success

Rethinking Success

AS MY EXTENDED family gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table before the latest market crash, conversation with cousins flowed about friends making big money with technology start-ups: “more, more; faster, faster; bigger, bigger; louder, louder.”

A hail of laughter greeted me when I quietly muttered that my ambition was, “poorer, poorer; slower, slower; smaller, smaller; quieter, quieter.”

When Sojourners started in 1971, I was 23 years old. Seven young seminary students pooled $100 each and used an old typesetter that we rented for $25 a night above a noisy bar to print 20,000 copies of the first Post-American, the predecessor to Sojourners magazine. We took the bundles in our trucks and cars to student unions in college campuses across the country and began collecting subscriptions in a shoebox kept in one of our rooms.

For more than a decade, we shared our money in common, trying to live as the early Christians (see Acts 2), and allowed ourselves $5 a month for personal spending. The highest-paid staff person was a young woman from a neighborhood family who wanted an evening cleaning job.

We worshiped together twice a week and opened our homes to our neighbors. When our first child was born, Jackie and I brought him home to a row house in Columbia Heights in D.C. where we were living with 18 other people, including an African-American family and a Lakota couple with some of their extended family from the reservation in South Dakota. You had to be a bit crazy to be in the early community. And yes, we were poor. And we were small.

We tried to slow down. I tacked to my office door Thomas Merton’s warning to social activists about the violence of overwork:

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