There is probably no more divisive time in America than an election season. So I thought it appropriate to tell a personal story of reconciliation that is very important to me, and one that I have never told before. It is about my relationship with a fellow Christian who, if he were still alive, would likely be voting differently than me in the upcoming election.
Bill Bright was the founder and president of Campus Crusade for Christ, an evangelical organization on campuses around the country. Motivated, above all else, by the Great Commission, Bill Bright wanted to reach every person on the planet for Christ "in this generation." Concerned about the "moral degeneration" of America, Bright wanted America to come back to God - which for him meant an ultra-conservative political agenda. Bill and I were both evangelical Christians, but we clearly disagreed on a whole range of political issues.
In 1976, Bill Bright joined a far-right member of Congress named John Conlan and other conservatives in a project to mobilize evangelical prayer and cell groups for political purposes. It was, in fact, the first attempt to create a "Religious Right" in American politics - several years before the founding of groups like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition.
We at Sojourners decided to investigate. It became the most extensive investigative project we had ever undertaken, and resulted in a cover story in the magazine titled "The Plan to Save America." Bright was publicly embarrassed by our exposé and the whole experience. Though we had been scrupulously careful, backing up every fact in the story with at least three sources, Bright angrily denounced me. We invited Bright and the others involved to respond, both before and after the article was published, but they chose not to. Because we also differed on almost every political question from Vietnam to domestic issues, a bitter and public polarization grew up between Bill Bright and myself.
The bad blood continued for many years. I remember a particularly painful moment one year at a dinner for evangelical leaders, when Bright again went on the attack against me in a very public way, calling me a "liar."
More than two decades later, Bright and I found ourselves at yet another religious leaders dinner. When I saw him across the room, I swallowed hard and headed in his direction. He obviously didnt recognize me after so long. I introduced myself, and he became quiet. I said, "Bill, I need to apologize to you. I was in a hotel several months ago and knew you were there too. I should have come to your room and tried to mend the painful breach between us after all these years. I didnt do that, and I should have. Im sorry."
The now-old man reached out and wrapped his arms around me. Then he said, "Jim, we need to come together. Its been so long, and the Lord would have us come together." We both had tears in our eyes and embraced for a long time. Then Bill said, "Jim, Im so worried about the poor, about whats going to happen to them. Youre bringing us together on that, and I want to support you." I was amazed. We agreed to get together soon.
A few months later, Bill and I were again, coincidentally, at the same hotel. I called Bill and we agreed to a walk on the beach together the next morning. Bill and I shared our own conversion stories. We shared our callings and dreams for our respective ministries, and how we might be more connected. Bill then astounded me, saying, "You know, Jim, Im kind of a Great Commission guy." I smiled and nodded my head. "And Ive discovered that caring for the poor is part of the Great Commission, because Jesus instructed us to teach the nations to observe all the things I have commanded you. And Jim, Jesus certainly taught us to care for the poor, didnt he? Caring for the poor is part of the Great Commission!" said Bill Bright. When we got back to the hotel, Bill asked if we could pray together. We sat down and grasped each others hands. First praying for each other, we also prayed for each others ministries. Bill Bright prayed for me, and for the work of Call to Renewal and Sojourners. When we were finished, he said he wanted to raise some money for our "work of the Lord."
Bill, who was now more than 80 years old, soon began to get sick. I kept track of how he was doing. Then one day, I got a letter - from Bill Bright. Heres what the letter said:
My Dear Jim,
Congratulations on your great ministry for our Lord. I rejoice with you. An unexpected gift designated to my personal use makes possible this modest contribution to your magazine. I wish I had the means to add at least three more zeros to the enclosed check. Warm affection in Christ. Yours for helping to fulfill the Great Commission each year until our Lord returns. Bill
Inside the letter was a check for $1,000.
As I was reading Bills letter, my colleague Duane Shank walked into my office. "Did you hear?" he asked. "Bill Bright just died." We looked at the postmark on the letter and compared it to the news reports of Bills death. We concluded that writing me this letter was one of the last things that Bill Bright did on earth. Bill sent a $1,000 gift to the magazine that had exposed his most embarrassing moment more than 30 years before, as an affirmation of the ministry of another Christian leader who he once regarded as his enemy. I couldnt hold back the tears, and cant again as I write down this story for the first time.
The experience of my relationship with Bill Bright has taught me much about the promise and power of reconciliation. I will never again deny the prospect of coming together with those with whom I disagree. It is indeed the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to break down the walls between us. Thank you, Bill. I will never forget you.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.