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A Call to Action for `Good Religion'

At a conference in Pasadena, liberal Christians are urged to create a kinder, gentler way to practice their faith and politics.

September 10, 2006|K. Connie Kang | Times Staff Writer

Declaring that Americans have been exposed to "too much bad religion" for too long, activist preacher and author Jim Wallis on Saturday called on more than 1,000 Christians gathered in Pasadena to join him in a national movement to create a more unifying "good religion."

"Good religion pulls our best -- our hunger for justice, for peace, for connection -- and our lives mean something in the world," Wallis said. "Bad religion pulls our worst stuff -- our fears, our divisions, our hatreds, our selfishness."

Wallis, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Sojourner, a progressive Christian magazine, and a self-described evangelical, was among prominent liberal Christian leaders who spoke at a three-day conference on "Politics and Spirituality" at Pasadena Civic Auditorium, which concludes today. Other speakers included Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest who founded the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M., and Anne Lamott, best-selling author and teacher. The conference included interactive workshops on contemplative prayer, handling the news media and waging campaigns for peace and social justice.

For Christians, good religion means heeding Christ's admonition to look after the poor, said Wallis, who in 1995 founded "Call to Renewal," a national network of churches and faith-based groups that works to influence public policy on social justice issues.

Poverty, he said, is today's slavery.

Wallis, author of "God's Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It," believes that many Christians feel that their faith has been stolen from them by the Christian right.

He said the Christian right's preoccupation with two issues -- abortion and same-sex union -- misrepresents their faith.

"How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and only pro-American?" he asked. "How do we get back to a historic, biblical, and genuine evangelical faith rescued from its contemporary distortions?"

Wallis urged the attendees -- many of them pastors and Christian workers from around the country -- to make a "covenant" for a new America, to overcome poverty with religious commitment and political leadership.

Wallis, who has lived in a tough inner-city Washington, D.C., neighborhood for more than three decades, said liberals and conservatives have both failed the poor.

Overcoming poverty will require personal and social responsibilities, he said.

"I want to see liberals in Washington, D.C., talk about out-of-wedlock births and the need for personal responsibility and better choices," he said. "And I want conservatives to talk about strategic investments in child care, healthcare, housing and education. If that were to happen in Washington, D.C., it would be an explosion."

In his travels around the country -- he has about 200 speaking engagements a year -- he sees a hunger for spirituality and a hunger for social justice, especially among young people.

The challenge for Christians is to help connect the two, he said.

He believes a change is on the way.

Mary O'Brien, a human resources executive and a Roman Catholic who came to the conference with her husband, Tim, said she found Wallis' message of "transformation in our culture," uplifting.

"It's a very hopeful message," she said. "I am just praying that it will happen."

"I really believe this country has to take a new direction," said her husband, who teaches at Schuur High School in Montebello.

The Rev. Dan Smith, senior pastor of West Hollywood Presbyterian Church, called Wallis' message "very exciting."

"He is one of the best articulators of this spiritual and theological values that can be heard by both sides," Smith said.

"For those of us who live in Los Angeles and interact every day with the poor and the homeless, it becomes a personal experience. I think he is trying to personalize the issues for us."

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