The Common Good

Progressive Christian Leader Mobilizes Hundreds to End Poverty

Date: April 28, 2009

WASHINGTON – Having entered a new political era, hundreds of progressive Christians have begun a major mobilization to end poverty with the belief that their time has come to reap what they've sown.

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  • Hundreds of Christians gather at the Washington Convention Center on Monday, April 27, 2009, for the Mobilization to End Poverty conference which ends Wednesday. (Photo: The Christian Post) Hundreds of Christians gather at the Washington Convention Center on Monday, April 27, 2009, for the Mobilization to End Poverty conference which ends Wednesday.

"We have friends now in high places," the Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of Sojourners and perhaps the nation's best-known progressive Christian leader, told over 1,000 people on Monday.

To say nothing has changed in Washington and that government is always government would be a mistake, he said during the four-day Mobilization to End Poverty conference at the Convention Center.

While the conference drew a handful of conservative Christians, the movement is largely seen as progressive.

Jason Gedeik, deputy press secretary of Sojourners, told Christianity Today magazine that the event was "our first formal coming out party."

"It's definitely not the religious right or conservative movement," he noted to the magazine, while describing progressives as possibly having conservative theological principles but not conservative political principles.

Sojourners head Wallis and many attending this week's poverty conference believe they have the wind at their back with President Obama in the White House and the Democrats' expanded majorities in both houses of Congress.

Speakers at the poverty conference repeatedly stated that they've reached a turning point.

"This is movement time!" Wallis, who is part of Obama's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said to loud shouts of "Amen!" from the diverse crowd, which included many young adults.

Their main agenda is the poor and the hungry - a population that is likely growing amid the economic recession.

Currently, 37 million Americans live below the poverty line and many more are on the brink, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) in a Monday morning session at the conference.

DeLauro urged the hundreds gathered to take action and to make their voices heard on Capitol Hill, particularly during a time when Congress has put the finishing touches on the $3.5 trillion budget and is set to vote on it this week.

"You are here at the right moment," DeLauro said. "This budget is a moral document. It reflects our moral values and our priorities."

"Poor people did not create the deficit," she said to applause. "Let's not talk fiscal responsibility on the backs of the poor."

Hundreds of attendees are visiting Capitol Hill on Tuesday to advocate for commitments and leadership in protecting and prioritizing funding to help reduce domestic and global poverty. The activists are attending 86 Senate office appointments which were confirmed for Tuesday morning.

"It's an opportunity. It's also a challenge," Wallis noted. "How do you act now when you have the ear of those who you believe wants to make change and yet we know without the movements they won't be able to make the change?"

Richard Stearns, president of World Vision, emphasized the need for the Christian community to act rather than rely on Washington.

"It is us, each of us, that must talk the talk of our convictions and walk the walk of our faith before we can shake our fists at any of our political leaders, blaming them for our problems," Stearns told conference participants.

"Yes, I think the first question that we must ask is not what are they (politicians) are going to do about it, but rather what are we going to do about it," he stressed.

Stearns believes there's a "hole in our Gospel" and that many Christians have embraced a "shallow, diminished version of the full Gospel."

Most believers, he said, embrace a private version of the Gospel – one that is focused on a personal relationship with God. But the Gospel doesn't end with a personal relationship, he said.

It begins with a relationship and then moves toward publicly engaging the world, stressed Stearns, whose views are presented in the recently released The Hole in Our Gospel: What does God expect of Us?.

The holes in our Gospel may lie in the bigger and bigger churches that are being built while many children die of hunger and thirst or in the energy being directed toward stopping gay marriage, said Stearns.

The sin that angers God the most, however, is being arrogant, overfed and unconcerned for the poor and needy, he indicated.

Not denying the work of the churches in helping the poor, Stearns said the question churches and Christians should ask is not whether they're doing good works but whether their definition of good is good enough.

According to Stearns, the average American churchgoer last year gave only 2.5 percent of their income to churches and Christian ministries. That equates to 6 cents per Christian per day for the world's 2.5 billion people living in poverty.

Giving a version of Matthew 25 that would better apply to Americans today, Stearns said, "I was thirsty but you drank bottled water. I was a stranger and you wanted me deported. I needed clothes but you needed more clothes..."

"Are you angry at our government because they do too little to help the poor? Look first to our own behavior," the World Vision head underscored to the room of believers.

Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance, meanwhile, said responding to poverty has always been on the agenda of churches around the world mainly because the church leaders themselves live in poverty.

For the American church, this is an important moment as they also get on board, according to Tunnicliffe.

While there may be concerns of an over-emphasis on the Social Gospel, Tunnicliffe said he believes this mobilization is about the holistic nature of the Gospel – both word and deed.

"We must continue to encourage personal spiritual transformation but an expression of that spiritual transformation comes in responding to the justice issues in the world today," he commented. "I think it's absolutely essential that we get this right and that as the focus of Jesus was on the poor also our focus needs to be on the poor."