The Common Good

Jim Wallis Sr.: A Thanksgiving

Sojomail - November 22, 2006


"We have not at all assimilated with the coalition forces. We have nothing to do with them, nor indeed do we have anything to do with the West. We are Christians; we are citizens like everyone else."

- Archbishop Louis Sako of Kirkuk, Iraq, speaking out against proposals by U.S. officials to create "safe havens" for Christians experiencing persecution there. (Source: The Catholic Herald)

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Hearts & Minds by Jim Wallis

Jim Wallis Sr.: A Thanksgiving

On the morning of Nov. 8, the day after the midterm elections, my dad died, very suddenly. I left immediately for Detroit and exited all the post-election discussions. In a brief God’s Politics blog last week on election reflections, I mentioned my father’s passing and his delight with the early election returns. But for almost a week, I was deeply involved with my family back home, my four siblings and all their children, his friends, and the two churches he helped to found. He had left behind an outline of the funeral service that he would like, which included my doing the eulogy. He had told my brother that he hoped by planning the service ahead of time it would be less of a burden on his family. Less burden, right – it would be the hardest sermon/talk I’ve ever had to give, and I wasn’t at all sure that I would get through it. But I wanted the words to pay tribute to my father.

People ask me how I’m doing. The truthful answer? Not well, and I’m not even going to try to “get over” this. He deserves to be grieved well, and I will be grieving him for some time – in ways, for the rest of my life. But with the grief, there is also profound gratitude for the legacy that his children, grandchildren, and the countless people whose lives he touched will be blessed with forever. And I wanted to share a little of that with you in the eulogy I offered for my father. He is all I think of today as we begin the holiday we call “thanksgiving.”

* * *

John 17:4 – “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.” These are the words of Jesus in the garden, but they also apply to his faithful servants.

On behalf of the family, I offer our deepest thanks to all of you who loved our dad. Thank you for coming. The size of this congregation (almost 600 people) is a real tribute to him. And thank you especially for ministering to us these last few days, by sharing the stories about how our dad and mom so influenced your lives. Those stories are precious treasures to us now.

Standing at dad’s casket, I heard the story of the little girl who would not come to the MOPS program (for moms and toddlers, where my dad volunteered in his retirement years) unless “Grandpa Walrus” was there to hold her in his lap. From the most important to the little child, we were all special to him. Someone said, “When you look at all the influences in your life, your dad is right there.” I heard that time and time again. He was there, for all of us.

The grandchildren really miss him. Several of them said, “He was our best cheerleader.” Grandpa made sure he had a front-row seat to the lives of all his children and grandchildren. He never missed anything. So many people have used the word “encourager” when they talk about my dad. We had a president who was called the “Great Communicator.” Well, we could certainly call my father “The Great Encourager.” I heard Marcie’s little son, Lucas, say, “When I came to his house, he always told me, 'Good-looking shirt, cool shoes.' When I came over last night, nobody told me how great I looked.” My own son Luke had a weekly phone call with grandpa after baseball games, to talk through the game and how he did. When he heard that grandpa had died, Luke broke into tears and said, “Now who am I going to talk about baseball with?” Countless others have told us our dad was their mentor, partner, teacher, or like a father or grandfather to them or their kids – “He made me/us feel like a part of his family.” So many of the cards we have received said how much they will miss “Grandpa.”

Someone said to me, “Your family must have felt jealous – so many of us had a piece of your family, your mom and dad.” No, they always had plenty of love for us, and amazed us with their love for others. They literally taught us how to love. I was amazed again, in these last two days, as hundreds came to the funeral home, at how my dad and mom touched so many people – and so deeply. Where did they find the time? What a legacy. What a blessing for our family and for all of you.

Jim Wallis Sr. was vital till the end. When I called him Wednesday morning, Nov. 8, (the day he died), he asked, “Do you think that we are going to win the Senate too, and not just the House?” This will be a nonpartisan funeral, but it was no secret that the party in power was not popular with my dad. We agreed to talk later that day about the remaining Senate races, but his heart suddenly stopped about three hours later.

Even near the end of his life, he became a favorite friend to so many – about a young woman who worked at the coffee shop he liked, he would say, “We’re really getting to know each other pretty well." Or the nurse, “She’s so nice and really sharp.” And the doctors, “How do they know so much?” When everybody thinks someone was his or her best friend, it says an awful lot about that person.

But what kind of man was Jim Wallis Sr., and how did he become the man we knew?

Actually, his family life was very difficult. His father was shell-shocked in World War I and never really had much left to share. His only sister was always sick, and his mother was distracted. His own home was a rather cold, uninspired, and very non-relational environment. It’s hard to believe that the most relational man I’ve ever known came from such a background – where nobody taught him how to love. Dr. Merrill, his and our early family doctor, once said that my dad had the kind of family background that made people juvenile delinquents. I always remembered that.

Yet Jim Wallis excelled in everything he ever did. He was very bright – a strong “A” student, always curious and learning – and an athlete - on the football team and all-city in track at Redford High School, and then also on the track team at the University of Michigan. From the beginning, he was a natural leader, the captain of his sports teams, and the student body president in both high school and college.

