The Common Good
March-April 2000

Faith Works

by Jim Wallis | March-April 2000

Lessons from the life of an activist preacher. An excerpt from the new.

Faith Works is a book about how people can heal their own souls by reaching out to others. It offers practical advice about how people can get involved in ways that make a difference, not only in their communities and in the lives of people they touch, but also in their own lives. Fundamentally it’s a vision for putting faith into action; or even, finding faith by taking action. It is a book that is part memoir, part inspirational game plan for transforming our own lives and our society, and part primer on how faith communities are changing neighborhoods.

Jim Wallis writes in the book’s introduction:

People often ask me, "Where have you found the strength to stay involved for so long?" or "How have you stuck with it and not burned out?" I’ve asked those questions of myself. But more often I’ve asked myself how I can make the most difference in the world. For me, the answer to both questions is the difference that faith makes. What do I mean by faith? I like the definition used by the biblical writer of Hebrews: "Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen." Simply put, faith makes hope possible. And hope is the single most important ingredient for changing the world.

Many people today would like to find some way to practice their faith or spirituality, despite the excesses, corruption, or narrow regulations of religion that have turned them away. I believe the making of the modern Christian, Jew, or Muslim will be through action. When put into action, faith has the capacity to bring people together, to motivate, and to inspire, even across former dividing lines. We demonstrate our faith by putting it into practice and, conversely, if we don’t keep the power of faith in the actions we undertake, our efforts can easily lead to burnout, bitterness, and despair. The call to action can preserve the authenticity of faith, while the power of faith can save the integrity of our actions. As the biblical apostle James put it many years ago, "Faith without works is dead." Indeed, faith shows itself in works—faith works.

The following excerpt is from Lesson Six: "Listen to Those Closest to the Problem."

In April and May, Jim Wallis will be on a national tour to talk about issues raised in Faith Works. For details, including scheduling information, see www.sojo.net or call 1-800-714-7474.

Lesson Six: Listen to Those Closest to the Problem

"What do you want me to do for you?" Jesus asked him. The blind man said, "Rabbi, I want to see." (Mark 10:51)

My wife tells the story of a young priest facing a tough assignment—his first attempt to teach a Sunday school class. Eager to be accepted by the kids, he tried to portray himself as very casual and accessible. He sat on the edge of a desk and asked a question of the wide-eyed children. "Hey kids," he said. "What’s gray, furry, gathers nuts, and runs up and down trees?" There was a long pause while the kids looked at each other with puzzled faces. Finally, one little boy ventured an answer, "Well, I know the answer should be Jesus...but it sure sounds like a squirrel to me!"

The story reminds us that there are not always easy religious answers to every problem. Nevertheless, some of the most successful efforts in dealing with poverty and violence are emerging from faith communities—meaning not only churches and congregations, but a myriad of religiously and spiritually based nonprofit organizations. And many of those efforts teach us a clear lesson: Listen to those closest to the problem.

Listening to Thelma

Who do we listen to and who do we trust? Trust is essential to listening. Why do we continue to believe the myth that poor people don’t know anything and can’t be trusted? Where do you really find the truth about a society, at the top or at the bottom? Are the best solutions conceived in the corridors of power or in the neighborhoods? Do the poor really have no assets or resources as most people think? Listening to the poor opens up whole new possibilities, ideas, and directions in overcoming poverty.

Why listen to the poor? Well, there are good biblical and ethical reasons. But there are also just plain practical reasons. Many youth and community-serving programs have found that they couldn’t get off the ground until they began to truly trust and engage and involve the people they were trying to serve. Many good and decent programs didn’t become highly successful until the poor themselves were given a real hearing and became involved in their leadership. The presence of the poor in the discussion makes all the difference. I can testify to this fact. When young people are at the table for a discussion of youth violence and what to do about it, the conversation is very different than what it otherwise would be. Too often, the discussions we have about poverty only involve the people who are working to overcome it.

But we usually don’t listen to the poor. On the contrary, it’s easy to pick on poor people. We do it all the time in America. But living and working with those who are poor gives you a whole different perspective.

Thelma used to live next door. She and her family were there before we arrived in the neighborhood some 20 years ago. Thelma’s husband had died, so the responsibility of keeping the family together fell to her. And she did it well. Three generations grew up in that house with, as far as we could see, good "family values."

