Seattle now has nine billionaires and 10,000 millionaires, according to a National Public Radio report a few weeks ago. A recent U.S. News cover story proclaimed, "The Rich Are Getting Richer." Housing prices in economic boom towns like San Francisco leave us in stunned disbelief, as do amazing news reports of investors who gain or lose $6 billion in one week’s stock market trading. Even the overused phrase "record breaking economy" seems old hat now when there are new milestones reached and records broken almost every day.
Clearly the "permanent boom" has done a lot of individual good for many people. But what will it mean for the common good? The same NPR report told of the ever-widening gap between rich and poor and the crumbling of public institutions such as schools. The rates of evictions and homelessness in San Francisco are also skyrocketing, and a very troubling moral picture is emerging. In the same news program, we hear that NASDAQ has reached an all-time high, then learn that new studies show alarming child-poverty rates. We learn that the number of U.S. millionaires has quadrupled from 2 million to 8 million in the last 10 years, but that 1.3 million people will become homeless sometime this year and 30 million people will experience "food scarcity," otherwise known as hunger. A recent New York Times Sunday Magazine cover story speaks of "The Invisible Poor," while a front page piece the same week in the Times explores the consequences of a new syndrome called "affluenza" on the children of the rich.
These gaping moral contradictions and growing spiritual concerns are beginning to awaken the churches, in particular, to their responsibilities and, indeed, to their prophetic vocation. For the first time in more than 100 years, churches from across the political spectrum are coming together on a social issue—poverty. The growing unity includes black churches, Catholics, mainline Protestants, and even conservative evangelicals who recently have been more known for their involvement in other social issues.
And those churches are doing something about the problem. Faith-based grassroots programs are being run in neighborhoods across the country. And now, under the auspices of Call to Renewal, church leaders have joined together in a new "Covenant to Overcome Poverty," and are starting a 10-year campaign by getting 1 million signatures from their members.
COVENANTS ARE an ancient biblical tradition and could prove especially powerful in being applied to this issue. The covenant is as simple as it is potentially life changing and even nation changing. It’s personal, asking people to "prioritize" families suffering poverty as they look at their own families, vocations, time, and energy. Most middle-class people could do that. It asks that we decide our financial choices in ways that promote economic opportunity and justice for those who are poor. Think what a difference it could make if some of the newly rich would do that.
It’s political but nonpartisan, with a commitment to evaluate all candidates and public policies by their impact on relieving poverty. That’s a good challenge for Republicans and Democrats whose candidates for president are both focusing much more on soccer moms and stockbrokers than low-income heads of families who are working more than full time but remain poor. The covenant also talks about nurturing the bonds of family and community while seeking racial reconciliation in a still divided society. In short, the covenant is about the common good and how to include those who are currently being left behind in the economic boom—the bottom quintile of the population, including 14 million children.
I invite you to sign the covenant on the opposite page. But more than just signing, we ask you to take the covenant to others: your friends, church members, coworkers. The media are simply not going to carry this message (that is, until we get a million people to sign on). This will be a grassroots effort, led by people who really care about the issue. So photocopy the covenant. Take it with you to church on Sunday, to work on Monday, to your friends on the weekend. Fax it, mail it, e-mail it to everybody you believe would want to sign. If all the churches and faith-based organizations push the covenant through all their networks, we could reach a million people—and more. But it will take all of us.
By Labor Day, we hope to have a good start. Then we will present the covenant to candidates of both parties, including Al Gore and George Bush, and challenge them to sign and, by doing so, to put overcoming poverty on the national agenda. And even more important, we will have many names to serve as a base for a broad grassroots and faith-based movement to overcome poverty. Join us and together we can make a difference.
The churches can and should lead by example, but we can’t do this ourselves.
Including the bottom fifth of our citizens and their children into our prosperity will require the involvement of every sector: business, labor, government, and the whole nonprofit world of organizations. Let’s turn the individual good into common good. As Rabbi Hillel, a contemporary of Jesus, said, "If I am not for myself, who will be? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?"
JIM WALLIS is editor-in-chief of Sojourners.