A Summit for Change

IN JUNE, SOJOURNERS decided to take part in a little experiment. What would happen if 300 faith and social justice leaders gathered together for a few days to discuss some of the most pressing issues of our time? Our first ever Summit, under the leadership of chief strategy officer Timothy King, had as its tagline: “World Change through Faith and Justice.” Only time will tell how this experiment will play out in the long run, but in the short term I would consider it a great success.

Held over four days in June at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., the conference brought together 296 leaders from churches, faith-based organizations, NGOs, media outlets, business, and politics. Fifty-three percent of attendees were female, and half were people of color; they were drawn from a wide range of Christian and other religious and spiritual backgrounds.

On the first night, when I saw who was there, I knew the Summit was going to be a powerful and wonderful time. Some participants were local Washingtonians. Others came from as far away as Ethiopia to attend. The group included icons of the social justice movement such as Ron Sider, Marie Dennis, Yvonne Delk, Otis Moss Jr., and Tony Campolo as well as newer leaders such as Otis Moss III, Rachel Marie Stone, and Daniel Varghese, a Georgetown undergraduate who celebrated the Summit’s “radical egalitarianism.” As Timothy King mentioned in our opening session, the group looked a lot like the kingdom of God!

The Summit offered seven plenary sessions that covered topics such as “The Stained-Glass Ceiling,” a panel discussion featuring outstanding women church leaders such as Diana Butler Bass, Iva Carruthers, Mimi Haddad, Hyepin Im, Jo Anne Lyon, and Sharon Watkins, and “Climate Change and International Development,” featuring the World Bank’s Jim Yong Kim and Rajiv Shah, who leads the U.S. Agency for International Development. Each day included smaller, salon-type events that covered a wide range of topics such as LGBTQ issues and the church, implicit bias, Pope Francis’ impact on the world, and the future of religion reporting. We even offered opportunities for sabbath and spiritual direction.

We held a reception on the first night that included a special visit from Rep. John Lewis and Sen. Cory Booker. Rep. Lewis reminded us that “we are followers of the Great Teacher. We need to be bold. We can’t be silent.” Sen. Booker gave a rousing speech that turned into a sermon, saying, “When I claim to be a Christian, it should be a radical statement.”

Though the conference featured many big names in the social justice world, what meant the most to us was hearing from people who are working faithfully in the movement. We closed the event on Saturday morning with a commissioning service centered on the concept of hope. Carroll Baltimore, Ron Sider, Marie Dennis, and I, representing “elders” of the movement, all shared reflections about hope and then offered individual blessings for the participants as they shared their hopes with us. Here is what some of them said:

“[My hope is] to give myself increasingly to the presence and work of Jesus in me—surrendering my being more and more completely to breathing his presence into this world.”

“I pray and hope for a world where women and girls do not expect to be abused, oppressed, treated as objects—throughout the world and in this country as well.”

“I hope to witness more confessions of living in diversity and harmony.”

“My hope at the end of these days is that I would allow God to dismantle the dividing walls that I’ve allowed to be erected in my own heart—that I might be an effective justice leader for God.”

 “To find the courage to unself-consciously use my voice for justice.”

 “That blind eyes will see, hardened hearts will become flesh, captives set free.”

“That my life continues to contribute to making God’s ‘kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.’”

“My hope is simply in the possibility of a risen Lord.”

“I am hopeful for renewed faith and courage to speak God’s truth as reason for restorative justice. Above all, I am hopeful for sustained energy for kingdom work!”

“To lead our church into a greater belief and practice of peacemaking with justice.”

“I hope to follow Jesus with my whole life.”

“My hope is that churches will become welcoming places for refugees, immigrants, the disabled, and the vulnerable, and allow them all to share the gifts that God has given them and us.”

Amen, may it be so. 

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners magazine.

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