Wallis, Jim | Wheaton College Archives & Special Collections
Jim Wallis, author, speaker and activist is founder of Sojourners Fellowship, dedicated to proclaiming and practicing the biblical call to integrate spiritual renewal and social justice. Born in Redford Township, MI, near Detroit, Wallis grew up in a privileged middle-class environment, attending Bible camps and worshipping with the conservative Plymouth Brethren. An athlete and diligent student, he loved the tales of Robin Hood, recalling: “Taking from the rich and giving to the poor seemed like a good idea to me.”
As a result of his father’s corporate raises, the family periodically relocated to affluent neighborhoods; as their material wealth increased, so did teenaged Jim’s cynicism toward the values he had been raised to respect. Dissatisfied, he quit sports, his grades plummeted and he drifted from his faith. “Before long I started wearing tight pants and pointed shoes,” he recalls. “My father especially hated my long hair, as it symbolized to him my rebellion.”
In the late 1960s, race riots exploded in Detroit and other metropolitan American cities. Throughout childhood, Wallis had noticed that there were no black faces, or any other minority, represented among his church assembly. He investigated inner city neighborhoods where, to his shock, he discovered a disheartening race/class disparity. “Detroit in the 1960s was two communities,” he writes in Revive Us Again: A Sojourner’s Story (1983), “one white and one black, separate and dramatically unequal.” Observing the country’s pervasive discrimination and its consequent violence, he wondered what action evangelicals were implementing – or not – to relieve the impoverished.
In 1966, Wallis enrolled at Michigan State University where radical students raged against U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Sympathetic to the cause, he organized debates against racism, poverty and war, for the first time encountering arrest and national media exposure. Although Wallis’s break with Christianity achieved completion during the antiwar movement, he eventually realized that permanent change would be effected exclusively through spiritual transformation, specifically in surrendering to the atoning work of Jesus Christ. The declaration of Christ’s forgiveness of sin must stabilize all efforts.
Seeking answers, he returned to his New Testament. “The way of life described in the Sermon [on the Mount],” he writes, “is truly revolutionary, much deeper and more radical than the revolutionary movements of which I had had a taste.” Long interested in theological issues, he decided to attend seminary at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois.
Wallis’ consuming concern for social injustice attracted other students who participated with him in peace vigils and campus discussion forums, in addition to demonstrating in Chicago and elsewhere. These friendships formed the basis for the Sojourners Fellowship, its name derived from Hebrews 11:8-10, describing God’s people as pilgrims on the Earth, just passing through.
Less enthralled with Wallis, however, was Trinity’s administration and alumni, who frequently confronted him concerning his activism and the negative publicity it attracted to the college. Once, to assuage doubts, he received summons before the board of trustees to affirm his testimony of faith in Jesus Christ.
One weekend, Wallis and a few friends were hired to house-sit (at the home of the broadcaster who voiced the Jolly “ho-ho-ho” Green Giant commercials). There they conceived the Post-American newsletter, later becoming Sojourners magazine. Shortly after, Wallis and his associates determined to establish a commune in Washington, D.C., to serve in destitute neighborhoods. When Wallis moved east, another group espousing similar interests splintered, journeying to the Upper Peninsula, MI, to form the Menomonee River Fellowship.
Arriving at Washington, D.C., in 1975, the Sojourners settled in Columbia Heights, and immediately implemented their agenda: “…We dedicate ourselves to no ideology, government, or system, but to active obedience to our Lord and His Kingdom, and to sacrificial service to the people for whom he died.” In addition to publishing the magazine, the “Sojo” faith communities continue to pursue youth ministry, operate food kitchens, conduct worship and explore housing options for underprivileged families.
Wallis, an evangelical, cites two profound influences on his career, both Catholic. The first, Dorothy Day, founded the Catholic Worker, a religious community devoted to nonviolent social change. ”Dorothy was a mentor for me and taught valuable lessons about the courage it takes to be ‘prophetic,’ to speak to the deeper causes of things.” The second, St. Francis of Assisi, founded the Franciscan Order, dedicating his life to serving the poor. “What I saw was Christ vividly incarnate in the life of Francis,” Wallis recalls. “It was like meeting Jesus afresh.”
Amid the activism, Wallis stresses the need for attending to one another, families, kids and ourselves. In dealing with campaigns and projects, he says, one is ultimately dealing with people; integrity and ethics must hold an unshakeable center. Fun, also, is a vital grace in public ministry. “If a movement doesn’t produce good jokes and good songs,” he reflects, “it probably isn’t worth joining.”
Wallis is the convener for the Call to Renewal, a network of churches and other faith-based organizations providing a spiritual politics beyond the traditional categories of Left and Right. The Call directs Evangelical, Catholic, Pentecostal and Anabaptist churches to local and national events for reflection and action.
When not lecturing, he resides in Washington, D.C., with his second wife, Joy Carroll, and their son, Luke. Joy, one of the first women ordained in the Church of England, served as script consultant and inspiration for the BBC comedy, The Vicar of Dibley, starring Dawn French.
Wallis is the author of The Soul of Politics (1994), Who Speaks for God? (1996), Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher (2000) and God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It (2005). He is a fellow at the Center of the Study of Values and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School, and teaches at the university’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.