But because Thelma could never afford a down payment, she could never buy her house. One of our tenant organizers sat down with Thelma one day, and they figured out that she had paid for her place several times over in rent. Over the years, she was the most stable figure in the ever-changing history of a house that had had several owners during the period of her residence. The last owner was the D.C. government, which had done nothing to help Thelma own her own home. Instead, without fixing the plumbing or a leaking roof, they raised the rent again. Thelma just couldn’t afford it. One day, when I came home from a long trip, I was shocked to see that Thelma had moved out and her place had been boarded up. Ever since, we’ve had to fight to keep it from becoming a rat-infested crack house.

Thelma never got the equity from her housing investment that might have helped put her kids through college. She never received the home ownership mortgage tax deduction, a far bigger entitlement for the middle class than welfare is for the poor. And she never could get the parental help that many middle-class folks receive, a loan for the down payment on their first home. Listening to people like Thelma taught our community organizers more about the housing problem in America than attending meetings at the Department of Housing and Urban Development ever did.

There is a parable here. It’s about class, and race, and the economic system. It’s not about Thelma’s failures. Sure, poor people can make bad choices that entrench them in poverty. But there’s more to it than that. In fact, bad personal choices can have far more severe results for the poor than the well off. That’s why we are very tough at Sojourners Neighborhood Center about young people making the right choices in life and not further compounding the poverty they’ve already started with.

But there are always social and structural reasons why some people are poor and others are not. For example, it would not be difficult for America to figure out a fair way for low-income families to buy their own homes, and that would make a great difference in the fight to overcome poverty. But we have chosen not to do it.

‘We didn’t end poverty, we serviced it.’

The Bible sees those societal choices as moral failures. Instead of ignoring the poor, it tells us, we should listen to them, pay attention to them, and even evaluate our success as a society by how we treat them. It’s not that poor people are different or better than anyone else. Not at all. Living and working in some of the poorest neighborhoods in this country for 25 years has taught me that those at the bottom have all the good and bad in them that people do anywhere else. But from a moral viewpoint, those at the bottom are the litmus test for the health of the whole society. That is both a religious insight and the beginning of political wisdom.

If you want to really know the truth about a society, look to its bottom rungs. The perspective is clearer there and less subject to varnish and illusion. That’s where you find out what is really going on and how best to change it. You are unlikely to learn it in any other place because, in part, the political and media centers that disseminate information about the society don’t want people to really know what is happening at the bottom. An honest view from the bottom is usually uncomfortable for those at the top.

Our traditional approach to the problems of poverty has been far too bureaucratic. We don’t talk about the meaning of community, we just engage in endless arguments over resources and allocations. Now we’ve created a whole "poverty industry," a professional social welfare bureaucracy that is rich in procedures and regulations but poor in genuine compassion and real connection to people.

Unless we discover a new sense of family and community in America, we will never face our issues of poverty and racism. Where will we find the reconciling practices to bring the disparate parts of the American family together? How do we begin talking about "we" instead of talking about "us" and "them"? Developing the big "we" will take a common vision and strategy "that will resonate around our kitchen table," as veteran anti-poverty organizer Tom Jones puts it. He says, "Our great national initiatives in civil rights, women’s rights, and the environment drew upon our collective social conscience, our sense of justice and fairness, and our confidence in creating opportunities. But it’s been different with poverty."

Jones says candidly, after four decades of grassroots organizing and coalition building, "I think we have in the end attempted to resolve poverty with networks of professionals working in a well-meaning, yet palliative social welfare industry, allocating an inadequate amount of resources to make life barely endurable for the poor. We didn’t end poverty, we serviced it. Notwithstanding the billions of dollars and armies of workers and professionals (I include myself and most of my life’s work), we must admit that after four decades, we are left with three significant facts: The quality of life for today’s poor is as bad if not worse than it has ever been; the separation and segregation of the poor from the rest of this nation is greater than ever; and more Americans than ever are either denying the degree and extent of poverty in America, or simply don’t care." Jones calls for a commitment that moves beyond the provision of social services "to invigorate a sense of emotion, drama, and outrage around the issues of poverty and racism."

Not-so-strange bedfellows

That will require a mobilization that touches every part of the community. It is a natural role for the religious community to go beyond its own social-service mentality and remember its prophetic calling to seek justice. But it must go beyond the churches to engage the arts, media, academia, business and political leadership, and the hundreds of thousands of community and civic organizations—the civil society—that shape much of our social life. The task is simply to generate a new expression of compassion and resolution in behalf of poor people that connects them to the rest of us. It’s about including people in the family and the body politic.

