Poet, Activist, and Speaker, Jonathan Walton
When Jonathan was 16, a motorcycle accident changed everything. He miraculously was not hurt, and says, "it was a big, big wake-up call" that made him think about his life. That day he wrote "By Grace," one of his best poems yet. He has since devoted his life to writing poetry and advocating for underprivileged youth. He spreads a message of purpose, compassion and justice, rooted in his Christian faith.
Jonathan recently graduated from Columbia University with a major in creative writing. He has written two books of poetry, with a third coming out soon.
His speaking engagements often include poetry readings in the tradition of spoken word and performance poetry, which has gained increasing popularity among a wide range of audiences, especially youth. His performances are described as "dynamic and rhythmic readings."
Jonathan has spoken at more than 200 venues, from youth events and colleges to nursing homes and prisons. He has an easy smile but also conveys passion as he takes a stand against injustices such as child labor and trafficking.
Jonathan inspires and points people to ways they can help. He says, "By showing people concrete, concise points of entry into the battle against extreme poverty, AIDS, malaria and systemic injustice, we can begin to make considerable headway in our struggle for a better world."
Jonathan Walton is based in New York.
Jonathan Walton is one of those rare leaders who possesses the ability to call people to action without breaking a sweat. His words, arranged so beautifully, are his instrument and he wields them masterfully. Jonathan has the rare and amazing ability to inspire people through the magic of his message, delivered with power, yet without an ounce of force.
DR: There are so many things that you do that I find, well, interesting would not be the right word. "Interesting" would be to completely minimize the incredible work that you do. There are so many things that you do that I find inspiring and a total contribution to humanity. As lofty as that sounds, I think that is very fitting for you. Can you tell me about your work? Whatever is most relevant for you right now?
JW: Thanks for that. It's a pleasure to talk about it. I am a missionary, full-time, with Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. Intervarsity is the largest student group in the world. It's about 250,000 students in more than 100 nations and territories. When I came to Columbia University, I was from a small town of about 500 people in Virginia and they really just gave me a place to be. I did not fit in New York City at all. I came from a farm. But I did write poetry and they created a space for that. I really grew. I really started to consider my faith and what that looks like in my life, and I realized that a lot of things I was doing weren't lining up with what I was saying.
DR: What do you mean by that?
JW: One of the poems that I wrote is called By Grace about a motorcycle accident I was in when I was sixteen. There is a line in the poem that goes:
We are people pebbles tossed into a pool, every ripple I create in turn ripples you. So in unison we are rippling, a type of ripple rhythm but we need to ripple in a way that benefits our living.
And, I was thinking to myself, "I came to college, I came to Columbia and the entire gospel of the University is, for me, to benefit myself. The gospel of Jesus is calling me to do something different."
My life actually revolves around other people and serving others. So, when I was a sophomore I distinctly remember going to host a hip-hop concert at Columbia and I literally remember wondering, "Where am I going"? I mean, it was for a good cause and everything but I realized then and there that what I say on stage has the power to cause people to do things. It can cause people to give money. It can cause people to fight. It can make people get angry and it can make them make peace. The things that I say, I have to take responsibility for. So, from then on I made the decision that everything that I say, I was going to try to live.
When I graduated I thought that I could live for myself and make lots of money and speak and travel or, I could speak and travel and give my service to God and to people. That is what I have chosen to do with Intervarsity. What my job looks like now is - you do see fighting sex trafficking. You do see feeding the homeless. You do see tutoring and mentoring. You do see speeches and talks. But, my primary focus is to actually develop people to have the care and capacity to change the world. That is what helped me at Intervarsity. Intervarsity's mission is:
To see lives transformed, campuses renewed and world changers developed.
Not a lot of people have conversations about how that change actually happens. We love watching Mother Theresa. We love watching Jay-Z. We love watching Martin Luther King. We love seeing Bill Clinton or all of these people doing great things but nobody wants to have those hard conversations that they had. Nobody wants to trip up and fall. Or fundraise or depend on other people but all of those things actually give you the character and the capacity to change a world that is so messed up and broken. We can't have a microwave faith or a microwave experience that actually changes anything. This stuff takes a long time. And, so to really teach college students and high school students and the volunteers of all ages that come through our programs – whether it be a day program or a week long program or a six week program or someone hanging out with us for the long term – it's what does it look like to not just change the world but transform it back into the way that God intended it.
DR: Knowing you mainly through your poetry, I can say that you are somebody who has an ability, through your words, to move people to action. Do you consider that ability to be a special gift?
