The Common Good
July-August 1998

The One Constant Is Change

by Jim Wallis | July-August 1998

Sojourners Community

Sojourners Community

It was both a blessing and an opportunity to meet Dorothy Day. Sojourners was just in its beginnings, and the founder of the Catholic Worker was nearing the end of her life. We spent some time together on a few occasions, once to interview her for the magazine (December 1976). Dorothy, characteristically, had tough and probing questions for me, but was also very affirming and encouraging of what we were trying to do. Perhaps she felt some connection to a group of young Christians who were trying to start both a magazine and a community among the poor, just as she had done. I even remember the fond description of Sojourners by her co-workers in New York as "a Protestant Catholic Worker"!

In one of those conversations with Dorothy, I enthusiastically described our vision of Christian community. She listened pensively, but her eyes betrayed a certain skepticism. "I thought we were creating a community too," she sort of sighed, "but the Catholic Worker turned out to be more of a school." Over the years many people came to the Catholic Worker, but most of them eventually left to go on to other things. While the list of those who passed through the Catholic Worker is quite impressive, few stayed and I sensed that Dorothy missed many of them.

Well, it’s been more than two decades since that conversation with Dorothy and, now, I would have to say the same thing about Sojourners. Literally hundreds and hundreds of community members, interns, and worshipers have come and gone, most to lives and work very consistent with Sojourners’ vision. Like Dorothy, I once hoped and even expected that most people would stay; but it wasn’t to be. Now we are like a dispersed community, a Diaspora, scattered across the country and around the world.

And the scattered sojourners are doing wonderful, exciting, and powerful things in both church and society. Many are now clergy and church leaders in a wide variety of denominations. Others teach in seminaries or do international mission work. Lots of them are very involved as lay leaders in their churches. They are community organizers and service providers, school teachers and child care center directors, doctors and lawyers, novelists and journalists, academics and activists, artists and poets, and much more—all seeking to be faithful to gospel visions of justice and peace. Many have done service projects in the poorest countries around the world. Most have become good parents and raised thousands of children with the same values.

FOR ALL of us, sharing the experience of the Sojourners community has been a very formative one. Like those who came through the Catholic Worker "school," the Sojourners experience stays with you for the rest of your life, whether you stay or leave. And I never dreamed that I would spend so much time writing letters of reference!

A magazine can also be a school of sorts, and Sojourners certainly has been. Because Sojourners, like The Catholic Worker, is also a publication, the "school" has been much wider than those who have had direct contact with the community in Washington, D.C. For almost 30 years, people around the world have told me how much they feel connected and a part of Sojourners, just by consistently reading the magazine. They tell me that Sojourners has been their community, even though they have never lived as part of it. Thousands, of course, have visited the community, and tens of thousands have participated in Sojourners events. The number of people over the years who have felt a part of the extended Sojourners community probably numbers in the hundreds of thousands by now.

But the Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., has always been small, never numbering more than about 50 people. Since the beginning, the one constant has been change. The fact that Sojourners is still a community, after almost three decades, and is now changing again, is a grateful reminder of God’s presence and grace. It’s been awhile since we’ve reported much to our magazine readers about Sojourners Community, so I thought I would try to catch everyone up a bit.

IT’S BEEN some years since we all lived in large households and shared a common purse. Today, several families and groups of single people have their own units in the six houses the community owns cooperatively in the Columbia Heights neighborhood of inner-city Washington, D.C. One household is home to the eight to 10 interns who join us each year. Our seventh building is the former drug house we renovated into the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, which now focuses on a year-round "Freedom School" for at-risk young people in the area. Many other "sojourners" work at the magazine or the neighborhood center or take part in other community activities, but live in different neighborhoods around Washington, D.C., and its suburbs.

"Community" is understood more broadly today than it was in the days when it was defined as more intentional and residential. Anyone who is involved in a Sojourners ministry, lives in the housing cooperative, or otherwise chooses to join in the activities is welcome. Many Sojourners’ people are also involved in other faith communities and local churches on Sundays, which has brought a rich diversity of experience and perspective to the work of Sojourners. When I am in town and not preaching elsewhere on Sundays, I presently attend the Episcopal church where my wife, Joy, serves as a priest.

