The Next Part of the Race | Sojourners

The Next Part of the Race

Adam Russell Taylor succeeds Jim Wallis as Sojourners enters 50th year

From Jim Wallis: 

In January, Sojourners enters its 50th year — 50 years of working to inspire hope by articulating the biblical call to social justice and working toward a vision of the “beloved community.” When I first began reflecting on that impending anniversary years ago, my first thought was: I don’t want to go back to my desk the morning after that celebration. I also knew that I wanted Sojourners to go on long beyond the founder, that we would need a new generation of leadership to take Sojourners into the next 50 years. That vision of a multiracial, multigenerational “beloved community” — as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis called for — has always been at my and Sojourners' core, something for which we have always engaged, worked, and fought. And when I began to think about a successor, one name kept coming to my mind: Adam Russell Taylor. I first met Adam 20 years ago when he was a student in my first class on faith and politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. He was one of my best students, and the next year, he became my teaching assistant for the course.

Adam came to the class already a committed activist, but he left ready and better equipped to apply his faith to his activism, a clear future leader. He served Sojourners as our senior political director until 2009, when he was selected as a White House fellow in the first year of the Obama administration. He went on to become the vice president of advocacy for World Vision, and then created and led a faith initiative at the World Bank Group. Throughout the years, Adam and I remained close and regularly connected in our work. In 2014, he became chair of the Sojourners board. Adam went from being my student to my boss.

It was Adam’s commitment to justice that always most impressed me, and I have watched him integrate that so deeply with his personal faith commitment — and take it into public life.

I believe that Adam Taylor’s personal story, scholarship, breadth of experience, vision, sense of vocation, and ordination in the Black church all uniquely prepare him to lead Sojourners as its first African American president. In his forthcoming book, A More Perfect Union: A New Vision for Building Beloved Community (fall 2021), Adam paints a picture of this vision; he offers a bit of it in his words below.

This transition has been in the works since 2016, when the board and I first selected Adam as successor. Adam confirmed that calling during a prayer retreat, and later came back to Sojourners as executive director in 2018. It was a process that has only served to confirm, time and again, the decision for Adam to lead Sojourners into its next chapter. During my 50 years with Sojourners, Adam has been involved in some way for the past 20. It’s been an amazing journey, and I’m extremely grateful to Adam, completely committed to his success, and look forward to our continuing collaboration in the years ahead.

This moment also offers me space to move on to a new perch, to do the things I most love and do best: write more books and regular columns, speak and preach, teach and mentor a new generation, convene faith and political leaders, advocate for justice-oriented public policy, and continue to offer my public voice on the intersection of faith and public life at a critical time. As I live into my role of Founder and Ambassador I will continue to write for Sojourners regularly, record my Soul of the Nation podcast, expand my speaking engagements, and stay involved in an ongoing basis with some key parts of Sojourners’ work, including coalitions like the Circle of Protection and the convening of faith and/or political leaders, like our Faith Table.

In addition to that work, I will also be joining Georgetown University as a full-time faculty member in July 2021, at the invitation of President Jack DeGioia, and have been asked to found a new center focused on the intersection of faith, public life, and the common good. Expanding on my 10 years at the university, this position will enable me to focus more on teaching and mentoring, writing and speaking, convening leaders, and advocating for justice, all in a remarkable new venue, while keeping an ongoing relationship with my beloved Sojourners.

I am filled with a sense of gratitude as we make this important transition. I am so grateful for the Sojourners board, for their leadership and expertise in leading this transition process, and in particular for the leadership, wisdom, and grace of my longtime friend, Wes Granberg-Michaelson, as chair of the board; for the several hundred board members who have guided Sojourners for five decades; for the thousands of staff members and fellows who have done the hard and often grinding work for all these years; for all of Sojourners’ co-founders with whom I have lived and worked, for there is never just one founder; and for the current talented staff who will now take this mission forward. And I can’t find the words of thanksgiving for the legions of people who continue to say how Sojourners has changed their personal and vocational lives and, through them, has helped to change both the church and the world. Early on, I told one of my mentors, Dorothy Day, that we were starting a “radical Christian community.” She said that is how Catholic Workers started, but it then became more of a school. That is also what happened to Sojourners. We have also tried to do what another of my mentors, Vincent Harding, always told me: “You can’t start a movement, but you can prepare for one.”

For Adam, for coming home to Sojourners, for giving us the right person at the right time for this transition, I am grateful. And I look forward to the road ahead for all of us.

For these 50 years, all I can say is: Thanks be to God.