He was always quite humble about it all, though. He was quite a high school “hunk,” but never a “ladies man.” He hardly ever dated until he met the beautiful and feisty Phyllis Morrell, who became the love of his life. She was already a deep woman of faith who broke fundamentalist rules (as my parents always did) by dating an “unsaved” boy, and led him to Jesus Christ. Faith took hold deeply in him and changed his whole life. I believe it was first my mom, then God and Jesus, who were teaching him how to love. Faith taught him how to love.

On the same day, my father graduated from college, was commissioned in the U.S. Navy, and was married. A busy day! He liked busy days, and seems to have passed that on to his kids. Then he was off to the Navy and World War II in the Pacific. His life was changed as a naval officer who also volunteered as chaplain on his ship.

One day last spring, during one of his regular visits to Washington D.C., it was Luke’s personal sharing day at school (all the kids have one) and he brought his grandpa to “share.” When Luke told his classmates that his grandpa had been in the Navy during World War II, one kid asked who won the war. When they heard that we did, the class started cheering, having no idea at their age what war was like. But my father did.
Later that week, he and I went to visit the World War II Memorial, and he told me a story about his visit to Hiroshima, right after the bomb fell. Six decades later, he cried as he told me about the little 5-year-old girl he met there in the rubble of war. I wrote about that talk on the bench at the memorial and the story of the little girl in “The Rubble of War.” My father’s social conscience was instinctive and deep.

Then he came home to a successful career with Detroit Edison and was soon the youngest executive at his level in the company. But his first love was his family, and the new church he and mom helped to start, Dunning Park Bible Chapel, known to many of you. It was our home church, and literally our home away from home. Last night in the car, my little niece Kaylee was complaining that her family always was the last to leave church! I replied, “I know what you mean!” With her parents, my dad helped to plant yet another church in his 80s, Life Church.

People quickly and early recognized a “teaching gift” in this young man. He spoke clearly, deeply, and passionately­ – and he had a great impact on people. My father had a way with words; he was a teacher and a preacher everybody wanted to hear. Speaking was a big part of his lifelong work. He knew how to say things. And people responded. The young adult class, which he taught every Sunday morning, became the hottest thing at Dunning Park – hundreds came through it. It was one of the biggest reasons Dunning Park grew so fast.

But here’s what we saw. Every morning at 5 a.m. my father got up to study the Bible, and then he and my mom would get all us up for school and work at 7 a.m. He always had his “study” in the houses where we lived, with lots of books and commentaries. My father never went to seminary, but I’ve never known anyone who knew the English Bible better. His Bible was full of colored underlining and notes on almost every page – it’s the one thing I want to take home with me.

The best teachers are also lifelong students, and he was. My dad was always eager to learn more, and he was never satisfied with easy answers. Others would say, in effect, “That’s the way we all think around here.” Well, not him. I pray that I will be as open to the thinking and ideas of my children as he was with his.

He became a man of great heart and compassion. As we read today in Matthew 25, Jesus cared about the “least of these,” and my dad did, too. With my father, Jesus always won out in the end. It was Jesus who ultimately made him challenge the easy assumptions of most people around him. He passed his social conscience on to all of his kids. And it is a big part of our lives. Franciscan priest Richard Rohr, one of the best-known teachers of spirituality and one of my best friends, wrote to me from Australia, “I know, and you know, that your father was the foundation for your own deep faith.” He was, and was for all of his children, who are all people of faith.

And he was a foundation for so many others. He taught us to love. He taught us to be people of faith. And that’s the legacy he would have us pass on now – all of us. That would be his commission to us today. Teach everybody you meet how to love, how to have faith. In the bathroom of his guest room where my family is staying now, there is a little plaque that reads, “Love is not a feeling, it’s a decision.” I remember both my parents saying that. (I put it in my suitcase.)

I think my dad was ready to go, but none of us were ready for him to go. But it was a good way to go. One minute he was talking to somebody – a nurse, a new hospital roommate, just as he was always talking to somebody – and the next minute his weakened heart just stopped. He was done.

Now it’s our turn. And his heart will never stop for us.

Our reading from John 14 says, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions. I go to prepare a place for you.” Seven years ago, my mom passed on and got her “mansion/house.” If you knew her, you know that she started fixing it up, getting it ready for him and for us. And if you knew my dad, you know he was about half of himself these last seven years. To be honest, his family, especially his grandkids, kept him alive and smiling. But oh, how he missed her! He still signed his cards to us, “We love you.”

Now they’re together again. The grandkids all talked about that, saying, “He’s with grandma now,” in the place she was getting ready for him and for his family – and, I think, for all of us.
Today we can imagine them together again, hugging and smiling at all of us. My wife, Joy Carroll, a good priest and preacher, isn’t sure what I am about to say is good exegesis of John 14. But I can imagine the two of them getting a big “open house” together even now. You see, their house was always open, their table was always open, and it was always big enough to include a few more.

For my mom and dad, there was always an occasion for a party. And I think they would want me to invite you right now to the biggest and best party they ever threw. Jim and Phyllis would invite you to the “Wallis Heavenly Open House.” Whenever you are ready, they’ll be waiting – just for you. We’ll all be welcome.

My dad and mom were servants in this life. I’ll close with one of his favorite passages – what he might say now to all of us on the day of his memorial home sending. It’s Philippians 2:1-11. I can almost hear him say, “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ Jesus.”

My dad was always one to deflect attention away from himself and give the glory to God. But on this occasion, we also pay tribute to him. Let us rise and give a big standing ovation to one of God’s most faithful servants.

James E. Wallis, Senior: A man of faith!

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