As I travel the country, I find many of the priorities we’ve held at Sojourners to be more and more present in parish churches and congregations across the land. Many times, I have been impressed and humbled by the extent to which a local church has put into practice the commitments to both ministry and community we write about in the magazine. They tell me how inspired they have been by Sojourners, and I tell them how much more they are doing than many of the faith communities known for such things. While most of the "intentional communities" of the ’70s and ’80s did not survive into the ’90s, many of their commitments did and are now present in the more "institutional churches." Similarly, the great majority of Sojourners magazine readers are very active in their local churches, and almost a third of them are clergy. Again Sojourners has turned out to be more of a school than a community.

On the home front, the local Sojourners Community gathers twice each month: once for fun and fellowship, and once for teaching, study, and discussion. A weekly prayer and Communion service is still available on Sunday evenings, and each ministry has its own spiritual life. At the magazine office, that consists of daily prayer and other worship times together.

A new conversation has begun again at Sojourners about the future direction of the community. There is interest in exploring what it might mean to become an actual dispersed community, even with common biblical reflections and spiritual disciplines shared by people across geographical and denominational lines. There is renewed energy for the possibility of a genuine neighborhood church, perhaps in collaboration with a denomination. There are some new people involved in the community and, along with them, some new insights, gifts, and energy. My intuition is that other new people, called to join us, will be the source of fresh renewal among us in the Washington, D.C. community.

A comment an old friend made when he was in town recently has stayed with me. In the ’80s he had been a leader in an intentional community that ended several years ago. Now he’s a creative young academic, free-lance writer, radio show host, and father of four. Our conversation turned to community. "Our model is no longer ‘the city on the hill,’" he said, "but rather the networks of people, ideas, and connections. That’s more the way that change will come." Sounds like Dorothy’s notion of a "school."

A few days later, we all celebrated the wedding of Sojourners’ assistant editor Aaron Gallegos to former intern Wendy Smith McCarroll. It was a festive gathering and reunion of former community members and interns. While our readers will be glad to hear that Aaron will continue to write for us, he’ll be doing it from Toronto (Wendy is Canadian). It was great to see some of our old interns again and to hear the great things they’re doing. And, of course, I agreed to write a few more reference letters. You see, Dorothy was right.

The Man With Answers

The first person I met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was Joe Roos. I had just arrived and was walking across the quadrangle when I passed Joe, who also looked like a new seminarian. "Excuse me. Do you know where the sheets and towels are?" I asked Joe. He did. I learned over the next 28 years that Joe can always figure out the answers to the big (and small) questions.

It wasn’t many days later that a new group of students at Trinity began to meet, intensely discussing how faith might be put into action, how the biblical imperatives demanded social justice. Joe, myself, and several others met night after night and eventually founded a new publication called the Post-American, which a few years later became Sojourners. I became the editor, and Joe became the publisher.

For almost three decades, Joe was the steady hand, the careful administrator, the chief financial officer. I gave the speeches and he developed the budgets. While I was out flying around the country and the world, it was Joe who made the trains run on time back home. Nobody does it better. When we suffered through financial crises at various points, Joe carefully guided the ship of Sojourners through the troubled waters, steering the magazine to financial safety again. When I think of Joe, many of the qualities contained in the Boy Scout oath come to mind (one that he took himself many years ago!)—trustworthy, loyal, helpful, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. They really do apply to Joe.

But 28 years is a long time to do any job. When Joe told me he wanted some new challenges, I shuddered at the prospect of Sojourners without Joe. The good news is that we won’t be losing him altogether after all. He will be consulting now for Sojourners and Call to Renewal, as well as serving as the new executive director of Associated Church Press. Still, around the office we will miss his solid and steady leadership, his kind and gentle spirit.

Congratulations, Joe! We thank you for everything. You are what Sojourners has always been about.

And you will always be my dear and trusted friend. I'm sure I'll be coming to you again when I have questions I can't answer.

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