everal weeks ago, I attended The Justice
Conference(http://www.thejusticeconference.com/) in downtown Los Angeles.
The event is an annual convergence of Christian thinkers and doers in the
world of social justice. Each morning before the conference began, my coworker
Becky and I walked from our hotel to the stately Orpheum Theatre, sweating in
the dry LA heat. The downtown setting felt fitting; for every issue addressed, the
city clothed it in personhood. We passed representatives of homelessness,
immigration, and addiction on every block, and remembered that injustice has a
Inside the Orpheum Theatre, advocates from around the world — speakers,
directors, students, pastors — shared their stories. We were reminded that
justice is not a trend or a branding tool (though the past decade might indicate
otherwise). Yes, terms like “social justice” and “sustainability” have gained value
because of their marketing power. But in development work, the word
sustainable is an indicator of real success. Sustainable development means true
change is taking place, and will continue to take place. In its fullest sense,
“sustainable” means transformation over the long haul.
I thought about this as Becky and I stood behind our conference booth. We had
been invited to attend and represent Plant With
Purpose(http://www.plantwithpurpose.org), an organization that transforms the lives
of the rural poor through environmental, economic, and spiritual development. I
thought about Jesus’ role in humanitarian work and wondered if Christians can
work toward sustainable change without also working toward spiritual change. In
the context of Plant With Purpose’s work, spiritual renewal is crucial. Our
partnering communities can lift themselves out of poverty, heal their land, and
feed their families because they’ve rediscovered dignity and a sense of purpose
through God.
In the world of social justice, the greatest changes take place when individuals
embrace their role as co-agents of change with God. For justice and
development to be sustained over the years, something as transcendent as
spiritual transformation has to bend the hearts of the community. People are
moved to work toward a better life when they catch a vision for God’s kingdom,
when they realize they have a God-given potential to fulfill, and when they
understand that their unique gifts can be used to injustice.
Dr. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, Jr., helped clarify these
thoughts during the conference. As she stood before us on stage one afternoon,
she reminded her audience that the Christian church is critical to the success of
any justice movement. Historically, the civil rights movement confirms this — it
was bred and nurtured within churches. They represented safe meeting places
for planning, praying, grieving, and hoping. Churches were the hubs from which
the spokes of the movement travelled outward. “In order to be effective in social
justice,” Dr. King explained, “its adherents must know that God is on the side of
social justice.”
Her words struck me as both accurate and beautiful. Is it possible for humans to
facilitate change without Jesus at the centre? Sure. Secular organizations and
non-believing individuals do radical and humble good work. Jesus can work
through any platform, and that’s good news for all of us. But I wonder if
Christians might be denying the word “sustainable” of its fullness when we leave
Him out of the equation. We can’t exclude Jesus from social justice and
development work. He’s the element that sustains change. He’s the element that
Sustainability is much more than a branding tool. It’s a sign of transformative
justice and of God’s hand in our work. If God is on the side of social justice, He’s
also the key to changing the world in lasting ways. Lucky us, to be invited into
His story of making all things new — over the long haul.
Photo by DFAT photo library(http://www.flickr.com/photos/dfataustralianaid/) (Flickr cc)
Annelise Jolley
works for Plant With Purpose, a nonprofit that alleviates poverty
through environmental restoration. She enjoys storytelling and will
drop everything for a leisurely breakfast, outdoor activities, and
good conversation. She tries to keep up with the Twitter-verse at
We b s i t e ( h t t p : / / a n n e l i s e j . s q u a r e s p a c e . c o m)