I'm beginning this column at about 30,000 feet, en route to Akron, Ohio. We're doing the Who Speaks for God? book tour and Call to Renewal town meetings-40 of them in all-which will take me from Harlem to Orange County in six weeks. This whirlwind tour, during the election campaign, is providing quite a view of the country's landscape-including its current political and spiritual terrain.
The crowds have been two to three times what the organizers in each place had hoped for, indicating a widespread hunger for a moral vision of politics beyond the old categories of Left and Right. I can feel the energy in the sanctuaries, auditoriums, and parish halls where people are gathering. Despite their lack of enthusiasm for politics as usual (and their choices again this year), there is clearly a hope for alternative possibilities.
"Tonight we are here to talk about politics!" declared Warren Braun in Milwaukee. The overflow audience actually cheered in response, because even though the sandwiches had long since run out they knew they were going to be fed by a discussion of "real politics"-instead of the poll results and attack ads of this election year.
We talked about the meaning of polis (from which we get the word "politics"), as in the people, the public square, and the search for the common good. It means a discourse about values, right and wrong, and the ways of sustaining or restoring the healthy social and moral fabric of a society.
It's about putting forth new ideas, solving problems, resolving conflicts, finding common ground, and, above all, making sure no one is left behind. It requires an informed and involved citizenry who believe that what they think and do can make a difference, and that their real political involvement has more to do with the time, energy, gifts, and resources they put into rebuilding their own local communities than with pulling a lever on the first Tuesday of November.
For several weeks on the road now, we've been talking about that deeper meaning of politics-and the connection between spirituality and politics. Both the turnout and the enthusiasm have shown that people are eager for this conversation.
Our first town meeting was in Englewood, New Jersey, where a broad spectrum of clergy and lay church leaders came together; and the second night was in Harlem, where the diversity of the crowd further showed the promise of the Call to Renewal. Rev. Calvin Butts of historic Abyssinian Baptist Church spoke about the role that black churches can and must have in any call to renewal in America. In The New York Daily News the next day, E.R. Shipp, a black columnist, admitted her long-standing cynicism about the church's role in the political arena, but expressed a longing hope for the kind of spiritual and political renewal that the Harlem meeting represented. "Can this nascent movement be a start?" she asked.
The day before, during an early morning interview on a black radio station in New York City, the host surprised me by reading the front page of The New York Times, which carried a report of our just completed Call to Renewal Forum on Faith and Politics that weekend in Washington, D.C. Right under the Times story about the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" conference the same weekend, the article opened, "As members of the Christian Coalition strolled outside their convention hotel here this weekend, loud and challenging hymns drifted across their path from a small brick church where other Christians-politically different Christians-sang of righteousness like a flowing stream."
The 800 church and community leaders from across the country who gathered for the Call to Renewal forum did indeed respond to Amos' call to "Let justice roll down like waters," but also to Nehemiah's exhortation to rebuild the crumbling social and moral infrastructures of their communities with a spiritual politics that transcends the false choices of both liberal and conservative labels and seeks solutions that actually work.
The panel discussions were extremely provocative. Columnists E.J. Dionne and Cal Thomas joined social theologian Father Bryan Hehir and author Tom Sine to discuss a "cease-fire in the culture wars." Sharon Daly of Catholic Charities, Mary Nelson of Bethel New Life, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, and Rev. Al Gallmon of Sojourners Neighborhood Center talked about what real welfare reform would be and how new approaches to the alleviation of poverty are now vitally needed.
Rev. Eugene Rivers of the Ten Point Coalition in Boston, Rev. Madison Shockley of the Claremont Consultation, Anne Braden of the Southern Organizing Committee, and Juanita Helphrey of the United Church of Christ called for a new national conversation on racism beyond the current focus on black church burnings. Columnist Barbara Reynolds, Scott Simon of National Public Radio, David Gergen of U.S. News World Report, and Christianity Today's Richard A. Kauffman spoke of how the media can do much better in its coverage of religion and politics. And each of the four Christian communities who make up the Call to Renewal spoke about how their traditions could help inform that new politics.
John Carr from the U.S. Catholic Conference differentiated Catholic social teaching about the "consistent ethic of life" from the inconsistencies of both the Republicans and the Democrats. Rev. Wallace Smith of Washington, D.C.'s Shiloh Baptist Church recalled how the black churches in America had pioneered a prophetic religious path in the public arena. Dr. Leah Gaskin Fitchue called for a resurrection of the historic social conscience of evangelicalism in a new day. And Disciples of Christ president and National Council of Churches vice president Dr. Richard Hamm spoke of the potential for a revitalized mainline Protestant political witness.
