I had a conversation with a young woman I met at a conference recently. The conversation rocked me.
I represented the faith voice on a panel at a major secular conference for philanthropists. The panel focused on the question: “What are we not talking about?”
One of my colleagues focused on the nonprofit sector’s inability to make real just change in our world because they are bound by the interests of donors who are, themselves, part of the 1 percent. Another colleague focused on the glut of nonprofits offering similar services in otherwise abandoned communities. I focused on the need for social movements to bring about a more just world and the role of faith communities in those movements, in particular.
I explained that there was a time in our recent national history when we effectively cut the poverty level in half. According to a recent U.S. Census report, in 1959, 22 percent of all Americans struggled below the poverty line. At the same time, 55 percent of all African-Americans lived below the line. Then, during the 1964 State of the Union address, President Lyndon B. Johnson declared his “War on Poverty.” Over the next year, Congress instituted programs like Medicare and Medicaid, food stamps, Head Start, the Vista program, Job Corps, and Federal Work-Study. By 1974 (only one decade later) the poverty level in the U.S. had dropped to 11 percent. By 1975 the poverty rate in the African-American community had dropped 25 percentage points to 30 percent.
I explained, “We know how to do this. We know how to cut poverty. We’ve done it before. We can do it again. What we lack is the political will do it.”
“And what catalyzed the war on poverty?” I asked. “What gave Johnson the idea in 1964? What gave congress the political will to enact some of the most forward-thinking legislation since the New Deal? A social movement fueled by faith.”
Faith-rooted mobilizing draws from the roots of people’s faith and determines both the outcome and the means of change. Fueled by the vision that Dr. Martin Luther King called “The Beloved Community,” the vision some theologians call the “Kin-dom of God” and the vision scripture calls the Kingdom of God people joined ranks across color lines and class lines and gender lines and they lived into the biblical reality that we are all created in the image of God. And so, these faith communities took creative action.
They walked miles to and from work for a year rather than settle for the backs of buses. And they knocked on doors and signed disenfranchised people up to exercise their democratic right to vote. And they knocked on church doors together and asked segregated churches if they could come in and worship. And they went to jail together and demonstrated that they would rather suffer together than be forced to live and worship apart. And they provided the songs that fueled the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party. And their faith called into question the standardized practice of segregation within their political structures. And they confronted the core spiritual lie of their times — that some people are just born to be masters and others are just born to be slaves.
That was the Civil Rights movement. There were other movements. People of faith fueled or led many of the major movements that created the deepest change in our nation throughout its history: the Abolitionist movement, women’s suffrage, the Labor Movement, and the Environmental Justice movement. Faith has often been the fuel behind mountain movers in America.
Now the question is this: What is the unfinished business of our world today? We cut poverty in half from 1964-1975, but then the War on Poverty transformed into the War on Drugs and our nation turned on the communities that had made the greatest strides forward. We stripped services that had previously pulled people out of poverty. At the same time we refocused and torqued up our laws and our enforcement and zeroed in on the petty crimes of black men, thereby gutting the African-American community of its bread-winners and its boys. By 1983 (less than a decade later) poverty in the African-American community had switched direction again and climbed 5.7 percentage points. 35.7 percent of Black people were under the poverty line.
“And there is our broken immigration system,” I explained, “and education, and climate change. These are the greatest challenges of our times. We need social movements to move these mountains and the faith community has a key role to play.”
After the panel session people milled about and several speakers and audience members share that they appreciated my focus on social movements.
Then a young woman walked up to me and she was shaking and near tears. She spoke through an unsteady voice: “I don’t know why I’m having such a strong reaction to you, but I wonder if I can just be near you. Can we sit down for a cup of coffee?”
We talked for two hours. She thought she wanted to talk about movements, but what she really wanted to talk about was God and Jesus and the Roman Empire and the Lord’s Prayer and the Sermon on the Mount and Matthew 25 and the image of God on Earth. And she couldn’t believe it was really possible that Jesus cares that much about the things she cares about!
My new friend is coming alive to the soul within her — that part of herself that yearns for right relationship with God and with her neighbors. Last week she emailed me asking if I knew a church in her area that preached and moved on the words of Jesus today like the saints of the movements of old. I put out the word on Facebook and received two recommendations from friends in her area — two.
My heart said, “There must be others.” But my brain knows the facts. Every single arm of the church has experienced decline over the past two decades. A report from ChurchLeaders.com explains that we’ve created a church consumer culture. The report describes the struggle of today’s church leaders. Leaders are so busy surviving, offering programs or entertaining parishioners that many have lost their sense of mission to their surrounding community and to the world. And many more have disengaged from witness against structural evil all together. It just feels like too much.
I was struck by this woman. Her shaking body and tear-filled eyes, her questions and her follow-through showed me that in the deepest recesses of our beings, we all ache for God. The world is hungry for the God who cares about them and their neighbors, the God who offers intimate relationship with the divine and at the same time moves against mountains of structural injustice.
The world is hungry. And people need the church to feed them.
Perhaps you are a faith leader in the kind of faith community my friend is looking for. Or perhaps you are working to move your faith community to put faith into action in a way that bears strong witness to the God who cares and has the power to move the mountains of injustice.
This Advent season I feel God pushing, working to birth something new in the church, trying to push us out of the four walls of safe sanctuaries and back into the streets where faith grows through action and the church grows through public witness.
Perhaps this Advent season the church, the bride of Christ, is the one who is pregnant? And perhaps a new movement of the spirit, the kind that invites the hungry to feast and moves mountains of injustice, is the baby waiting to be born … again.
Lisa Sharon Harper is the Director of Mobilizing at Sojourners. She is also co-author ofLeft, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politicsand author of Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican ... or Democrat