Legal: The First 21 Years
I dont see life like it is, I close my eyes and envision how it could be and slave to make my dreams a reality. I hope you love me for trying to make this world a better place for the next generation and I promise your hard-earned money is not wasted. My words are all I have so I hope you take them and save them in that special place that expectation cant get to. I met God and now I have to live like I know who He is.
Jonathan Walton was born and raised in rural southern Virginia. Since a life changing motorcycle accident five years ago, he has devoted his life to advocating for underprivileged youth and spreading a message of purpose rooted in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now partnered with World Vision and InterVarsity USA, Jonathan aims to bring holistic social justice to the forefront of America's consciousness.
Using his gifts in spoken word and performance, Walton aims first to inform, next to engage and last to inspire. 'So many people want to act on the world's biggest issues, but don't believe that they have the means or the capability to fight these larger than life battles. By showing them concrete on ramps and concise points of entry into the battle against extreme poverty and AIDS and injustices in our own backyards we can begin to make considerable headway in our struggle for a better world.
JW: I do. In the bible it says it is. I would call it a gift but more than that I would call it a responsibility. When you see John Mayer pick up a guitar, you know that it would be a travesty if he didn't play the guitar. Like De La Vega, when he grabs paint cans, you're like "Dude was made to do graffiti in the park!" In the same way, if I didn't write, if I didn't speak, then I would be doing a disservice to the people around me because that's what I was actually put here to do. Not to glorify my own self, but to actually leave this world a better place than I found it. So, I would say it's a responsibility.
DR: And with that responsibility, what would you say to someone to inspire them to act on behalf of a fellow human being?
JW: One of the things that stands out for me, is a conversation that I had. I was talking to a guy and he was like "I just don't think it's right to provide other people's healthcare. I don't think it's right that we have to take care of other people. I don't think it's right that I have to give money for this kid to go to school or that I have to give money for this charity." I just looked at him and asked him "Would you want people to do that for you? If a hurricane hit your "ninth ward, if an earthquake were in your house and your house wasn't built to code, would you want people to help you?" And of course his answer is, "Yes". Then I asked, "What would it look like for you to love your neighbor as yourself in whatever different talents that you have?
We divide it into three things: Your time, your talent and your treasure. Those are the three things that we have. Our money – our treasure. Our time – what we do each day. And, our talent – those things that we do that nobody else can do. 2Corinthians 4 it talks about how we have this treasure in jars of clay to testify to this all surpassing power of God and it's not from us. And so, what would it look like for all of us to say, "You know what? I can't play the guitar. I can't dance, but I can absolutely teach a kid to read. I don't have this engineering skill or I'm not really strong so I can't do construction, but I can absolutely sit with this victim and have conversations about what it looks like to overcome abuse. To bring your gift to the table as opposed to being jealous of what other people have or feeling fear or entitlement that you don't have to do these things...Ultimately if something happened to you, you'd want somebody to be right there and you'd be upset if they weren't.
DR: Isn't that at the core for people who consider that they are walking with Christ or people who call themselves Christians? Who knows what that means today?
What is compelling about you is that you walk the walk instead of just talking about what it's like to follow Christ. I have been so turned off by Christianity. I mean, I am someone who has studied about God, searched for him and I am someone who believes in prayer. And yet, I would never call myself a Christian because I don't like the way that Christians treat people. Christianity has morphed into this creepy brand of hate that masquerades as some perverse loyalty to God. Who wants to be associated with that? I was infuriated by a Christian conversation thread that showed up on my Facebook feed about the recent Supreme Court decision on healthcare. These people were upset at the prospect of having to pay more taxes just so other people can go to the doctor. That hypocrisy infuriates me. My God! Literally, my God...
JW: What's cool is that if you look in the Bible, the thing that makes God angry is injustice. If you define what injustice is biblically, injustice is when an individual disadvantages a community for the advantage of themselves. That is what injustice is.
DR: I didn't know that.
JW: Justice is when you disadvantage yourself for the advantage of the community.
Real justice goes beyond charity. It's not like I'm going to give you the jacket that I don't need anymore. Justice is: I'm going to give you the best jacket that I have. Or, I'm actually going to sell my house and move into a smaller house so that I can give more money away. I'm going to move in with my mom so that that extra income can go to my cousin's education because his father passed away. Justice is literally giving the best that we have and nothing less than that. Jesus did not send salvation Western Union. He came down and moved into the neighborhood. So, you are absolutely right that Christianity takes on such a bad connotation. The thing is, if you're upset about it, imagine how upset God is.