C-SPAN covered both the Christian Coalition and Call to Renewal conferences, and Sen. Bill Bradley's powerful address on restoring a vibrant civil society and democracy generated such a huge response that his office has been inundated with phone calls. Marian Wright Edelman gave the best talk on "family values" I've ever heard, then exhorted the Call to Renewal delegates to go back to their communities and turn "welfare repeal" into genuine welfare reform with the church as the "moral locomotive for social change."
Rev. Yvonne Delk of the Community Renewal Society opened the conference with a moving call for the "elders to come forward in these times of need and speak the truth," and evangelist Tony Campolo closed the gathering with a stirring "sending forth" into a barren political climate that cries out for the spiritual values of tolerance, love, and justice.
The conservative Washington Times newspaper described the message of the weekend as "a biblical, bi-partisan Call to Renewal," and The New York Times wrote, "Praying and preaching, singing and strategizing, were hundreds of the vanguard of a broad, 18-month-old Christian movement that has begun showing some heft in its mission of organizing an alternative to the Christian Coalition and other political pressure groups of the religious right."
The Call forum in Washington, D.C., did not spend much time talking about the Christian Coalition. The task ahead, we repeatedly stated, is the other mission we committed ourselves to just a year and a half ago when the Call to Renewal began-to help forge and fashion a "new politics" beyond both the Religious Right and the Liberal Left. That was the theme of the September gathering in the nation's capital, and it is the agenda of the town meetings now happening in every part of the country.
IN THE BOSTON suburb of Wellesley and the intellectual environment of Harvard Square the next night, many of those who came to help chart a new political path were young people, who will play a critical role in the development of the Call to Renewal. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, an exciting new collaboration was begun between evangelical leaders mobilized by the TURN Leadership Foundation, the Minnesota Council of Churches, and the Black Ministerial Alliance.
In Chicago's western suburbs and at the town meeting in the downtown Loop, we engaged in creative conversation about the very practical ways churches can work for social change in their communities. I spoke to a packed sanctuary in Austin, Texas, where a new Texas Faith Network has joined with the Call to Renewal to offer an alternative to the Christian Coalition in one of the bastions of their strength. The regional conferences in Colorado Springs, Orange County, Memphis, Mississippi, and North Carolina offer similar opportunities.
We spoke to the Cleveland City Club about the critical need for the involvement of the business community and foundations. Tony Campolo joined us for the regional conference in Dayton, Ohio. Several hundred people came each night in Seattle, Tacoma, and Portland, and they stayed for questions and discussion until we cut it off each evening. The staffs of World Vision and Mercy Corps were anxious to apply the lessons they had learned in overseas development to the critical crises of our domestic life. Leaders of the Urban League talked of the need for suburban-urban partnerships. People in the same city who had never gathered together before said again and again that this would only be the beginning.
In each place so far, there have been lots of young people. The 28-year-old organizer in Milwaukee was thrilled, saying, "We have never got anyone out to peace and justice events who is under 40-until now."
In most places, elected officials have eagerly jumped into the discussion about a new politics. One member of congress from Ohio admitted that the welfare bill he voted for was an election-year bargain that could easily lead to social disaster and pledged to work with his local community to find a better way. The panels of respondents have exemplified an extraordinary diversity-community organizers and local TV anchors, Jewish rabbis and evangelical leaders, black legislators and Orthodox priests, business executives and college professors, inner-city Latino pastors and deans of Anglican cathedrals. Even people from the Christian Coalition show up, saying that they're weary of "Christian" being so identified with "Republican." They've met liberal Methodist ministers who were eager to move beyond their predictable attachment to the Democratic Party.
Every town meeting has become a kind of new "table" set in each community, where people sit down together for the first time. By the close of the evening, they find that they've enjoyed themselves like at a good meal. Sustenance, relationship, new visions, and, most of all, real hope have been the result of such "table fellowship." What we learn from all the town meetings will significantly shape the future agenda, priorities, and organization of the Call to Renewal.
As I've traveled these past few weeks, I've been reading the page proofs for the issue of Sojourners you now have in your hands. It commemorates our 25th anniversary as a publication, a milestone for which we are deeply grateful. As I read the excerpts from the last two-and-a-half decades, it struck me that the formation of the Call to Renewal is a kind of culmination of the work we've been given to do for the last 25 years. It builds on all those personal relationships, spiritual connections, theological convergences, and ecumenical networks that have been the life and work of Sojourners.
This new episode in that vision and mission is much broader now than Sojourners, but our part of it is built on those foundations. For that history and the road we have shared with many of you over the years, I find myself very thankful, energized, and, as the old gospel hymn goes, "no ways tired."