Sojourners began as a community. A small one, but one with big ideas about faith, politics, and social justice. In 1971 at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, the group met for “God parties” and sang “Joy to the World” — the version by Three Dog Night, of course. They decided to start a magazine, which they named the Post-American — a magazine that would later come to be known as Sojourners.
The community and the magazine left Illinois in 1975, trading the college green for the inner-city Columbia Heights neighborhood of D.C. There, Sojourners and one of the founders, Jim Wallis, began to draw attention. People were taking note of this faith community that was advocating for justice and calling for change.
Then came the requests. They had heard Jim Wallis speak, they had read Sojourners magazine, they wanted to visit the community, and they were willing to travel. Members of the Sojourners community discovered they needed a plan for the people who were now visiting D.C. to volunteer and experience community alongside them for various lengths of time.
In 1985, a plan was set into the place: The Sojourners Internship Program.
The first group of six interns moved into the Sojourners Community that January and began year-long positions in the Sojourners neighborhood and outreach centers.
In the third year of the program, the schedule was adjusted to accommodate recent college graduates. Instead of working January to December, interns would now work August to August. For many years, the program remained this way, with interns cycling in and out of the community each fall.
Then in 1998, after a series of transitions, the Sojourners intentional community officially disbanded. Members remained committed to the mission of working together for social justice and the value of intentional living wasn’t lost on those who had experienced it. So, the tradition was passed on — to the intern program.
Each year, seven to 10 adults would continue to be selected for the program, carrying their belongings up the steps of a Columbia Heights row house and embarking on a year of community living: Sharing meals, finances, and a commitment to discipleship. Together, the cohort would carry on the valuable work of sustaining each other as they worked for justice.
More than 30 Augusts have come and gone, and nearly 300 people have held the title of being a Sojourners intern.
This year, it was announced that the 34th cycle would be the last to hold that name.
The program will remain intact, and the 35th group will keep their positions in Sojourners’ D.C. office. However, they and the cycles to come will now be known as Sojourners fellows.
The Sojourners interns had been working 8-hour days in roles essential to the organization’s functioning. They were entitled to health benefits, vacation, and sick leave. They were provided housing and food. They were spending a full year in the office doing work with a lasting impact.
The title needed to reflect that.
“Intern conveys less than what our participants do,” said Karen Lattea, vice president and chief human resources officer at Sojourners and a former member of Sojourners Community. “It doesn’t convey a full-time position.”
For Jenna Barnett, Women and Girls Campaign coordinator at Sojourners and a member of the 31st Sojourners intern cycle, the name change wasn’t just a labeling issue, it was also a justice issue.
In recent years, internships in general have been called into question as interns on Capitol Hill have risen up, calling their unpaid labor unfair and demanding a living wage and equitable working conditions. Interns in many for-profit industries have also advocated for meaningful assignments, quality supervision, and protection from sexual harassment. Low-income students have felt socially barred from even applying to internships, knowing that the lack of pay would make their participation nearly impossible.
“Job titles should be commensurate with the work [you’re] doing,” Barnett said. For “respect and accuracy,” the name had to change.
Despite the change in labeling, the mission of the program remains the same - to walk alongside those in their journey of discipleship and vocational discernment.
While the fellows benefit from the personal and professional mentorship, Lattea stresses that it is Sojourners that is better because of the groups that come and spend a year in the office.
“To have people come with new ideas and questions is good for the organization,” Lattea said. “It prevents us from becoming too fixed with the way we do things.”
Barnett knows firsthand the impact the program can have on a young adult - especially those embarking on a life of engaging in social justice work.
“The program is a way to get a good foot in the door in Christian justice work,” Barnett said. “Justice work is only sustainable long-term in community, and this program sets the foundation for that.”
Learn more about the Sojourners fellowship program and how to apply here .