Rev. Jim Wallis
Called to Be: Learning & Discovery

Title:Landmark gift creates endowed chair and center focusing on faith and justice

Author: Sara Piccini
Date Published: September 7, 2023

Rev. Jim Wallis, the Archbishop Desmond Tutu Chair in Faith and Justice, helps students find their callings

This spring, the Georgetown community celebrated the investiture of Rev. Jim Wallis, a renowned theologian, author, teacher, and activist, as the inaugural Archbishop Desmond Tutu Chair in Faith and Justice at the McCourt School of Public Policy.

“As the oldest Catholic and Jesuit institution of higher learning in the United States, located here in our nation’s capital, we believe that Georgetown has a special opportunity to contribute to civic life and to engage the role of faith in our world,” said President John J. DeGioia at the investiture ceremony.

“The naming of this new chair for Archbishop Desmond Tutu reflects the global dimension of our commitment to the common good.”

In addition to holding the endowed chair, Wallis directs the university’s Center on Faith and Justice, which he founded in 2021. Under his directorship, the center focuses on advancing the public’s understanding of the role of faith in politics and civic life.

The chair and the center were made possible by a landmark gift from donors who are longtime supporters of higher education and work at the intersection of faith, justice, and public life. The donors chose to remain anonymous in part to focus attention resulting from their gift on the work they’re funding rather than themselves as donors. And it was the donors who suggested the chair be named in honor and memory of Archbishop Tutu, the late South African religious and civic leader

“For five decades, Jim has helped to shape the national dialogue on Christian perspectives and social justice. We could not be more grateful to him for accepting this new responsibility,” DeGioia said.

The theology of hope

Founder of the Christian social justice organization Sojourners, Wallis has authored 12 books, including God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get it. In 2009, he was invited to join President Barack Obama’s Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

A longtime member of the Georgetown community, Wallis received an honorary doctorate from the university in 2007, and began teaching as adjunct faculty member at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute (now the McCourt School) in 2010. He also serves as a research fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

“I believe that the moral and theological dimensions of policy are critical,” Wallis says. “We’re not going to change the world with just data, we’re going to change it with moral values. And Georgetown is the perfect venue for that.”

“Faith and faith organizations have a critical role to play as we consider how government and civil society address issues from poverty to climate change,” says McCourt School Dean Maria Cancian. “Jim’s personal engagement with students and faculty colleagues plays an important role as we grapple with the difficult conversations and personal reflection required as part of the transformational change that we seek.”

At the investiture, Wallis noted the special significance of the naming of the chair for Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner who played an instrumental role in opposing and overturning the South African apartheid system. “It’s such a blessing to me to have the chair named after somebody who was such a mentor and a friend to me,” Wallis says. “He helped shape my vocation and my life, and I bring that here to Georgetown.”

Wallis recalled witnessing Tutu face down a phalanx of South African security police who had entered St. George’s Cathedral in Cape Town just as the archbishop was preparing to speak from the pulpit. “After what felt like a long silence, he said, ‘You are powerful, very powerful, but you are not gods.’ Then with a smile on his face, he said, ‘So since you have already lost, I preach today and invite you to come and join the winning side!’”

“I learned my theology of hope from Desmond Tutu in South Africa,” Wallis continues. “He told me that hope is not a feeling or mood. Hope is a choice, a decision you make because of this thing that we call faith. I want to bring that same hope through this chair and the center.”

Caring for ‘the least of these’

Inspired by Matthew 25, in which Jesus instructs Christians to care for “the least of these brothers and sisters,” the Center on Faith and Justice is focused on the key concerns of democracy, poverty, race, and peacemaking.

In addition to academic programming, the center’s many activities include public events—such a recent conversation on voting rights with Sen. Raphael Warnock (D-Georgia) and Representative Terri Sewell (D-Alabama)—a bi-weekly podcast, Soul of the Nation, and a weekly newsletter, God’s Politics.

“More and more, we plan to work with other departments and centers at Georgetown,” Wallis says. “Faculty and students care about issues of faith and justice, but sometimes they don’t know how and when to raise them. We’re a hub where it’s a safe space to raise these issues.”

Wallis is able to draw on the relationships he has developed with spiritual leaders, policymakers, grassroots activists, and journalists to highlight the religious and moral aspects of national political debates, advocating on policy such as the child tax credit and, most recently, the debt ceiling debate.

This year, the center introduced a new series titled “A Higher Calling,” featuring conversations with political leaders about the role of religion and ethics in their public and private lives,  leading off with a March 23 dialogue between Wallis and Speaker Emerita Nancy Pelosi (HON’02, Parent’88,’89,’91,’95, Grandparent’20).

“Nancy wasn’t just speaking into the lights, she was really leaning into conversations with students,” Wallis says. “One young woman told me afterwards she got the sense of her own calling that day.”

Finding a calling

During the investiture ceremony, Wallis expressed special gratitude to students, “who make the best part of my every week. They are the new generation of leaders and for that I am very hopeful.”

At the McCourt School, Wallis teaches a core class in ethics as well as the popular course Race, Faith, and Politics. “I love the academic rigor here. I deal with some very tough topics in my classes: mass incarceration, immigration, voter protection. The students say, ‘It’s a lot of reading, but I’m glad. It really got me thinking.’

“My hope is that their generation won’t just discuss these things or have opinions about them or know who to blame. I tell them, ‘I think you’re smarter than that. I think you can change the systems.’” 

Wallis also is engaged with students outside class, advising student organizations and providing one-on-one mentoring. He points to a table in his office across from his desk where he counsels students. “A graduating student said to me recently, ‘This is the table where I’m deciding the rest of my life.’

“The thing I talk to students most about is the difference in career and vocation,” Wallis continues. “So I raise the issue of calling. Students are hungry for that. They’ve got to make a living, but they want more than just a successful job. They want their gifts to be expressed, and they want to follow their calling. That’s vocation. 

“That’s why I’m teaching here, to help students find their vocations. And that’s what I love best about the chair and the center.”