By Jonathan Martin
As a career church leader, pastor, and now founder of a fledgling Christian community in Tulsa, Oklahoma, I’ve spent most of my life in the trenches of soul work—a vocation that traffics in the invisible, unquantifiable, and impossible to measure.
I still care about people’s souls, but have found myself increasingly mired down by the vagueness of the work. As I move closer toward the second half of life, I’m looking for something more tangible, more concrete. I have a longing to be part of something unambiguously good in the world. So like a lot of Christians, I’ve set out in recent years to do my small part. It’s an essentially evangelical impulse—when it’s time to go on the mission trip, you start selling donuts door-to-door. Globally speaking, addressing the problems that plague the world’s poor constructively would require us to sell an awful lot of donuts, though. An impossible amount of donuts.
Years ago, I signed up to be part of the ONE Campaign, an organization that is doing extraordinary work fighting poverty and preventable disease. I had followed ONE enough from afar to know that the work they have been doing was widescreen in scope and vision, unlike the small screen solutions I was used to.
Last week, I went to D.C. to attend the ONE Power Summit, an annual event where about 200 volunteers from around the nation gather for training, and are then mobilized to lobby on Capitol Hill. I came expecting to learn, and hoping to be inspired. What I could not have expected was the kind of electricity I found there.
ONE does not have an explicit faith framework, and the volunteers come from all quarters of life. But gathering with these courageous volunteers, God was unmistakably in the room where we met. I don’t know how else to account for how flames for justice and peace get inside the walls, if not for the Holy Spirit. I don’t know what else but the Spirit could account for such signs and wonders as the birth of a movement that saw Jesse Helms unite with Democrats to take on AIDS in Africa. I don’t know what else but the Spirit could account for the creation of PEPFAR, the HIV/AIDS relief program created under the George W. Bush administration. I don’t know what else but the Spirit could account for coverage for the basic package of childhood vaccines now being at the highest its ever been, at 86%.
The night before we went to lobby, a group of us from faith communities gathered to pray and sing. The next morning, we got up—all 200 volunteers dressed in our black ONE t-shirts—and walked all over Capitol Hill. On the same day that rumors were spilling out about proposed potential deep cuts in foreign aid, we specifically were speaking in defense of the 150 account.
While foreign assistance is just 1% of our federal budget, it is this tiny sliver that has made so many miracles possible for people dying from a long list of maladies connected to extreme poverty. It is this tiny sliver that has made it possible for us to imagine a world in which no child ever has to die of malaria again, to imagine a world in which HIV/AIDS would no longer have to be a global emergency.
Where this requires a real shift for people like me in faith communities is to respond to the world’s deep need with larger scale solutions, rather than another donut sale. I am a huge proponent of small steps that matter in our local communities, in how we live, and in how we give. But we are confronting widescreen problems that need something more than unrelated, episodic, small-screen solutions. While counterintuitive for some of us, the world doesn’t need our donut sales nearly as much as it needs our voices, advocating for foreign aid to be maintained.
The world needs the unified voice of the Church, strong and clear, to speak alongside the voice of the world’s poor—to speak truth to power. The world needs a Church to bear witness to the truth our faith has formed us to see: that God attends to us when we attend to those on the margins. The world needs a Church that does not give up on the powers that be, but that holds their feet to the fire, to do the right thing. Certainly, we believe that compassion is smart, and that caring for people in vulnerable parts of a connected world with so much radicalization only makes us safer in our own communities. But most of all, we believe because the people of God have a moral imperative to do what is just.
Walking the halls of power that day, I felt the shakiness of a man out of his element, neck-deep in the levers of democracy. But the beauty of that day, both for those of us approaching the task through the lens of faith and those without it, was the sense of something in the wind that carries our individual voices, making them into something louder and larger, something older and newer, something more than our own. It was the sound not only of us finding our voices, but the voice finding us.
In a world where everyone seems to want your money, the beauty of the ONE Campaign is that all it wants is your voice, as a sign and sacrament of love. The world is a frightening, unstable place right now, where everything is shaking—not least of all, ourselves. The doomsday preachers see blood in the water, and say the apocalypse is coming. But the ONE campaign is giving me vision for something more apocalyptic than the end of the world—the stirrings of a world being made new.