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Answer The 'Call To Renewal'
Published on Wednesday, May 17, 2000 in the Madison Capital Times
Answer The 'Call To Renewal'
It has been nearly 40 years since Michael Harrington's "The Other America'' awakened the intellectual and political leadership of the United States to the reality of poverty in our midst.

Harrington's book bluntly stated a truth that had been too long avoided: It was wrong and ridiculous for presidents and senators to proudly proclaim their nation's status as "the richest country in the world'' when tens of millions of their fellow citizens lacked food, shelter, education opportunities, adequate medical care and the security of knowing that they would be cared for in old age.

Harrington's book shocked a more innocent America. Soon the shock turned to agitation, a healthy agitation that demanded action. In the shadow of the Red Scare, Harrington, a socialist, was invited to the White House to converse with policy-makers about a radical project that no less a figure than the president of the United States referred to as the War on Poverty.

In those heady days, Americans dared to dream that theirs could be a nation without want. And the war on poverty succeeded, using government programs such as Medicare and Medicaid to cut the poverty rate almost in half.

But, as quickly as it had begun, the war on poverty was ended. By the 1970s, Republicans and Democrats in Washington were drifting further and further from the moral moorings that Harrington had established.

Some of these "leaders'' claimed that poverty was inevitable; worse yet, some claimed that dispossession was the fault of the dispossessed -- and not of societal structures that made the rich rich, the poor poor and the great middle-class fearful of a slip on the economic ladder.

Jim Wallis never joined the defeatists and the apologists for America's economic, social and racial inequalities. As a pastor, activist, author and editor of the exemplary magazine, Sojourners, he preached a politics of possibility very much in the tradition of Harrington and that generation of idealists who knew that a genuine war on poverty could be won.

For years, Wallis was a voice in the wilderness. Now, however, the Call to Renewal movement he has worked so hard to forge is gaining national attention as the base for a new movement to break the chains of poverty in America.

This year, the group's "Covenant to Overcome Poverty'' has attracted unprecedented support not merely from the liberal church groups that have long worked on these issues, but also from mainstream Catholics, evangelical conservatives and black churches. As Wallis says, "The National Association of Evangelicals and the National Council of Churches never do anything together, but here they are working together to overcome poverty.''

Wallis will bring his ministry and his movement to Madison tonight, as the featured speaker at the Madison Urban Ministry's annual meeting and dinner at Christ Presbyterian Church. (For more information, call 256-0906.) Among other things, he will be asking people to sign the covenant and commit themselves to the cause of overcoming poverty in America.

The covenant reads:

The persistence of widespread poverty in our midst is morally unacceptable. Just as some of our religious forebears decided to no longer accept slavery or segregation, we decide to no longer accept poverty and its disproportionate impact on people of color. In the biblical tradition, we covenant together in a Call to Renewal. By entering this Covenant, we commit ourselves to:

* Prioritize people who are poor -- both in our personal, family and vocational lives, and in our congregational and organizational practices -- through prayer and dedication of our time and resources.

* Decide our financial choices in ways that promote economic opportunity and justice for those in poverty.

* Evaluate public policies and political candidates by how they impact people who are poor.

* Challenge racism, dismantle the structures of racial injustice and white privilege still present, and seek reconciliation among all groups in our society.

* Nurture the bonds of family and community and protect the dignity of each person.

* Organize across barriers of race, denomination, and social boundaries in common commitment and action to overcome poverty in our own communities, our nation, and our world.

2000 The Capital Times


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