DR: I know I'm not the only one. People don't talk about this but I know I'm not the only one who is just completely disenchanted and profoundly discouraged. What do you think happened? As a species, human beings have never been perfect, but in my lifetime I don't recall nearly this degree of compassionless-ness, a lack of concern for "my brother". I mean this is just absolutely stunning to me, the direction that we are taking in terms of our lack of willingness to care about what happens to others.
JW: I think there are a couple of things. We both live in New York City. Riverside Church is a good example of what happened to the church in America. I think it actually reflects what is happening in our larger culture now.
So, Rockefeller, in the 1930s, built Riverside Church as an affront to the fundamentalist Christians in New York City. So, you had Rockefeller who was more of a "social gospel" person, and then you had Walter Rauschenbusch who was also a "social gospel" person and then you had the fundamentalists. What happened is, if you could literally take Jesus who died on the cross for our sins, and Jesus who was healing people, and separate them, then that is what happened. The White Evangelical Church experienced that split and has been dealing with that split all the way up until Obama was elected.
There was an alliance in the 1970s and 80s between the Republicans and the White Evangelical Church in America. Historically Black Evangelicals and White Evangelicals have been on opposite ends of the political spectrum. Now, Obama in 2008, flipped that because now people had to have a conversation about possibly voting for a Democrat. That is a conversation that hadn't happened in 30 years but it shed light on the alliance that had happened. That is just what happened.
Similarly, if you look at what happened in Texas when the Republic primary was happening, you had The Southern Baptist Convention vote on who they were going to vote for. That was unprecedented. And it's definitely not biblical.
There are unhealthy, unbiblical alliances that happened between political parties and the church. You've seen that happen in the Catholic Church...So that's one.
The second thing that runs alongside this is – there's this book called Capitalism and a Protestant Ethic and this idea that, "If I'm doing better than God must love me more." That is where the prosperity gospel and all of that comes from. What that leads to is what we have now, this fear and entitlement. MySpace, iPhone, Facebook, these are places where you can literally create a world that revolves around you and if you look at 75% of commencement speeches you will hear, "You are the answer. You are what is next. You are what's coming." The culture says, "The cameras are supposed to be focused on you and if they're focused on you then you are great! You are in the right place!" And so, when you have that, it is impossible to turn the camera on somebody else because culture has said that you are the answer. Politically that is so polarizing that it is difficult to say, "I'm going to be different".
DR: Plus when you've got movements like The Secret that says you can have whatever you want just by virtue of wanting it, people are left to draw the conclusion that, "If you don't have it, then you are doing something wrong." I am sure that contributes to this culture shift too, somehow.
JW: And with Eckhart Tolle's stuff the answer is still "within you".
The "self-help" books did not start until the 1980s. That section in bookstores didn't exist before the 1980s. This idea that everyday is Friday is another one. One it's not biblical but two, Paul in the book of Romans talks about "preaching to itching ears".
The reality is, it's a whole lot easier to believe that the problem is not you and that the problem is "out there" so we're just going to go march...
At the Urban Project, one of the things we talk about a lot, and it's going to be in my book which comes out next year, is that people are broken, therefore relationships are broken, therefore systems are broken because systems are just complex relationships and relationships are just individual people that come together to do something.
So we can get angry, absolutely, at corporations but you have to remember that's a father, that's a mother and a son. The idea that the problem is "out there" doesn't work. The problem is inside. We have to be able to see ourselves as part of the problem in order to fix it. The choices we make are actually a part of the system as well.
DR: What do you want your overall contribution to the world to be?
JW: One of the things I heard said by a Kenyan pastor was:
I want to live to be anonymous but all the people that I influence are going to be famous.
That's what he said. So, if in this program for the next 20 years that I am here, that those are pastors and those are teachers and those are community leaders and doctors and business owners, that I've seen already come out of this program, if I can see twenty years of that, okay. That would be my goal.
Jesus taught people more than anything else.
DR: A hundred years from now what do you want to be remembered for?
JW: If somebody looked at my life and thought, "He really tried to love God with his heart, soul and mind and he loved his neighbor as himself, if they thought that, then that would be cool.
Thank you, Jonathan!
New York City Urban Project
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship's vision is to see lives transformed, campuses renewed and world changers developed. InterVarsity's Urban Projects are catalytic programs that help transform students into world changers. In New York City we do this by working in partnership with non-profit organizations that tutor and mentor, feed the homeless, and fight sex-trafficking and slavery.