(RNS) The Rev. Jim Wallis, founder of the Christian magazine Sojourners and a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama, will be one of the key speakers at an interfaith event related to Ferguson Sunday (Oct. 12) at St. Louis University.
In the following Q&A — edited for clarity and length — Wallis talks about how faith plays a role in his decision to come to St. Louis and how his past involvement in the civil rights era compares to today.
Q: Can you tell me how you became involved in Ferguson, and what you expect from your visit?
A: It turns out I was in South Africa all of August doing a speaking tour, and so when Ferguson broke out that’s where I was. What was interesting was how in South Africa it was all over the news. The way it was an issue in South Africa and around the world says something all by itself. We’ve had local clergy brief us on what’s going on and how it feels after 60 days. Imagine 60 days of this stress. It takes its toll on everyone. The people there are the ones who are leading this every day. We’re going to be supportive and helpful, as much as we can.
Q: How does your faith play a role in Ferguson?
A: Repentance is a powerful theme throughout the Bible, and I’m an evangelical so that’s important to me. It’s not just about admitting wrongdoing but also committing to making changes that prevent further harm from being done, and there has not even been any admitting of wrongdoing yet by any of the powers that be in Ferguson.
I’m coming to Ferguson because repentance has not happened there yet, and the faith community really won’t rest until it does. Ferguson can’t be just another moment, like Trayvon Martin was. We need moments like this to turn into a movement.
I’ll say this as clearly as I can. What’s very clear is that black lives are worthless in America and the criminal justice system. It’s time to right that unacceptable wrong. All the details and the particulars in the incidents can always be discussed, but we all know that young black men are treated differently than young white men. That’s just the truth. And it’s wrong. And Christians can’t accept that.
We’re walking into a broken situation, and I hope the faith community can try to bring people together around dealing with what has to be dealt with to heal.
Q: In the last month, supporters of Michael Brown, including his family, have called for the arrest of Officer Darren Wilson three times. Do you think that’s the right focus?
A: There must be a trial here. The facts, the evidence, the scene, the reports, the witnesses, everything we’ve read about what happened between Officer Wilson and Mike Brown calls for a trial. There has to be a legal process to deal with what happened.
Q: You’ve been involved in civil rights issues before. Can you talk about how Ferguson compares to those past experiences?
A: I was a kid growing up in Detroit in a white evangelical church. It seemed to me that something was wrong. Something really big was wrong in my city and my country and nobody was talking about it. I couldn’t get people to answer my questions. And I wondered who this minister named Martin Luther King was and what he was up to, and nobody wanted to talk about it.
I’m a little league coach and all the black kids on teams that I’ve coached, every black parent has the conversation with their black sons about how they need to behave in the presence of police. White parents don’t have that conversation. It’s like when years ago, I felt like something was wrong but nobody was talking about it.
There’s been tremendous change in so many things but the criminal justice system remains the most racialized part of this entire society, and the truth of a society is always best known from the bottom and not the top.
I’ve always learned the most about the world from being places I was never supposed to be and by meeting people I was never supposed to know. So, this is a challenge to the white churches to pay attention, to listen to our brothers and sisters, to care as much about our brothers and sisters who are black, as much as we care about our own kids who are white.
The body of Christ is essentially a multiracial community. That’s what Galatians says, that’s what Paul says: In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female. In this community we break down the world’s barriers of race and gender and class. So when we polarize, when we divide along racial lines — that’s a denial of the Gospel. If Ferguson were an isolated event it would be very different. But you know, and I know, and the world knows — it’s not.
(Lilly Fowler is the religion reporter at the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter @LillyAFowler.)