1970: A group of students, including Jim Wallis, Joe Roos, and Bob Sabath, at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School began meeting to discuss aspects of the church and social issues.
1971 (spring/summer): Members of the group from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School moved in together and began publishing a magazine, the Post-American.
1971 (fall): Members of the group moved into a house in Chicago, where other people, both men and women, began to join.
1972 (fall): Desiring to become more committed to the poor and their struggles, the group moved into two apartments in a low-income neighborhood north of Chicago. Over the next two years, many of the group went separate ways.
1975 (fall): A group of eighteen adults and two babies moved into two houses in a low-income neighborhood of Washington D.C. This new group, which included Jim Wallis, Joe Roos, and Jim Wallis’s sister, Barb, adopted the name “Sojourners.” This also became the new name of the Post-American.
1989-1990: The Sojourners community underwent a division. Members who began to get married and start families no longer felt the communal life was for them, and disagreements occurred over the direction of the group.
1995: Sojourners founded Call to Renewal with other organizations with the purpose of bringing diverse faith-based groups together in order to combat poverty.
2006: Sojourners and Call to Renewal united under the name Sojourners/Call to Renewal.
2007 (October): The Sojourners/Call to Renewal organization returned to Sojourners, maintaining the goal of uniting churches and other group on the issue of poverty.
The Sojourner’s Community began with a group of students at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1970. Jim Wallis, Joe Roos, andBob Sabath, who were part of this group went on to work within the official Sojourner group, while other members entered the ministry or became professors. These students were drawn together by their shared a disillusionment and concern with “the evangelical church’s support of the war in Vietnam and its indifference to racism” (Wallis 1983:77). These students would gather most nights for Bible study, prayer, and discussion. After weeks of these meetings, the group decided to develop a statement, and Wallis was charged with drafting it. The following is an excerpt from the group’s manifesto:
The church has failed to adequately communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to our culture… Because Christians are not living the gospel they are proclaiming, the church has become tragically irrelevant to our times and problems, and is losing touch with the world we live in…
The church lacks a dynamic, biblical social ethic in this time of great national and world crisis. Never has out world so needed the prophetic voice of the church. The Scriptures are clear in condemning social and economic injustice, oppression, racism, hypocrisy, environmental destruction, and the kind of chauvinistic nationalism that gives rise to aggression, imperialism, and endless war. To these critical issues and other forms of human suffering, the church today has been silent, indifferent, or even stubbornly reactionary—fighting against necessary change, supporting and sanctifying the status quo…Biblical instruction is clear in teaching that faith divorced from social justice is a mockery. True spirituality manifests itself in a concern for the needs and rights of people (Wallis 1983:79).
Seven students signed the statement and decided to have it printed. Due to the nature of the statement, the seminary administrative office would not print copies for the group, and so the group printed copies at a nearby Unitarian church. After passing out copies of the statement, the students became known as a radical group on campus and were referred to as the “Bannockburn Seven,” a reference to the affluent Bannockburn section of Deerfield, Illinois where Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was located. The students held a weekly forum to discuss social issues that drew in dozens of students. Along with the forum, the “Bannockburn Seven” also set up a literature table of antiwar material and encouraged students to become involved in antiwar demonstrations and marches in nearby Chicago. What set this group apart from many of the other student activist groups on campuses was their pairing of activism with Bible study and religious gatherings (the group called these “God parties”). The group also reached out to local teenagers, spreading their evangelical message beyond the Trinity campus (Wallis 1983:80-81).
The group was controversial and members often found themselves in conflict with Trinity administration. Wallis even faced being dismissed from the school because of the effects the group was having on the school. The group became known outside of the Chicago area as they traveled to events in other cities (Wallis 1983:82-84). As the group came into contact with others during their travels, they realized that there were a good number of people who had the same concerns and ideas about the church and social matters.
