned out in a media and political culture that likes to reduce every question to two sides. “Media, like politics, takes a problem and tries to figure out who they're going to blame it on, not how to solve it. Once they fix blame, they take a poll and see who won. Is the problem ever solved? No.”
Usually, he said, there are multiple angles that can be brought to bear on solving a problem. “You need three, four, or five people. How do we not only move people off the welfare rolls, but out of poverty? That is a many-angled conversation.”
Jim Wallis will speak to area clergy at 7 p.m. tomorrow on “A Call to Renewal: Christians Overcoming Poverty” at Warren AME Church, Collingwood Boulevard and Indiana Avenue. Admission is $5. He also will address a conference on “Welfare Reform and the Faith Community” from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday in the SeaGate Centre. The fee for the conference is $20. For more information, contact the Toledo Metropolitan Mission, 419-255-5160.