What will it ultimately take to overcome poverty? It simply won’t happen until we see "the poor" as friends and neighbors, even brothers and sisters, who are not yet known to us. That will take relationship, partnership, and risk more than care, subsidy, and services. It will require our institutions to invest their assets, not just their surplus, and engage the gifts and talents of all their members, not just the leaders. It will require new ways of thinking and acting on the part of all of us. And it will take a reweaving of social relationships in our families and churches, as well as in our schools and workplaces.

We must learn to perceive "the poor" not as a problem to be overcome but as precious resources that have been ignored—people who have gifts and talents that would extend and enrich the community once they are permitted to sit as friends and neighbors in the circles of our lives. Churches and other social institutions must learn to measure poverty as much by the numbers of children and families who are left outside their doors by a lack of welcome, as much as they are left outside the society by bad national policies. Ultimately, a social climate of shame should apply to those institutions and social bodies who will not come to terms with the "least" of our people, as Jesus would say.

Many of the successful social movements that have made a difference in history result from an alliance between middle-class people and poor people. Without the insight that comes from viewing a society from the bottom up and without the energy of the oppressed, middle-class advocates can’t really understand what needs to be changed, nor do they have a constituency that demands it. And without the resources and access that the middle class brings, poor people often don’t have the voice to finally make a difference. The abolitionist and civil rights movements in the United States are good examples of alliances of the middle class and the poor, as are the myriad democratic movements in Latin America, Eastern Europe, and South Africa. Nothing is more satisfying than being part of a movement like that, one that anyone who wants to can join.

Building a Rocking Horse

We know that government alone cannot solve the problem of poverty. Real solutions will need involvement from all of us. I’ve had the opportunity to be involved in several successful community-mobilizing efforts in every part of the country. One good example is Springfield, Ohio. We had several days of old-fashioned town meetings, bringing together very diverse churches and nonprofit organizations, business leaders, the mayor and other government officials, and lots of ordinary people. One after another, good ideas and creative initiatives from around the country were discussed by the citizens of Springfield. Poor people themselves were heard, among them a former welfare recipient who lost her child care benefits when she got a raise from $8 to $8.50 per hour. She was trying to better herself, as the society says it wants her to do—yet working, she was poorer than she had been on welfare. This time, local political leaders were on hand to hear her problem. All agreed that some policy changes were in order. They had started to listen to those closest to the problem.

A youth rally drew a racially mixed group of 800 mostly poor young people, attracted by good music, good food, one another, and a dynamic speaker. Sparked by Gary Percesepe, a pastor with organizing energy, a local Call to Renewal roundtable came together, again uniting people who hadn’t worked together before.

One result was the Rocking Horse Clinic in Springfield—a new pediatric clinic for low-income children who otherwise would have no health care. The new clinic was inspired by Jim Duffee, a soft-spoken Christian doctor, and funded by two hospitals that had never worked together before. It often takes a common project, like the Rocking Horse Clinic, to bring people together and excite a local community.

It isn’t easy, but the people of Springfield are developing a common strategy for overcoming poverty—the only way welfare reform will truly work. It’s difficult to get many different groups working together, but the principle of partnership is this: Everybody does their share, and everyone does what they do best. Nobody gets to sit on the sidelines, and everyone brings some answers and some resources. It can work; I’ve seen it over and over again. Always, the key is listening to those closest to the problem.

 

Lessons from an Activist Preacher

The forthcoming book Faith Works is organized

into the following 15 lessons:

1. Trust Your Questions

2. Get Out of the House More Often

3. Use Your Gift

4. Do the Work and You’ll Find the Spirit

5. Recognize the Three Faces of Poverty

6. Listen to Those Closest to the Problem

7. Get to the Heart of the Matter

8. Throw Away Old Labels, It’s Values That Count

9. Find New Allies and Search for Common Ground

10. Tap the Power of Faith Communities

11. Be a Peacemaker

12. Be a Contemplative

13. Keep it Human

14. Have a Dream

15. Change the Wind

JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners. This article is excerpted from the forthcoming book Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher. Copyright © 2000 by Jim Wallis. Reprinted with permission of Random House, Inc.

Preorder your copy of Faith Works at a discount from your favorite online or local bookseller, including Sojourners Resource Center (1-800-714-7474; www.sojo.net).

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