Spotlight on the Summit 2015: The Elders | Sojourners

Spotlight on the Summit 2015: The Elders

Elders time of blessing, The Summit. Image via Sojourners.
Elders time of blessing, The Summit. Image via Sojourners.

Sojourners' Summit 2015 was greatly blessed by the participation of seven elders — leaders who are fueled by their passion to change the world for the better, who have dedicated their lives to social justice, and who have worked at this mission for multiple decades (read their bios here.)

These movement leaders generously shared their time, wisdom, and experience with the next generation of activists at The Summit, most notably through small group sessions. These sessions were intimate gatherings where elders talked openly about the challenges of justice work: how to weather defeats and remain hopeful in the face of adversity; how to balance the work you are called to do with everything else in your life; and how to share and own personal stories of both success and failure.

For those who participated, it was a wonderful opportunity to learn from those who have dedicated their lives to justice.

The impact was mutual. One elder, Bishop Roy Sano of the United Methodist Church, said, "Thanks be to God for Sojourners, for mobilizing a new generation of progressives who will shape directions of public policy and personal morality in the days to come with integrity of faith."

Here, two other elders share their reflections on the experience.

Marie Dennis, Pax Christi International, Co-President

Much more than an event or a conference, The Summit was the growing edge of the beloved community — a gathering of emerging leaders with deep reach into neighborhoods and communities that are outcast but vibrant, marginalized but standing tall. It was creative and radically inclusive, bringing together people with very different experiences in the struggle for a more just and peaceful world.

To be included as an elder for such an event was a humbling and lovely experience — even more so to share that experience with such wise and faithful disciples as C.T. Vivian and Eliseo Medina, Heidi Neumark and Terry LeBlanc, Katherine Marshall and Roy Sano. I gained much more from each conversation than I could possibly have given!

Everyone present — elders included — was deeply blessed by the many different opportunities available for rich dialogue around critical issues of social and racial justice and just peace — in the U.S., the Middle East, and beyond. The Summit’s process was creative and effective, repeatedly encouraging genuine exchange and the greatest possible participation in every session.

Several moments at The Summit stand out for me. One was the witness of so many community leaders from Ferguson, Mo. Their already-deep experience of struggle in their own community, and of common cause across difference, gave witness to the hope we claim as Resurrection people. To be in the presence of strong leaders from local communities persistently plagued by the effects of white racism was exceptionally poignant, especially as word came to The Summit of the killings at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C.

The Summit’s integration of the local and the global was particularly helpful to me personally. Because so much of my own focus is on international struggles for just peace, I often miss the local connection, failing to pay attention to struggles in my own neighborhood or to support emerging leaders close to home.

At the same time, sessions I attended on the search for peace in the Middle East and nonviolent possibilities for responding to violent extremism were specifically helpful for my work with Pax Christi International. The "fishbowl" process for a session on the Israel-Palestinian conflict enabled a room full of participants with deep experience in and understanding of the region to dig into sensitive and complex dimensions of that conflict. The same was true of the final plenary panel on ISIS, Syria, and Iran. Thanks to a good process, the session was able to tap into the wisdom of excellent thinkers and peace practitioners to explore faithful and effective ways to respond to extreme violence.

The Summit brought together creative ideas, new energy, experience, excellent analysis, and people passionate for justice. Thank you, Sojourners!

Katherine Marshall, senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs

Jim Wallis bounded into a briefing for the elders and launched into his central challenge: we must find hope. And we must find it in ways that are spiritual, practical, and with determination. Jim’s hopeful grit and inspiration infused four vibrant days with activists from all over the country at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

Hope was hardly an easy or obvious message to convey. The mobilization that events in Ferguson had sparked was vividly present, and the horror of Charleston and the Mother Emmanuel AME Church shootings hit The Summit with the force of lightening. There were plenty of reminders that we live in dangerous and difficult times, facing sharp social and political divisions that stymie the many obvious things that must be done. Elizabeth Warren spoke passionately and often angrily the first evening of overlapping injustices, to a chorus of rousing amens.

With some qualms and humility, but with gratitude, I took on the role of elder. That new experience encouraged me to step back a bit and savor the energetic spirit of youth. The Summit called vividly to mind the spirit of 1968, including some of its triumphs and sorrows. I wonder — as is the tendency of elders — if current generations must surmount all the obstacles we have faced in the past, and relearn sore lessons. I wished that I could see the battles we fought to make women true equal partners more at the fore. Perhaps the elder role blends historian, mentor, and dreamer, all roles I savor. The infectious energy nonetheless hints at new approaches, to mobilization and far wider engagement through the wonders of new communications tools

How, Jim Wallis asked, can we continue to be so dumb? Excellent question. There’s so much talent and will and such obvious imperatives for action — police and prison reform, transforming the immigration system, vast inequalities contrasting sharply with waste, widespread violence against women and children, glaring shortfalls in education and health care, and so forth. A Summit of community activists inspires hope that surely we can, together, stir the anemic pace of change. Even if the bold visions of a just, equitable society take a little longer, we can play the role that Marian Wright Edelman suggested: like many small fleas, we can at least make the big dogs uncomfortable as we tackle what she called "America’s birth defects" — racism, agression towards Native Americans, and patriarchy and the denigration of women.

Rousing speeches and examples of what groups and individuals are doing in far-flung places kindle hope at least for the moment. But the real message was that hope is a decision — not a gift, nor even a habit of mind. Peace and hope must be built and sustained. We must decide to create and nurture them, for ourselves and for young people, and faith is a powerful and inspirational tool in this process.

The life and example of Jesus and the inspiration of the Bible were front and center at The Summit. The decision to hope must also come with a true belief that poverty, ignorance, conflict, and injustice are not inevitable or fated, but are obstacles that we can and must overcome. Onward and upward!

Sojourners would like to say a special note of thanks to Hunt Alternatives Fund and their Prime Movers program, whose grant funding made the elders’ participation at The Summit possible.

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