By spring 1971, the group had decided to move into together and start a publication, the Post-American. The name was chosen in order to express the desire for a Christian faith that would break free of the problems of religion in America at the time, including social and economic injustice, racism, and involvement in warfare. In an early issue of the magazine, the group stated, “our small group has found itself to be part of an awakening, a volatile atmosphere, a movement of committed people who have found personal liberation and an ethical basis for social involvement in Jesus” (Wallis 1972:n.p.). The purpose of the magazine was to create a form of communication for spreading information and providing resources about the need for Christian response to what was perceived as an American abuse of power. The group emphasized its Christian outlook in writing that they dedicated themselves “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” (Wallis 1972:n.p.). The group printed thirty thousand copies of its first sixteen page issue. The Post-American was first distributed by members who traveled and sold the magazine. The cost of a subscription for four issues for the first year was two dollars. The group decided that it would only print a new issue if there was enough money made on the previous issue to do so (which they were able to do) (Wallis 1983:93-94).
In the fall of 1971, the group moved into a house in a Chicago suburb and continued to publish the magazine and work on other ways of spreading its message. More people began to join the group, including women and married couples. The group began to develop ideas about how to become more committed to the poor and their struggles. Because of this desire, in the fall of 1972, the group moved into two apartments in a low-income neighborhood north of Chicago. The group, which was made up of members who had largely middle-class backgrounds, wanted to become integrated into a poor, urban environment in order to learn how poor people saw the world and how the Gospel related to this world (Miller 1999).
As time passed, it was clear that members disagreed over how to enact their plans. In Revive Us Again: A Sojourner’s Story, Wallis states, “we believed that the key to community was finding the best structure for it, and our preoccupation with creating the perfect model substituted for the quality of our relationships to each other” (1983:95). After about two years, the differences within the group were too great to overcome, and the group separated. Some small subgroups of members stayed together, once of which included a number of the married couples who formed a community that became the Menominee River Fellowship (Wallis 1983:96-97).
After some time, Wallis and Roos found that others were interested in coming together to live as a community and live out their Christian vision. In the fall of 1975, eighteen adults and two babies moved into two houses in a low-income neighborhood of Washington D.C. Learning from their prior experiences, this group decided to set up some guidelines for their community including the practice of economic sharing. Members were expected to pool their money, which was then used to pay for housing and other expenses (Wallis 1983:98-101). The group also decided to change the name of the Post-American in order to reflect changes that were occurring in the community. The name was changed to Sojourners, the name by which the community started to be known. The name change was seen as a reflection of the community’s growing identity as a Christian community. Wallis had chosen this name because of a passage in Hebrews 11, which refers to the people of God as sojourners. He felt “Sojourners” “expressed the identity of God’s people as aliens who are citizens of another kingdom, fully present in the world but committed to a different order” (Wallis 1983:102).
In 1989-1990, the Sojourners community divided, decreasing from about thirty-seven members to twelve core members. This split occurred as members began to disagree about the direction for the Sojourners and were no longer drawn to their communal life. Many of the members remained active in the social justice causes of the Sojourners (Berger 1996:147-48; Donoghue 1995:143). A vestige of the Sojourners communal setup exists in the internship program (currently in its thirty-third year). Each year, between seven and ten interns are accepted into the program. As part of the program, interns live together as an intentional community, “sharing meals, a common budget, weekly house meetings, and communal prayer” (Sojourners website 2016). Along with having housing, meals, travel, and health insurance costs paid for by their work for Sojourners, each intern receives a monthly stipend of $125 (Sojourners website 2016).
The Sojourners are a Christian community, and thus see themselves as faithful to the teachings of the Bible. While Sojourners hold many of the same beliefs as other Christians, within their group there is a noted emphasis on faith put into action. The focuses of Sojourners magazine reflect the concerns and commitments of the Sojourners community. These include racial and social justice, life and peace, and environmental stewardship. The Sojourners website breaks these categories down further into creation care, immigration, peace and nonviolence, poverty and budget, racial justice, and women and girls. Creation care focuses on human-produced climate change that affects the poor, who are “least able to respond,” and ideas for sustainability (Sojourners website 2016). Sojourners express the notion that undocumented immigrants in the United States are their brothers and sisters. The Sojourners magazine site states that they follow immigrant stories “as our country attempts to navigate a broken system, a polarized political process, a changing demographic, and a new reality for how our nation looks and worships” (Sojourners website 2016). Since its beginning, Sojourners has opposed wars, worked to find nonviolent responses to bring about peace, and called for nuclear disarmament. Another focus since the earliest phases of Sojourners that remains at the forefront of their concerns is how leaders and corporations affect the poor. In connection to this, the group also makes efforts to ensure that the voices of those in poverty are taken into account by leaders and policy makers. Sojourners also work to bring about racial justice by addressing the causes of racism and working to heal communities. Along with combating racism, the Sojourners community strives to resist sexism. Sojourners magazine states that it “was one of the first evangelical publications to lift up feminism,” and today it continues to do so (Sojourners website 2016).
