Jacqueline L. Salmon
Two years ago, attendees to the annual Sojourners conference barely filled the sanctuary of a downtown D.C. church. But today, 1,100 of them crowded into a cavernous hall at the Washington Convention Center for the group’s Mobilization to End Poverty.
In many ways, these are sweet times for Sojourners founder, the Rev. Jim Wallis. The group–a network of progressive evangelical Christians–has the ear of the White House, as was evident today when members of the Obama administration showed up to thank the group for its support, and Wallis said the current administration is “offering an open door that we haven’t seen for a very long time.”
But Wallis is wary. “We have to connect the access to the results,” he said in an interview today. Their goal: reduce poverty and lift up the vulnerable–the elderly, the homeless, children. The group has embraced the Millennium Development Goals, which vows to achieve a significant reduction in poverty by 2015.
So far, at least, the Obama administration is on board. Today, after a videotaped message from Obama (although organizers had hoped for an in-person visit), three members of the administration endorsed those goals and asked for the group’s help in pushing Obama’s proposed budget through Congress. Present were Josh Dubois, director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnership; Van Jones, special adviser for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation; and Martha Coven, director of the White House Office of Mobility and Opportunity.
Coven, the administration’s point person on poverty reduction, reeled off a list of Obama administration issues, including the budget and an effort to reduce childhood hunger, to much clapping.
“I love that these issues are applause lines,” she said.
As for Wallis, this is a strange position for him to be in–and he knows it. Over the years, he’s been arrested 22 times protesting various U.S. government policies. He’s been much maligned by the religious right as running a “lefty” organization that defends the welfare state. Now, he’s considered one of Obama’s personal spiritual advisers, counts as longtime friends a number of people who have joined the administration and has been named to the faith-based office’s faith council.
Wallis uses a Biblical analogy to explain his current position. When the Republicans were in power and the Christian Right ruled the political agenda, he played the role of the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, a prophetic voice who was often scorned and ignored.
Now, he sees himself as being thrust into the role of Nehemiah, who has the ear of the king (in the Bible, Persian king Artaxerxes) but who takes on a huge task–rebuilding the protective wall of Jerusalem and reforming the people.
Previous White House administrations were “quite eager to arrest us. This one puts us on task forces,” he said.
Tomorrow, Sojourners members have a prayer vigil and then has scheduled meetings in 86 Senate offices and more than 200 House offices as part of their Mobilization To End Poverty. Nehemiah will lead the way.