Last week I was in Washington, D.C., for the inaugural Summit for Change, created by Sojourners, to which, incidentally, you really ought to subscribe if you are a person of faith (or even if you’re not) who cares about social justice.
I always seem to describe conferences and conference-like trainings as ‘intense’ (is this because I tend toward the introvert side of things?) and Summit was no exception. It was, however, exceptional in many ways, which I’ll attempt to do justice (haha) to in this post.
Five Reasons To Love Sojourners Summit For Change*
1. It’s not a ‘we’re going to save the world, all by ourselves, with a dollar a day’ fest
On the first evening, Rev. Dr. Soong-Chan Rah said that the church desperately needs to revive the practice of lament in order to combat the often-disastrous triumphalism that assumes that WE can save the world. Yes and amen, because: (a) there are no easy solutions to the world’s most serious problems AND (b) we can help make things better, but we are not God. This should go without saying, but sadly it often doesn’t.
And, of course, the degree of privilege in which we live is proportional to our confidence that we just happen to have the answers to the world’s problems on our iPhones.
2. It’s a seriously serious kind of conference with seriously serious folks
We heard from people who’ve spend time in prisons, both as convicted felons and as people trying to bring a bit of light and hope into the dismal world of mass incarceration. (The US has 12% of the world’s population and 1/4 of its inmates.) We heard from parents who buried children as a result of gun violence, including one of the dads from the Sandy Hook massacre, who lost his six year old. We heard from the president of the World Bank and from a pastor in D.C. whose church has managed to purchase a sizeable share of stock in for-profit correctional corporations so that they can have a say in how the prison-industrial complex is going to look.
Bottom line: the speakers were a diverse crowd who were, almost to a person, exceptionally qualified to speak on serious issues facing our nation and the world.
3. Despite #1 and #2, the atmosphere of Summit was far more hopeful than despairing.
Also on the first night, Soong-Chan Rah encouraged folks to be hopeful skeptics — but warned against cynicism. I kept thinking of the closing line of Pete Seeger/Woody Guthrie’s song ‘Talking Union’ : “what I’m saying is, take it easy, but take it.” This isn’t to say that there’s not a time and a place for righteous indignation. There was some of that too. But there was a lot of smiling, a lot of singing, and many, many glimpses of grace and hope.
4. It was a gathering marked by grace, generosity, and humility.
The conference organizers called in the people who waited on us in the conference center, and we gave them a standing ovation. Conference attendees chatted with “the help.” I saw people who were “bosses” helping interns dismantle displays. It’s wonderful when people well-known as proponents of world change through faith and justice turn out to be really decent human beings in real life, without a whiff of the toxic “Christian celebrity” culture that too often shows up. Instead, even the “famous” people there mixed freely with everyone else, and you might find yourself sitting next to one of them and talking, no big deal at all. Which brings me to…
5. The power of food and fellowship
(Well, don’t I pretty much have to go there? I didn’t write a practical theology of food for nothing, you know.)
“Thank you for being here,” Tim King, chief strategy officer for Sojo, said the first night, “and thank you for looking like the kingdom of God.”
I had to agree: not only were we a diverse collection of people, in background and point of view, but we were also seated on the same level, at common tables, eating (unusually delicious especially for conferences) food together. Unlike many conferences, where people often have to rely on boxed nasties eaten off of laps and huddled in stairways, Summit saw to it that the table was a gathering place, and facilitated mixing between groups, so that no one stayed isolated. We broke bread with different people and different meals, tasting and seeing the goodness of God and God’s kingdom.
*according to me. And no, they’re not paying me to say any of this.
I’ll be posting in greater detail about various topics engaged at Summit. Check back in soon!