At the recent Justice Conference in Portland, Ore., Shane Claiborne, a Christian activist for nonviolence and service to the poor, shared a story of his outreach visit to Iraq during the war.
"We were having a birthday party for a 13-year-old girl when bombs started falling, and we thought we need to end this party, but another girl said 'Our laughter is more powerful than bombs,'" Claiborne recalled. Later he said, "We need to be known for love."
Claiborne was joined for his talk at the conference by Ben Cohen, co-founder of Ben and Jerry's Ice Cream. Cohen was also against the war, and, though he and Claiborne may not share the same faith, they agree on their belief in nonviolence, which is a justice issue for them.
Said Cohen, "I got the same vision, but I ain't got the preacher in me."
He and Claiborne were two of dozens to speak on a variety of justice issues, from war to sex trafficking to poverty to gender equality to race issues. And, though the speakers and attendees hailed from diverse backgrounds, they agreed upon the universal theme of making the world more just.
The second annual Justice Conference drew 4,000 strong, quadrupling the number from last year's inaugural event in Bend, Ore. And it's going to the East Coast next year.
Ken Wytsma is the visionary behind the conference, holding last year's event in the city where he lives and works. He has been teaching classes on justice at Kilns College-School of Theology for years, and he has preached on the topic of justice at Antioch Church, where he is the founding pastor.
But last year he wanted to dive into real life.
"I had a desire to look beyond the text book definition of justice, to actually practicing it," Wytsma said.
He shared his vision with fellow pastors, teachers, theologians, professors and activists, who then joined him in a conference setting for communal dialogue on what it means to live a just life.
Wytsma's 2011 Justice Conference convened 1,000 people, with attendees from dozens of countries. Something resonated with those who attended, and he decided to make it an annual event.
This year, the two-day Justice Conference brought people from 41 states and 20 countries. Besides Claiborne and Cohen, other recognized speakers included Miroslav Volf, founder and director of Yale Center for Faith and Culture and Henry B. Wright Professor of Theology, Yale University Divinity School; anti-sex trafficking advocate Rachel Lloyd; Michael Wear and Max Finberg with the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships; spoken word poet Micah Bournes; and John M. Perkins, whose brother was murdered in a racially divided 1950s Mississippi.
"I have long wished for this kind of gathering. Thank God that we have moved to this moment. God is raising up this post-racist generation," said Perkins.
Stephan Bauman, the CEO and president of World Relief, the co-sponsor with Kilns College of the Justice Conference, believes this could not have happened five years ago.
"There is a tipping point and the information flow is instant. Women have been raped in the Congo for a long time and today we know that. I think this conference is a move of God. Justice is being de-politicized," said Bauman.
Wytsma couldn't be more pleased with the response, noting, "It is the right thing at the right time."
So, why did 4,000 people come to this, a clearly Christian-faith-based conference on justice?
"Because they are courageous and not willing to turn their heads anymore," Bauman said. And Lynn Hybels, who raises awareness of injustices in Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, thinks that the Justice Conference is resonating with so many because people are searching for depth.
"There is a realization that greed is not all that it is cracked up to be, and that self focus is kind of empty," she said.
Stephan Bauman and Lynne Hybels share the stage at the Justice Conference.
Chinese American author/activist/pastor Francis Chan echoed those words, targeting the older generation: "What are you doing buying all this stuff? Give it away."
He quoted the Bible verse James 1:27: "This is true and undefiled religion, to take care of widows and orphans," and offered an example of a 60-year-old couple in his church doing just that, by taking in foster care children.
"That makes sense, based on my reading of the Bible," Chan said.
Other practical examples of people living out justice were offered, from large humanitarian efforts to neighborhood stories.
Rwandan Celestin Musekura, the founding president of African Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries, Inc., told the audience how he is transforming African communities; Bauman spoke of how World Relief has helped with community banking and small loans for disaster relief in the Congo since 2002; and Lloyd shared stories of girls rescued being trapped in sex trafficking.
Finberg shared how church members stepped forward to serve at a government-funded summer food program for kids: "Government just cannot do it all. We need everyday people and faith based groups have come forward."
In a panel discussion led by Multnomah Biblical Seminary professor Paul Louis Metzger, Ph.D., John Canda said he is not waiting for government to make a dent in Portland's gang problem, so he has rallied 100 men to show up weekly with him in a troubled area where youth hang out.
John M. Perkins (left) interviewed by Paul Louis Metzger, PhD. at the Justice Conference.
Steve Carter, pastor of Rock Harbor Fullerton Church in California, shared how church members are helping disadvantaged youth start businesses.
And Imago Dei Community Pastor Rick McKinley noted how one lady in his church created art programs for elementary students, one guy fixes things for people at no charge and another group is hosting barbecues for refugees at low-income apartment complexes.
"They don't understand each other's language but they are sharing these great meals," McKinley said.
Food is always a justice issue, and justice does not need an interpreter.
"We are trying to speak the language of our culture addressing justice issues," said conference founder Wytsma. "Justice is universal, meaning if you labor for justice people will care."
Said Perkins, "This is a movement happening today. If you follow history, there were awakenings among church people. John Wesley and Wilberforce saw injustices. Concern for the poor came out of Moody Bible Institute. And, the YMCA came out of the church movement. It was there in the past, and now we are getting it back."
"It is a new day," said Perkins.
The third annual Justice Conference moves to the East Coast, and is scheduled for Feb. 22 and 23, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pa.
Freelance writer Cornelia Becker Seigneur is the author of two books and the faculty advisor of Muse student publication at Multnomah University.
Follow Cornelia Seigneur on Twitter: www.twitter.com/corneliseigneur