The Sojourners community members, because of the work that they engage in, often find themselves entangled with politics. However, in a number of his works, Wallis makes the point that one of the most significant issues in American society is the portrayal of religion as partisan, and thus the way it is used for certain political agendas. Wallis states in God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It that, “the best contribution of religion is precisely not to be ideologically predictable nor loyally partisan…Faith must be free to challenge both right and left from a consistent moral ground” (2005: xiv ).
The practices of the Sojourners are similar to what one would expect of any Christian group. Members engage in prayer, Bible reading and study, and a weekly worship service on Sundays. According to Berger, Sojourner worship in 1996 included “prayer and singing from the Pentecostal tradition, preaching and communal reflection on Scripture from Evangelical and Protestant traditions,” and weekly communion from their “Catholic roots” (1996:145). Over the years, the Sojourners have worked with other faith-based groups in an effort to focus on social justice issues, rather than specific religious tenets and practices. Sojourners are activity- and issue- oriented, striving to help the community in which they live and anyone that can be reached through social media, speaking events with Jim Wallis, training sessions focused on engaging churches, and other informational content such as newsletters, books, and videos.
The religious basis for establishing communal living, living simply as a way to focus on dependence on God rather than the material world, still plays a role in how Sojourners choose to live their lives. Living simply not only brings Sojourners closer to God, but also allows them to become more acquainted with the conditions of the poor. Wallis has stated that displaying the Sojourners’ way of life, “as if it were a badge of righteousness contradicts the whole spiritual foundation of economic simplicity. [They] live simply not out of obligation and guilt but to be less hindered in serving God and the poor” (1983:153).
Over the years, the Sojourners group has been organized in a variety of ways: first as household communities, then as an intentional community, and now as more of a committed group of individuals. During the early years of the group that would become the Sojourners, there was no established authority (Jim Wallis points to this as one of the reasons this early group decided to disband) (Wallis 1983:95-96). The group that moved to Washington D.C. decided to put a system of authority into place, which included guidelines concerning a communal lifestyle. As members of the Sojourners grew older and started their own families, many realized that the communal lifestyle was not as suited for them anymore, although some decided to live as a co-op with six buildings divided into thirteen units (Berger 1996:143). Communal living still plays a part in the lives of Sojourners interns, who spend a year as part of an intentional Christian community as they learn skills from the Sojourners (Sojourners Website 2016).
In the early years of the community, there was no official process to become a member of the community. However, it was decided that it would be benefit both new and established members to go through a formalized entry process. In the mid-1990s, a member described the process as including meeting with one of the Sojourners’ pastors and asking to become a novice member. During the novice year, the member was required to take on the guidelines of the community, and at the end of the year the pastor and core community would decide on the status of the novice member. When a new member officially entered the community, she or he would begin living communally. If a member decided to leave, she or he would be given back what she or he had brought it (Berger 1996:145-46).
In Berger’s 1996 description of the Sojourners, she states that the group bases “leadership and authority on availability of “gifts” in the spirit-led sense, through a process of prayer and discernment” (1996:146). If the community sees that a member has a certain gift or talent, it will ask that the member share that gift on behalf of the entire community. This applies to areas from preaching and pastoral leadership to administration and hospitality. Berger goes on to say that the Sojourners “have a pastoral team giving oversight, and it is accountable to the whole community” (Berger 1996:147). Jim Wallis, along with being one of the founders of the group, has always held a position of authority, perhaps in large part due to his ability to spread the Sojourners message to others. Currently, he serves as president of the Sojourners organization, with others in a range of leadership positions.
