The Theory of Change That Sustains Sojourners | Sojourners

The Theory of Change That Sustains Sojourners

Members of the early Sojourners community.

Over the past 12 months, Sojourners has been celebrating its 50th birthday. To be honest, it wasn’t always clear we would make it this far — especially when you think about how we got started and what we have overcome.

In the early ’70s, a group of seminarians at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill., began meeting to discuss what they saw as the failure of U.S. evangelicals — especially white evangelicals — to engage with issues of racism, poverty, and the Vietnam war. In 1971, these students, including Jim Wallis, Joe Roos, and Bob Sabath, launched a publication to spread their message to other Christians who might feel the same or could be persuaded to do so. The first issue of their publication, The Post-American, featured a cover image of Jesus Christ wearing a crown of thorns and draped in the American flag, accompanied by the words “...and they crucified Him.” As Joyce Hollyday wrote for Sojourners’ 10th anniversary, the first few issues “were typeset by Bob Sabath on an archaic typesetter rented from an underground Chicago newspaper. The group had only $25 to put toward the task—the price of a day’s rental. Bob was up all night typesetting while the others proofread.”


Sojourners co-founder Bob Sabath at the typewriter.

These seminarians started an intentional community in Chicago and continued to publish The Post-American. After two years, the publication had 1,200 subscribers; after five years, nearly 20,000.

In the fall of 1975, the group wanted to bring their countercultural witness to the heart of American empire, so they moved to the Columbia Heights neighborhood of Washington, D.C. They marked their new beginning and broadened vision by changing their name to something that evoked their intent to be people of God who are “fully present in the world but committed to a different order,” or Sojourners. They continued to publish a magazine, live in intentional community, and worship together, but they also organized national peace and justice events and started ministries in their neighborhood, including the Sojourners Neighborhood Center, which provided after-school and summer programs for local children. Sojourners went on to play a key role in anti-apartheid, nuclear freeze, sanctuary, anti-poverty, and peace movements, among others.


Members of Sojourners at a protest against Rocky Flats, a nuclear production site in Colorado that had been linked to land contamination. Photo: Sojourners Archive.

Half a century later, a lot has changed, but we remain committed to inspiring Christians across every tradition to put their faith into action for justice and peace and strengthening faith-inspired movements for change. I count myself as one of those Christians who has been inspired by Sojourners’ work over the years; I am forever grateful that I made a last-minute schedule change in my first year of grad school to take a class on faith and politics taught by an adjunct professor named Jim Wallis. That course changed the trajectory of my vocation. I am honored to have succeeded him as the president of Sojourners more than 20 years later.

As I’ve thought about the future of Sojourners alongside our staff, board, and partners, we’ve considered some key questions: How do we engage young folks (and older folks!) who are skeptical of both institutions and religion? What will persuade more Christians to put their faith into action and challenge the distorted U.S. cultural and religious narratives? How should we balance the need for prophetic truth-telling with the need to build bridges across ideological and cultural divides?

We consider these and other questions knowing we face considerable challenges to our mission and vision, including anti-democratic politics, culture wars that scapegoat LGTBQ+ youth, a worsening climate crisis, and a resurgent white Christian nationalism — to name just a few.

But we’re clear about the future we want to see: We want to see racial justice and radical inclusion embraced as central tenets of Christian discipleship.

We want to see Christians, as well people who identify as spiritual but not religious on the front lines of protecting democracy; advancing racial, gender, and climate justice; and embracing a commitment to radical inclusion, including an unwavering commitment to defend the dignity and rights of LGBTQ+ people. And we want to replace a politics fueled by fear, hatred, and division with a politics that promotes the common good, uplifts the most vulnerable, and enables everyone to thrive.


A worship service in the early Sojourners community, circa 1979.

We’ve often been anchored by Paul’s words to the Roman church: “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (12:2). Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. offered my favorite remix of this text when he preached that the “saving of our world from pending doom will come, not through the complacent adjustment of the conforming majority, but through the creative maladjustment of a nonconforming minority.” I love the way King combines a commitment to being creatively maladjusted to the brokenness and injustice of the world’s patterns with being a “transformed nonconformist.” In other words, inner transformation inspires and causes us to seek outer transformation. This has been — and will continue to be — our charism and our theory of change.

At our best, all of us who call ourselves sojourners pursue and advance the biblical call to hesed, tsedeq, and misphat — of steadfast love, communal righteousness, and justice. Through the continued work of our publication, mobilizing, and advocacy, I’m hopeful that we can help the church and people of faith become a balm that heals many of our most intractable divisions, as well as a bold, prophetic force that changes hearts and minds to pursue the common good and prioritize the disinherited.

I am so grateful to be sojourning with all of you and look forward to doing so for many years to come.