Jim Wallis: Bridge to a New America | Live Notes & Reflections

Thank you, Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church for hosting.



Thank you for being among us, and being a prophet in our midst. – Karin Hejmanowski

Racism is not a topic that people want to talk about. And yet, here you are.

I believe that what we need to do, at the bottom of my heart, is to just be the Church. … That is the best hope that this nation has.

“We have to get personal.” – Karin

So, I’m going to get personal. My first conversation: baptized at 8, in the church my parents started, in response to a “fire and brimstone” pastor, and the love of God as told through my mother’s theology.

My second conversion: Why do we live differently in white Detroit than people who live in black Detroit?

To young people: Trust your questions, and follow them.

My friend (Butch) and I had been born in the same city, but lived in different countries.

“If you’re ever lost…” Do you look for a policeman, or hide from them? Learning that difference is when your whole world changes.

“Christianity has nothing to do with racism. That’s political. Our faith is personal.” – Elder who pulled Jim aside after learning his involvement in these social issues.

If my faith isn’t touching the stuff that’s tearing me up inside, then I don’t want anything to do with that faith.

I learned later the phrase that I would respond to that elder’s rebuke, “God is personal, but never private.” And that would get me kicked out of the church. How do we take our faith, and take it to the schools, neighborhoods, etc. How do we take our faith public?

So, after pursuing other philosophies, and being a little disappointed at not finding what I was looking for, I decided to go back to the Bible, and take one more look at this Jesus. I began to read the Sermon on the Mount. And came to Matthew 25:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

This, Matthew 25, was my conversion text, and it keeps converting me over, and over again.

I’ve never read anything so radical as this. As you have done it to the least of these?! Those on the edges. Proximity to them is proximity to me. So, I signed up, not as a Christian, (I wasn’t ready for that), but for following this radical Jesus

“Lord, we know that you’ll be coming through this line today. Help us to treat you well.”

Bonhoeffer asked his people one question, “Who is Jesus Christ, for us today?” [via: James Carroll writes about this quite poignantly in Christ Actually].

This movement is rising up, to protect and defend the vulnerable. This is central to faith, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions. It is to protect “the other.” It is not only a part of your faith, but it is a test of your faith.

How do we move past our emotion, to action?

We’re making a Matthew 25 pledge:

I promise to protect and defend the vulnerable, in the name of Jesus.

  1. Undocumented Immigrants. In the middle of the political mess are those people who Jesus called “strangers,” the ones we are called to love.
  2. Black Communities.
  3. Muslims. If they call for a registry, there will be a host of pastors, Christian leaders, lining up to say, “Register me. I’m a Muslim.”

This is not just theological. It’s practical, concrete and can protect lives, and can bring lives closer to Christ. What if we acted in ways that deepened our faith, and deepened our relationships with one another.

So, what do I mean when I say, “Racism is America’s Original Sin?” We can’t say “slavery,” ’cause that’s too easy for white people. Early American Christians said, “You can’t do this to people made in the image of God. So we’ll say, they’re not.”

The sin is the dehumanizing of human beings, saying they’re less than we are.

“Slavery never ended, it just evolved.” – Bryan Stevenson

What train do you need to stop, to end this injustice? Repentance doesn’t mean “I’m sorry.” Repentance means turning around and going in a whole new way.

How does the church teach our children that this “New America” (a diverse America) is really cool?

How do you keep your hope?

I learned my theology of hope in South Africa. [Story of Desmond Tutu, “We are on the winning side.”]

We’re not needed at inaugurations. We’re needed back where the party can only be seen through the eyes of faith.

We don’t control Washington, but we control our faith, our resources, our time, and what we do best, which is be the body of Christ. That’s what changes politics. And that’s what makes change happen. This is just a church. But if this, “just a church” decided to be the church in the face of what is happening to the stranger, if we act like we’re supposed to act, it’ll change us, and maybe even change the country. Remember, we, you, are on the winning side.


How do we have a conversation that goes deeper? In the book, I talk about white fragility. We whites don’t like to consider race. We think that race is someone else’s problem that we can be helpful to. “White Christianity” is an idolatry, and it separates us from God. We’ve got to get past “drive by diversity.”

What is the motivation to keep engaging even when it is painful on all sides? (Citing Bryan Stevenson) The narrative has to change. Proximity is central, proximity changes us. It’s got to be uncomfortable or it won’t be real. Hope is critical. Hope is not optimism. Hope is a decision you make, because of what we call “faith.” Hope means believing in spite of the evidence, and watching the evidence change.

“Protecting” is a message for the strong? What is the message for the vulnerable? We don’t need allies, we need “accomplices.” When the national conversation is despairing about race.

Many of the “nones” are looking for courage. If we start showing them courage, then they want to talk about faith.

If America’s churches are the most segregated, they’re also the most tribal. How do we, as a community of believers, reach out to one another and stand together, locally? It’s not too complicated. It’s a matter of taking what we say what we believe, and actually doing it. [Jim references Steve Stone, the pastor of Heartsong Church in Memphis Tennessee, that welcomed the Islamic Center across the street.]


Wallis has been at the forefront of these justice issues for years, which garners him a well deserved moral caché/authority, in addition to a wealth of experience and wisdom. I was heartened at his main message, that the Church can be catalyst of hope for change and redemption, that our work is central the work of justice, if we simply behaved in accordance with what we believe. I was reminded again at the power of story and proximity to change hearts and minds. We cannot reason our way through an unreasonable fear. Last, I was grateful to be in a room with so many friends and colleagues that are working towards this same end. May our tribes increase!

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