Since its inception, the Sojourners community has been controversial. In Revive Us Again: A Sojourner’s Journey , Wallis describes the cover of the first issue of the Post-American as:
a picture of Jesus wrapped in an American flag, with the crown of thorns on his head. It carried the caption, “…and they crucified Him.”…Jesus was being crucified again by our American Christianity. His gospel had become almost completely lost in a church that had become captive to its culture and trapped by a narrow vision of economic self-interest and American nationalism (1983:16).
As evidenced by this image, Wallis and Sojourners believe that a radical change needs to occur and are willing to disrupt widely held notions about American Christianity in order to highlight the necessity of a change. Sojourners critique both religious conservatives and religious liberals. While this group is “very critical of the conservative religious establishment for its lack of social conscience and ethical compromises, it is no less critical of religious liberalism for its lack of biblical rootage, its disregard for evangelism, and its lack of spiritual life and resources” (Wallis 1976:10).
Sojourners and the magazine they publish express views that are not easily categorized. These views are often too theologically conservative for religious liberals and too challenging on social and political issues to fit in with conservative evangelicals. Over the years, the Sojourners have become known for their beliefs and practices outside of the Washington D.C. area, largely though Sojourners magazine, Jim Wallis’s television appearances, and the twelve books published by Jim Wallis. [Image at right] The titles of some of Wallis’s books including America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America; On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned About Serving the Common Good; and God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It reflect a combination of faith, politics, and social issues that is controversial. Jim Wallis and Sojourners have never shied from controversy and thus have faced criticism from both liberals and conservatives. Some of the Sojourner’s beliefs such as those on climate change and immigration seem to reflect a more politically left group, while their pro-life stance and theological focus seems to align more with the political right. For decades, Wallis has been critical of the way that political leaders “use” evangelicals for economic goals and political power.
Image #1: Sojourners logo.
Image #2: Photograph of Sojourners magazine cover.
Image #3: Photograph of Jim Wallis.
America’s Original Sin website. 2016. Accessed from http://www.americasoriginalsin.com/ on 13 November 2016.
Berger, Rose. 1996. “Sojourners Community: Community Self-Portrait.” Pp 144-48 in Fire, Salt, and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America, edited by David Janzen. Evanston, IL: Shalom Mission Communities.
Donoghue, Susanne. 1995. “Sojourners Community: Community Visit.” Pp 143-44 in Fire, Salt, and Peace: Intentional Christian Communities Alive in North America, edited by David Janzen. Evanston, IL: Shalom Mission Communities.
Jim Wallis Facebook page. 2016. Accessed from https://www.facebook.com/Jim-Wallis-207206302440/ on 9 November 2016.
Jim Wallis Twitter page. 2016. Accessed from https://twitter.com/jimwallis on 9 November 2016.
Miller, Timothy. 1999. The ‘60s Communes: Hippies and Beyond. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.
Rausch, Thomas P. 1990. “Lay Christian Communities.” Pp. 147-69 in Radical Christian Communities. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press.
Roos, Joe. 1996. Interviewed by Timothy Miller for the 60s Communes Project at the University of Kansas.
Sojourners Facebook page. 2016. Accessed from https://www.facebook.com/SojournersMagazine on 9 November 2016.
Sojourners Twitter page. 2016. Accessed from https://twitter.com/sojourners on 9 November 2016.
Sojourners website. 2016. Accessed from https://sojo.net/ on 8 November 2016.
Wallis, Jim. 2016. America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
Wallis, Jim. 2013. On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press.
Wallis, Jim. 2005. God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It. San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.
Wallis, Jim. 2000. Faith Works: Lessons from the Life of an Activist Preacher. New York, NY: Random House.
Wallis, Jim. 1983. Revive Us Again: A Sojourner’s Story, edited by Robert A. Raines. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
Wallis, Jim. 1981. The Call to Conversion: Recovering the Gospel for These Times. San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Wallis, Jim. 1976. Agenda for Biblical People. New York, NY: Harper & Row, Publishers.
Wallis, Jim. 1972. “What is the People’s Christian Coalition?” The Post-American (Fall). Accessed from https://sojo.net/magazine/fall-1972 on December 2, 2016.