The Common Good
September/October 2006

Sojourners/Call to Renewal

by Jim Wallis | September/October 2006

Sojourners and Call to Renewal have joined forces to create a new and much stronger organization.

We seldom write about Sojourners, the organization, in this space. Instead I write about the issues of faith, politics, and culture that we seek to connect. But some significant changes have just occurred for us organizationally that I think you will want to know about.

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First, a little history. Sojourners was founded in 1971—35 years ago—by a little group of seminarians at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. Right from the start, the original mailing list of index cards in a shoebox began to grow quickly as we encountered people across the country and around the world who were hungry to connect their faith to the fundamental issues of justice and peace in their times. The original name of our publication, The Post-American, changed to Sojourners when we moved to Washington, D.C., in fall 1975. We remain today in the same neighborhood where we began in the nation’s capital, having recently moved into the newly renovated Tivoli Theatre building in our own Columbia Heights neighborhood. The life of the Sojourners community has changed in many ways over the decades, but it has always been defined by the mission of articulating a biblical vision of social justice—writing, speaking, and mobilizing; challenging the church, the media, and the government with a progressive Christian message.

Eleven years ago, we founded Call to Renewal, with many other partners and organizations, to specifically focus on poverty by uniting churches and faith-based organizations across the theological and political spectrum to lift up those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” While disagreeing on many other issues, we all agreed on the biblical priority of the poor and wanted to come together around a common mission to overcome poverty. But to do that, we needed a new organization for that specific purpose, one that didn’t have the history of any existing group.

We needed a new organizational identity to organize around poverty—one that was, at the same time, more narrow in scope than Sojourners (which continued to focus on a wide range of justice and peace issues) and yet also more broad than the constituency Sojourners had been able to attract up to that point. To build a new faith-inspired movement on poverty required a new wineskin, not tied to the past. Many wondered whether it would work, and whether Call to Renewal could develop the broad constituency we needed, including evangelicals, pentecostals, Catholics, mainline Protestant, black churches, and the Latino and Asian-American Christian communities. It worked, and Call to Renewal has, for more than a decade, convened the broadest Christian table on poverty in America.

Our recent Pentecost mobilization demonstrated the strength of that table with more than 600 faith-based activists from 44 states converging on the Capitol to launch the “Covenant for a New America,” a results-oriented plan to end needless poverty in America and overseas. From the heads of denominations and national organizations to some of the nation’s best preachers, from 200 “Emerging Leaders” under age 30 to senators and congresspersons from both parties (who knew we now represent and reach constituencies they have to deal with), we called for a vision of dramatic poverty-reduction that transcends the old divisions of left and right. The wide national media coverage of the event still continues (including attention to a very significant address on faith and politics given at the conference by Sen. Barack Obama).

THE OTHER BIG change in our organizational life has been the success of the book God’s Politics. It was the right book at the right time, coming just after the 2004 election in which religion and “moral values” played such a major role. The book simply revealed what was already there in America; it became a national best-seller and turned book signings into “town meetings” around the country, with its message reaching millions of people through extensive media appearances. We’re very grateful for the ways that God’s Politics has extended the mission of Sojourners and Call to Renewal (greatly increasing both the magazine’s circulation and our online constituency of SojoMail), but it has added enormous new pressures, such as up to 50 new invitations for speaking and media each week.

The boards of both Sojourners and Call to Renewal soon realized that our organizational capacities were falling short of our mission potential, and that some fundamental changes were necessary. After much discussion and prayer, we have decided to merge the two organizations into one. It was not efficient to have two separate staffs for organizing, media, fund raising, and outreach, nor for me to lead two organizations. With the broader constituency that Call to Renewal had attained, and the much larger reach that God’s Politics has made possible, even the identity of Sojourners is different now—especially because of the new generation of faith-inspired young people that our work now regularly attracts.

So in June it became official, with the boards of Sojourners and Call to Renewal joining forces to create a new and much stronger organization. For the moment, we are simply calling it “Sojourners/Call to Renewal.” We have begun a very deliberate process around our mission statement, our identity, our strategy, and even how we name ourselves. A new board, which meets for the first time in October, will be comprised 50 percent of former board members from the two organizations and 50 percent of new members who bring great diversity and gifts to guide our future direction.

The creation of this new organization will not just serve its own institutional goals. It has the particular vocation of seeking to build a movement that puts faith to work for justice. The particular mission of Call to Renewal in overcoming poverty will continue, and now even more strongly with the Covenant for a New America and a commitment to put poverty on the forefront of the political agenda by the 2008 elections. But we will also serve larger and broader purposes that Sojourners has stood for over the last three decades.

Thirty-five years ago, we young seminarians often felt like voices crying in the wilderness. Now, a new and powerful movement that connects faith to social justice is emerging across the country and around the world—one I see and feel every time I go out on the road. This new organization will serve that movement—and all the other organizations that are a part of it.

As always, I am eager for your feedback and, even more, for your involvement with us. The best years of this organization, I believe, are still ahead of us.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners and chief executive officer of Sojourners/Call to Renewal.

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