Signs of Real Hope for Social Change

By Becky Garrison 1-25-2008

John Sayles' comments about how film can be a vehicle for social change got me thinking about the positive signs of social change I've been observing recently as a journalist. Simply put, a global spirit seems to abound these days that infuses religion, politics, and the culture at large and transcends organizations and individuals.

On Jan. 21, I attended a lunch hosted by New York Theological Seminary and New York Faith & Justice to kick off Jim Wallis' book tour for The Great Awakening. As I looked around the room, I was pleasantly surprised that the ecumenical spirit I observed at the launch of NY Faith & Justice was proving to be the real deal. My prediction that this was not another PC peace and justice group proved to be right on target. Here in New York City, representatives from Union Theological Seminary and Campus Crusade for Christ seldom come together and break bread. Yet they were present in this room together.

I'll defer to Wallis and the Sojourners staff to fill in the details of the book's content and upcoming revivals. Suffice it to say, when Wallis preached about the need for us to put Matthew 25 into action and several African-American clergy began to chant "Preach it, brother," I started getting chills down my spine. I can't remember the last time I felt this moved by a room full of clergy and lay leaders.

While this particular gathering has a Christian focus, Wallis relayed his hope for interfaith cooperation on areas of mutual concern by relaying his experiences with Muslim and Jewish groups. What binds these religious leaders together is hope, which Wallis defines as "believing in spite of the evidence and then watching the evidence change." While "change" and "hope" have become the latest buzz words in the 2008 election, the conversation I heard in this room reminded me how Christians can be prophetic agents of social change without becoming pawns to a particular candidate.

I was further inspired when I trekked down to Trinity Church, Wall Street. Leading Christian, Jewish, and Muslim theologians gathered to explore the conference theme: "Religion and Violence: Untangling the Roots of Conflict." During these three days of dialogue and discussion, clergy and lay leaders began exploring the resources within each of their respective traditions that could promote peaceful co-existence without losing the unique identities of each faith. In particular, check out Constantine's Sword, a film that captured the essence of this gathering. This story of James Carroll, a former Catholic priest on a journey to confront his past and uncover the roots of religiously inspired violence and war, opens in New York City this April.

I also was encouraged by James H. Cone's appeal to his fellow academics to do theology that moves out of the academy and impacts the person in the pew. (Those who would like to explore this theme further can order the DVD or CD from the Trinity Institute's Web site).

Some church practitioners have been taking Cone's counsel to heart for some time. Thanks to Jonny Baker and Andrew Jones, I'm being kept abreast of some truly amazing social justice actions being undertaken by religious groups that employ both their head and their heart in the U.K. and elsewhere. Also, I'm inspired by the ongoing work of Karen Ward and her band of Apostles over in Seattle. I can't wait for Brian McLaren's Everything Must Change tour to hit New York City May 2-3, not to mention the Jesus for President Tour, hosted by Shane Claiborne, Chris Haw, and friends, and the upcoming documentary The Ordinary Radicals, directed by Jamie Moffett, co-founder of The Simple Way.

My New Year's resolution for 2008 is to "focus on what works." So what's working in your community?

Becky Garrison talks with worship leaders who are reaching those for whom church is not in their vocabulary in her book Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church.

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