When he was a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Chicago in the 1960s, Wallis and his classmates searched the Bible for references to poverty. When they turned up thousands, it sparked a personal "awakening" that has guided his life ever since.
"God hates injustice," he says. He founded Sojourners, a social-justice ministry and magazine, and began what has become three decades of living in low-income communities in Washington, D.C.
"Your perspective is shaped by what you see when you get out of bed in the morning," he says, quoting a truism from the civil rights movement.
When the religious right was at full throttle in the 1990s, Wallis started Call to Renewal, a network of pastors from across the United States (mainline and black Protestants, Roman Catholics, evangelicals), to work toward overcoming poverty.
"The Call to Renewal effort was very productive in making it clear the religious right didn't speak for all churches," says the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, a nonprofit, "and also making it clear to churches they needed to speak out."
It was at a 2006 Call to Renewal conference that Sen. Barack Obama gave his major speech on faith and politics.
This country has not conquered poverty, Wallis believes, because most Americans don't have any relationships with poor people. "Lack of relationship leads to lack of understanding, empathy, and urgency, and creates stereotypes, myths, and excuses," he says. Instead, the bureaucracy has "serviced" poverty.