As I say farewell to Sojourners, one word comes most to mind: gratitude. I feel deeply grateful for the past and very excited about the future. The love of my life and my vocation for more than 50 years has been centered on two other words: faith and justice. Therefore, it is a great joy — a dream, really — to take this big step into the next chapter of my life and vocation and be wonderfully invited into two new roles focused on both of those core words.
I have accepted an invitation from Georgetown University to become the inaugural Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy and the founding director of the new campus-wide Center on Faith and Justice. In these new positions, I will be able to focus on the things I most love: teaching and mentoring, writing and speaking, offering media commentary, convening and strategizing with both faith and political leaders across the theological and ideological spectrums, engaging in outreach to both policy makers and local practitioners, helping to change the narrative of faith and politics, and being an advocate for justice — all because of my faith. It is an incredible gift.
I am deeply thankful for the last 50 years with Sojourners; I am honored to be its founder (which I always say was more like a co-founder, along with many others) and will remain an ambassador of this unique organization going forward. And I could not be more supportive of Adam Russell Taylor, the new president of Sojourners. After three years of planning — and with my full endorsement — the board chose Adam to be my successor. He is a dynamic, new-generation thinker, activist, messenger, and mobilizer who is ready to lead Sojourners into the next 50 years of its prophetic ministry.
I have such deep and lasting memories of so many people who have come through Sojourners over the years as well as the countless people — many who I have met on the road — whose lives have been changed and shaped by the Sojourners mission.
Sojourners was never just about a person, but rather legions of people who put faith into action for social justice — and who keep doing it together. The founder moving on is just another chapter in the story, for both Sojourners and for me.
With my farewell, I want to stay deeply connected to you and all the people and communities with whom I have found relationship during these five decades. At the same time, I am very eager to develop new relationships to keep changing the narratives surrounding faith and politics as well as church and state; this has been my life’s work and it will continue in new, creative, and transformational ways. Thanks be to God.
One of my long-time spiritual directors, Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of the Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C., once told me that Christians don’t retire. He wasn’t opposed to people moving on with their lives or leaving their long-time work, but he saw leaving as shifting to a new location to carry out one’s vocation. I still miss those many Potter’s House lunches where he would always first ask me, “How is your spirit?” which will always remain such an important question for me.
The new location where I’ll continue my vocation is Georgetown’s McCourt School of Public Policy where I have taught my course “Faith, Race, and Politics” for nearly a decade. The university’s announcement said the new Center on Faith and Justice “will be devoted to deepening our understanding of the role of faith in society and civic life.” In his kind welcome, Georgetown president John DeGioia spoke of “the urgent contemporary issues at the intersection of faith and justice” that this new center will address. It was Jack who personally persuaded me to move my course on faith and politics from the Kennedy School at Harvard University almost a decade ago.
“I can’t imagine a better community and forum to protect imago dei, the image of God, in all human beings; and serve the common good at this critical moment in history,” I said in the university’s announcement. “The issues of justice run deep; none are more important than the threats to democracy that we are watching in America and around the world which are not just political issues, they are tests of faith. The spirituality of democracy and the soul of the nation will be core to the work of this new Chair and Center.”
This new chair and center will deal with “the faith factor,” examining the relationships between faith and public life both in U.S. society and globally. “Faith and faith organizations have a critical role to play as we consider how government and civil society address issues from poverty to climate change,” said McCourt School dean Maria Cancian in the announcement. Both my new roles will support expanded teaching at and beyond the university, both academic and non-academic writing, and direct outreach to both policymakers and practitioners. I was voted into the faculty as a full-time Professor of the Practice and, frankly, I like that title and think it fits my experience and history.
We plan to go deeper into the integration of faith and moral public policy, showing how and why budgets are moral documents, for example, or how America's original sin of racism must lead us into the kind of repentance that includes repair. The center will try to help reshape the nation’s political narrative by advocating for policies that prioritize the needs of historically marginalized people and communities and increase their ability to thrive and flourish. At the top of the center’s website is my own conversion text of Matthew 25:40, where Jesus says, “whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Our key programmatic areas will focus on racism, poverty, peace, and justice — in all their religious, moral, personal, and systematic dimensions. It will bring together students, scholars, practitioners, religious leaders, policymakers, and members of the media to reshape how faith is discussed, understood, and enacted in relation to our civic life.
One of the most important and exciting parts of the center will be the educational opportunities and partnerships it will create with seminaries and other faith-based institutions, as well as reaching out to leaders from Capitol Hill, faith-based organizations, advocacy groups, and grassroots organizations around the country.
In this time of extreme polarization and partisan obstruction, we plan to convene regular public and private dialogues — large and small — committed to promoting civil discourse and public policies in pursuit of a more compassionate and just society. Seeking justice and building bridges will not be binary choices, but integral commitments. We hope to serve as a trusted source and advocate on the moral dimensions of political issues across many boundaries, reaching government officials, multi-faith leaders, local activists, and a wide audience across the nation.
The focus of this Center on Faith and Justice will be movement, not just institutions, as important as those are. That is something I learned from another one of my former mentors, Vincent Harding, the deeply insightful African American historian who was in the inner circle of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Southern movement. Vincent was always thinking of movement building both spiritual and political — and I hope and pray that we will be, too.
In this new work, I will not be leading an organization, but bringing many together; not starting campaigns, but lifting them up; not just lobbying politicians, but helping them solve problems; not just naming the issues, but helping change the narratives about them. We will have many trusted advisors including scholars, practitioners, elected leaders, activists, theologians, journalists, preachers, pastors, contemplatives, and artists. We will teach and learn prophetic politics with the perseverance that comes from a long-term commitment to change and with the patience to act, wait and see, then act again with the faithful persistence that was shown to me by another one of my mentors, Dorothy Day.
I once told Dorothy that Sojourners was supposed to be to an archetypal community that would change both the church and the world; she told me that was what she intended the Catholic Worker to be when she cofounded it. Instead, she said, the Worker became a school that many people would go through, learn from, and that would change their lives and their parts of the world. And that is indeed what Sojourners became, too.
Since then, I have often told folks that Sojourners’ legacy would not be the things that we have accomplished as a community, publication, or organization, but rather what we inspired others to do including the changes they made in their lives, churches, communities, and movements — and the many transformational things which would come from that.
As I leave Sojourners, I am saying farewell to the faith and life school that I helped to start. But I will never leave it behind; I will always support Sojourners and I will continue to be shaped for the rest of my life by its mission.
And, of course, I want to stay connected to as many of you as I can; you can find my new contact information on Georgetown’s website. I look forward to this new chapter of my vocation and ministry but will always stay connected with Sojourners.