WHEN WE chose the name “Sojourners,” we didn’t realize how often we would end up earning that brand. We’re on the move again. Sojourners is moving our office to the Stanton Park neighborhood of Washington, D.C., a five-minute walk from the U.S. Capitol.
A move like this always makes me reflect deeply about our vocation in reference to our location.
When Sojourners moved to D.C. from Chicago in 1975, we deliberately moved to one of the poorest parts of the city and consciously compared our new location to the “catacombs,” which were the poorest sections in Rome. We would move to the outside of power, “the other Washington,” and from there seek to relate to the insiders of political power in official Washington.
Right away, we got very involved in those poor neighborhoods with our new neighbors, whose needs and voices directly shaped our work. We also traveled all over the country and around the world to places where people were asking for help in putting their faith into action, especially in the many places where marginal people had been left out, forgotten, and oppressed. Both locally and globally, it was the poor and vulnerable and those working alongside them whose “voices in the wilderness” filled the pages of Sojourners magazine and, eventually, our digital spaces.
During those years, our voice became increasingly heard in the public square, regularly listened to by millions of people in the media and those in Washington, both in Congress and the White House. This has now become an important expression of our mission.
The altar is set with a drum kit, a keyboard, a saxophone, and, most importantly, a much-loved vinyl rendering of a jazz classic, complete with liner notes. When this church and its 70 members are forced to leave their storefront location at the end of next month, they will pack those instruments as lovingly as they will the shiny brass tabernacle that holds the Eucharist, the brass cross, and the scarlet and gold icons that grace all the walls.
THE BRIGHT LIGHT of a full moon cast long shadows on the snow as the firefighters walked up to my home. It was 2:30 a.m., and they tramped single file through the narrow trench I had dug, the exact width of a single snow-shovel blade. (I’m familiar with my sidewalk. I know what it looks like, and felt no need to uncover all of it from the two feet of snow that fell in late January. It was called “snowzilla” or “snowmaggedon,” but I preferred to identify this monster snow as a “snonster.” But that sounds like a head cold, and it never really caught on.)
The firefighters were responding to a call I made after awakening to the strong odor of burning. It smelled like leftover barbecue, which is an utter impossibility in my household because when we have barbecue, we eat it greedily while emitting animal-like growls to warn away other family members, then lick the empty plates clean in a state of giddy delirium. There are never leftovers.
(Editor’s note: Okay, we get it. It wasn’t barbecue.)
I rushed outside to see if a nearby home was on fire, and I saw nothing. But the smell was still strong, so I felt I had to notify the authorities. Figuring my editor was still asleep, I dialed 911 instead.
I have spent much time blogging out of frustration with the church, gnashing my teeth over the church’s shortcomings. Some have called this negativity. Some have asked me to be more specific about what I want the church to do. I could not do this before. First, I needed to pinpoint my frustrations and disassemble my previous understanding of church. Out of the rubble of my own disillusionment a vision of something new is beginning to emerge. It is time to share this vision however blurry it may be.
This something new looks like congregations so committed to following Jesus by loving all of God's children that they will pour over their current budget and activities to see what can be altered to make room for greater service to the poor and the outcast. Such churches might come to the conclusion it is unconscionable to pay for the upkeep of a building for the sake of its use a few times a week.
This is a tension-filled topic. As Bergthal made public their intent to disassemble and ultimately tear down their building, many could not understand. For some, there is such a deep attachment to our church building, we would rather it be turned into a house or a barn or just anything as long as it can be saved. I have read the upcoming generation is not as sentimental when it comes to material things. I think this is a good and necessary movement but is sure to bring some tension. Finally, we must realize the church is not about buildings, but about people.
Annie Lowrey's recent New York Times magazine article "Washington's Economic Boom, Financed by You" provides a stimulating look into Washington, D.C.'s "economic boom" of the last few years. As D.C. residents, many of us encounter the ongoing transformation of our city every day. We know the area's economy has grown about three times as much since 2007 as the country — largely a result of expanded government spending (primarily in the form of two foreign wars). We also know that the greater metropolitan region is one of the richest in the country. As Lowrey noted, the Washington metro area has seven out of the top 10 highest-income counties in the U.S., including the three highest.
However, Lowrey only tells one side of the story — the rich side. The "economic boom" has largely passed by D.C.'s poor and working people. By not mentioning D.C.'s grossly high poverty rates, the article is misleading.
Amid Washington's economic boom, there is also massive economic displacement, increased economic inequality, and higher rates of poverty.
Being a socialentrepreneur used to be a lonely endeavor. I grew up believing that to be in business meant leaving your soul at the front door -- being ruthless, shrewd, and above all focused on profitability at any cost. But as a businessman, I found myself less interested in the bottom line of profit than in the bottom line of community impact. For example, I started Busboys and Poets as a restaurant and gathering place, but also a social enterprise -- a business with a conscience -- in Washington, D.C.'s U Street neighborhood.
Having grown up in D.C., I was amazed at the dramatic changes that swept various neighborhoods in the 1990s. The U Street corridor in particular was undergoing some of the most vivid transformation.