From Adam Russell Taylor:

In the fall of 1999, I was a first-year student at the Harvard Kennedy School. We only got to choose one elective class in our first semester, which meant there was extra pressure to choose wisely. A friend encouraged me to sign up for a new course on the intersection of faith and politics taught by an adjunct professor named Rev. Jim Wallis. I regret to admit that I had never heard of Jim or Sojourners at that point, even though I grew up in the church and had started a journey into ordained ministry. In retrospect, my friend’s intervention feels providential: Taking Jim’s course was transformational in the context of my vocation and career, catapulting me on a trajectory that has continually intersected with Sojourners in so many ways. While I’m deeply grateful for all of the other professional opportunities and leadership opportunities that I’ve had over these 20-plus years, my sense of calling kept leading me back to Sojourners.

Thinking about the role that Jim played early in my career — as my professor and mentor, then friend and colleague — I’m incredibly excited about his new role at Georgetown University, teaching and leading a new center focused on faith in public life. It seems like the perfect next perch to build on nearly 50 years of tireless activism, writing, speaking, and convening to advance racial justice and peace.

I’m also grateful for Jim’s many memorable quotes, many of which have become a part of the ethos of Sojourners' work and mission. Two of my favorites, which I will carry with us, are “don’t go left or right but go deeper” and “hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.” Our nation is at an inflection point in which going deeper and mobilizing hope will be essential for the work of healing our broken politics and building a radically more just and inclusive multiracial democracy.

As part of the True North Leadership program over a year ago, I was charged with creating a purpose statement that could integrate and be applied to every facet of my life. Being pithy is not my forte, so it took many attempts and countless revisions to whittle down my sense of mission to this short statement: “to run a relay race that spreads ubuntu and builds the beloved community.”

As a track athlete, I was drawn to the analogy of a 4x100 relay. While I loved track and field as a sport, the one drawback I saw is that it is often an overly individualistic sport — except for the relays. And the 4x100 is the quintessential relay. It requires getting a baton around the track with absolute teamwork and precision: One dropped baton or botched pass can disqualify a team or ruin the race. This is also fitting for leadership transitions: While this journey has required intentionality and collaboration between Jim and me, it was also made possible by the ongoing support and leadership of the Sojourners board and staff, who have all been instrumental in making this round successful. I’m deeply grateful to Sojourners’ board of directors, who have been steadfast in shepherding this transition, and I am humbled and honored to serve moving forward.

The concept of ubuntu, which Archbishop Desmond Tutu simply defined as “I am, because we are,” has become more than simply the philosophy that I embraced after spending six months studying in South Africa in 1995 — it has become the lifestyle that I aspire to. As our nation — and indeed the world — look to overcome the raging coronavirus pandemic, the ethic of ubuntu is essential. And, as Jim also reflects upon, a commitment to building beloved community has long been embedded in the DNA of Sojourners, first when the organization started as a community and now as it has evolved into a nonprofit organization dedicated to articulating the biblical call to social justice and inspiring and equipping Christians to put their faith into action. The beloved community is one in which people of different backgrounds recognize that our individual well-being is inextricably linked to the well-being of others. It is a society built upon and committed to extending liberty and justice for all and that embraces interdependence, empathy, and love. It is also a society in which neither punishment nor privilege is tied to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status and where our diversity is celebrated and valued as a source of our strength and shared prosperity.

I have long been drawn to the word sojourn, which means to be in but not entirely of this world — to be constantly on a spiritual pilgrimage. At our best, sojourners pursue and advance the biblical call to hesed, tsedeq, and misphat — of steadfast love, communal righteousness, and justice. Through the continued work of Sojourners magazine and our mobilizing, I’m hopeful that we can help the church become a balm that bridges many of our most intractable divisions, as well as a vehicle that challenges hearts and minds to pursue the common good and prioritize the disinherited.

I’m excited to work alongside such a talented and dedicated staff as we work together to tell important stories and offer thought leadership through our magazine and sojo.net; strengthen our advocacy impact with a new administration and Congress to advance bold policy change around poverty, climate justice, immigration, nonviolence and peace, women and girls, and racial justice; expand our international partnerships by further supporting and amplifying the voices of Christian leaders and organizations that are advancing justice and peace; significantly grow SojoAction and the Faith-Rooted Advocates Network; build on our voter protection work through Lawyers and Collars and scale up our racialized policing and criminal justice work; and so much more.

As sojourners we are called to be both creatively maladjusted to the brokenness and injustice of what is, and committed to be what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. described as “transformed nonconformists” — to close the gap between what is and what ought to be. As I sojourn with you, I’m anxious to listen and learn from you as we work tirelessly to inspire a greater commitment to social justice across the church, in our nation, and throughout the world.

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