Jim Wallis: Conviction, Purpose, Action

Bill George

Throughout Discover Your True North, successful individuals discuss how they became authentic leaders. This forum is a chance to delve deeper into the thoughts and journeys of these influential leaders. In this profile, we will talk about the importance of turning purpose into action with Sojourners founder Jim Wallis.

Thank you for joining us, Jim. You’re one of this nation’s leading social justice activists. We know it’s hard work—you’ve been arrested more than 20 times during protests. What keeps you going?

One word: faith. I absolutely, without a doubt, 100% know my purpose in this world, and it is to care for those who need fighting for — the poor, the hungry, the marginalized. That is both my job and my passion, and it has been for my entire adult life.

You’ve been a part of some very famous protests, including the student strike that shut down Michigan State University after the violence at Kent State University in 1970. That was a very volatile time in America’s history. What was it like for you?

I’ve been tear-gassed more times than I can remember, for one thing. Then and now, I’m taking a public stand about divisive issues that cut right through the noise and hit at the heart of what people believe. To be an evangelical and to be fighting poverty or to be standing against racism or be opposed to the war in Vietnam … that was quite something, especially then. It was like a voice crying out in the wilderness.

And that’s where knowing your purpose comes in. When you talk about your purpose, your True North, you’re talking about the thing that will get you up in the morning and send you back out, even into the wilderness. Everyone has that thing. It’s your vocation — the thing your soul cries out to do. The place where the needs of the world intersect with your gifts. And when you find it, you’ll get up in the morning and pursue it, no matter what.

You founded Sojourners, a progressive Christian organization and movement committed to social justice, at that same time period, and you’ve spent your life building it. It’s now a nationally renowned organization. But even though you’re the spiritual advisor to President Obama and a nationally respected figure, you’re still very challenging of established structures.

I’m not afraid of being challenging. I have been since the ‘70’s. The accomplishments of the Civil Rights movement were only possible because many brave Americans, including many Christians, non-violently disobeyed unjust laws and the authorities who sought to enforce them.

So I will continue to fight for the justice I believe in. I will continue to try to protect the marginalized and vulnerable that I see all around me, and all around the world. To lift them up, and to act to change the conditions that have created their oppression. And I will try to convince everyone I can that it’s absolutely necessary.

Those are powerful words. What started you down this path?

It all started at church. I grew up in an all-white neighborhood in Detroit, and my pastor would say things about how Jesus loved all the children of the world, and I thought — “Well, how come I don’t see any black people here?” But when I asked, I was told that I was too young, or that I’d get in trouble for asking these questions. Once a church elder told me, “Jim, you have to understand that Christianity has nothing to do with racism: that is political, and our faith is personal.”

And I left that church. Because the political is personal. Christianity is about race. It is about every issue in which someone is taken advantage of, oppressed. At this moment in our country, race is at the foremost of those issues. My next book will be about that.

Thank you for your time today, Jim. Your conviction is deeply inspiring. We just have one more question: What do you have to say to tomorrow’s leaders?

Build a better world. It’s that simple. Find your purpose, put it into action, and use it to create a more just, generous and sustainable world. And as you journey toward your True North, deeper and deeper into the heart of what you truly believe, I think you’ll find out that you have the power to do so.

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