A dream came to me. It was the mid-1990s. Most unusual things began to happen...
The violence in the cities has escalated enormously. Politically motivated crime bills are helpless to stop the growing carnage. The political, business, and media elites don’t have a
clue what to do. Church leaders are just as out of touch with and confused by the realities of life on the bottom of the society as are their secular counterparts. Without a vision, the people are perishing...literally.
Quite unexpectedly, a new voice emerges. Members of urban street gangs in a number of cities begin truces among themselves. "We just woke up," they say. Their language sounds remarkably like biblical conversion talk. Their efforts, first quite unconnected, begin to weave a pattern of gang truces across the country. Even more surprising, these urban youths invite some church people, whose record in the streets they trust, to become partners in trying to turn things around. An anti-violence movement begins to grow.
Both the young people and their church companions know they are facing a spiritual crisis. The violence goes deeper than the random, chaotic, and senseless destruction that paralyzes the nation with fear. The invisible violence of unjust structures, destructive social policies, and perverse values is at the heart of the problem.
The violence, they say, results from a spiritual and economic vacuum in their inner-city communities. An alternative vision is necessary. The young people and the churches begin to explore how the human, moral, and economic infrastructure that has been ripped out of vast urban territories can be put back together. They decide to begin at the grassroots, in the neighborhoods.
Many of their efforts are built with churches in local communities who are willing to take the risk and become involved. Churches open as "safe spaces" and "sanctuaries" from the violence. Pastors and "urban missionaries" hit the streets and do everything from one-on-one evangelism with drug dealers to advocating for youth in the criminal justice system. Everyone agrees with the need for "new spiritual power."
BUT THE PROBLEMS are economic as well. Isn’t that a spiritual issue too? Corporations abandoned the inner cities. They aren’t coming back. Can the churches help to rebuild the devastated urban landscape left behind?
In many places, the drug traffic is the only functioning "market economy" left. As in the source countries in Latin America, the drug trade supports many people. What will they do if people stop dealing drugs? Good jobs for living wages that can support families simply aren’t available to most urban youth. Part-time work without benefits at McDonald’s isn’t going to solve the problem.
But other questions arise. A growing materialism is also devastating suburban congregations and communities. Shallowness, loneliness, anxiety, isolation, individualism, and a lack of community are not just the alarming characteristics of middle-class life; they are also the chief impediments to the formation of vital churches.
People dust off their Bibles. To their great amazement, they find the Bible full of such subjects as money, wealth, poverty, land, work, and economic lifestyle. Especially, they discover an overwhelming number of scriptures about poor people and how they are to be treated. Long ignored in the churches, these economic questions are central spiritual matters in the Bible. They open up an ethic of transformation for everyone and their communities. Small groups begin to form for Bible study, prayer, and self-examination. Before long, such reflection leads to action.
New strategies emerge. In the spirit of the prophet Nehemiah, religious communities and former gang members form an unusual partnership to rebuild the "broken walls" of their cities. Some have visions for myriad small-scale economic enterprises that can re-populate urban communities with new life.
The ideas and energy are plentiful. What is missing are the capital and the technical training to get the new projects off the ground. Big banks aren’t about to lend to former gang members and poor families with no credit rating. Many young people are brimming with entrepreneurial potential, but who will take a chance on them?
Again, the churches begin to look at themselves. Some people point out that their churches have tremendous resources that are doing absolutely nothing—except keeping the churches heavily invested in the economic stat-us quo. The mainstream churches in the United States have an investment portfolio of more than $34 billion, much of it supporting companies and institutions whose purposes don’t reflect the biblical values of economic and environmental justice.
Those who are studying these matters in the small groups begin to ask, Doesn’t Jesus require that we just give all this money away? Others reply that at least they ought to "move it around" where it can do some good. Why not invest in the visions and directions that our churches say they support?, challenge others.
These are controversial questions. For years, the churches’ money has been handled almost solely on the basis of presumed sound principles of fiduciary responsibility. Applying the church’s theology and spirituality to its money isn’t often seriously considered. But that’s just what people begin to do.
PRACTITIONERS of community-based economic development begin to work with the churches. They point out, to most everyone’s surprise, that the loan repayment record of many low-income people’s projects is often better than that of more traditional loan recipients. Examples like the Grameen Bank of Bangladesh are given. This poor people’s bank enables thousands of families to start economic enterprises that dramatically change the quality of their lives and their communities.
Soon financial and human resources from the churches become available for a variety of community-based projects and initiatives. Land trusts and housing cooperatives, low-income banks and credit unions, worker and consumer cooperatives, democratically run community development corporations, and a myriad of micro-enterprise projects begin to spring up. In a "10-Point Plan to Mobilize the Churches," a strong call for community-based economic development is included with evangelism, pastoral work, moral sex education, racial reconciliation, and conflict resolution.
The social action committees and finance committees in local churches begin to meet together, some for the first time. Old polarities between "sound investment principles" and "helping poor people" begin to break down as people come to understand the potential of community economic empowerment. Slowly at first, but then in ever more significant amounts, the churches begin a mighty transfer of their resources—from self-interested financial decisions to "the things that make for peace."
The churches provide "venture capital," taking the initial financial risk for new and creative economic initiatives. But for the church people being converted at the point of their money, it isn’t venture capital; it is simply applying faith to finance.
With the example of the churches before them, and the substantial resources they supply, more traditional financial institutions decide it is now safe to become involved. Banks that are looking for ways to re-invest in their communities and companies that feel they ought to give something back find new opportunities to make positive contributions.
IN A SOCIETY that had become so dominated from the top by a small number of large corporations, a new "grassroots economy" is emerging. With the Cold War over, discussions of new economic ideas, values, and options that go beyond the old tired categories of corporate capitalism and state socialism are becoming commonplace. Concrete community-based economic initiatives make a new conversation possible. People are no longer leaving economics to the experts but are pursuing the kind of political economy they want for themselves, their children, and the Earth.
That is how it all began. It’s in full swing now. Despair is replaced with hope, drug dealing with economic rejuvenation, and violence with a new spirit of community responsibility.
For the first time, many of the former gang youth think they have a future; they believe they have literally been saved. In the process, churches realize that they are being saved too. In fighting for the young people, Christians re-discovered the meaning and power of their own faith. In recovering the biblical call to justice, their own lives and congregations are put back in order.
There are young people in the churches again, and many say it is a dream come true.
Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.