There are questions that rise up out of our souls—questions that shouldn’t be ignored. And if you follow them, they’ll change your life.
That’s what happened to me. As a young kid in Detroit, I knew something wasn’t right. At the Plymouth Brethren church my parents started, we’d sing, “Jesus loves the little children … red and yellow, black and white. They are precious in His sight …” but the only black faces in my church were on missionary slides from Africa. Something seemed wrong.
In Detroit, there were all kinds of Civil Rights movements happening, but not where I lived. I was starting to read newspapers, though—enough to realize that in black Detroit people needed jobs, they were hungry and homeless. I started asking questions: Why does life seem so different from ours just a few miles away? The adults told me I was too young to ask these kinds of questions. The only honest answer came from an elder at the church who said, “If you keep asking these questions, son, you’re going to get yourself into a lot of trouble.” And he was right.
My questions of the heart took me into the inner-city. At age 16, I’d drive there, park my parents’ red ’62 Ford Falcon and walk around the streets. Soon, I was going to black churches and even took jobs in the inner-city.
That’s how I met Butch. We were elevator operators in the same place. He was my age, but we’d been brought up in different countries, same city. On my breaks I’d ride up and down with him, and we’d talk about how different our lives were, two young men just wanting to shake the world. I remember the time when Butch invited me to his home to eat dinner with his family. But when I asked him to write down directions, he kept putting me off. Butch couldn’t write. He’d never been taught how. And it really made me really angry because I knew how smart he was. I’d had this wonderful, free, public education, and Butch couldn’t write.
I finally did make it to dinner at Butch’s home. His father had died, and his mother was raising the family. That night, she told me that she had instructed her kids; “If you ever get lost and you see a policeman, run and hide.” The Detroit Police Department had been known to brutalize young black kids. When she said that, my mother’s words rang in my ears. I’d been told that if I were ever lost, to find a policeman. The policeman is your friend, she said. Right then, I realized that Butch and I had grown up in different countries—white Detroit and black Detroit.
When I brought all my learnings from the city back to the church, they told me, “Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s a political issue, and our faith is personal.” And I said if Christianity ignores racism, then I want nothing to do with it.
So in college, I joined the Civil Rights movement as a campus organizer but eventually found that the student movements I was involved in didn’t have an adequate foundation. I read Karl Marx, Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, but they didn’t satisfy; a spiritual foundation was missing. I decided to take one last look at the New Testament, starting with Matthew. I read the Sermon on the Mount and I was just amazed. This is a whole new order called the kingdom of God, I thought. He wants to turn everything upside down—economic, social, spiritual, political.
Then I got to my conversion text, Matthew 25. Here is the God of history sitting in judgment of those who call Him Lord, saying that what you have done to the least of these, you have done to me. It was the most radical thing I’d ever read, so I signed up. As a seasoned 21-year-old activist, I came back to this Jesus—whom I felt had never really left me.
That commitment led me to seminary in Chicago where a group of us with the same concerns found each other. We met every night in my room to pray and read our Bibles. We decided that Christianity was radical, and we wanted to be as radical as the Gospel was. That was the beginning of what became Sojourners.
That was more than 30 years ago. Since then I’ve traveled to the inner-cities of almost every country in the world. And I still believe that issues of poverty and racism are calling right to the heart of American evangelical churches. How have we ignored the several thousand verses on the poor and the biblical offense of disparity between the ways God’s children live? It’s not enough to keep pulling bodies out of the river. Someone has to go upstream to see what’s pushing them in. The Bible is not just saying, “Let’s do soup kitchens.”
All over the world, I see that we’re really on the verge of a movement. The issue is whether or not the American Church will be part of it. Will we be Christians willing to stand up against the things in our culture that are contrary to the kingdom, or will we be simply obedient consumers?
More than 40 years later, I’m still asking those questions of the heart, letting them take me where they will and trusting them to reveal this radical Gospel.
In 1971, Jim Wallis founded Sojourners—one of the earliest of evangelical magazines to focus on the relationship between faith, justice, politics and culture—and ever since then the self-described “evangelical preacher” has led the charge for social justice around the world. Wallis has brought together pastors, civic and business leaders, and elected officials in the cause of social justice. And in 1995, he was instrumental in forming Call to Renewal, a national federation of churches, denominations and faith-based organizations working to overcome poverty. His newest book is Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street.