Graduate Theological Union

Alum of the Year Reflects on Thirty Years of Social Justice Work

James Conway's economic and social development work has taken him to four continents—Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America. He jokes that his life logbook reads like 25 years in mostly poor countries. The 1999 GTU Alum of the Year is currently stationed in Lima, Peru, as a regional director for the World Food Program's South American work. He has been with the World Food Program for almost two decades.

Conway earned his doctorate from the GTU in 1972, focusing his studies on the social gospel and distributive justice. He reports that the thinking and learning he did here has informed his life and work since. “Certain professors,” he says, “taught me what the Prophets really meant, and how they could stand against the mainstream society; how the social Gospel could apply to the modern world, and how to think through from theology to society.” Professors Gottwald, Bennett, and Osborne are some of the people Conway remembers gratefully from his studies with them as a graduate student in the early seventies.

As impressive as Conway's social justice work is, his academic credentials and command of languages is equally so. Conway majored in philosophy and languages at St. John's Seminary College, where he studied Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Spanish, to which he later added Portuguese, French, Italian, basic Arabic, Hausa and Malay! And along with his GTU doctorate, he holds degrees in socioeconomics and psychology.

Praxis is a central idea in Conway's life. “Praxis means the rebalance between faith and works, giving an edge to the transformation of the world," Conway says. “Christian utopianism means a formulation of a future just, equitable and communal society. Praxis cuts through the hypocrisy and bureaucracy to create and recreate conditions for a just and human existence in the here and now.”

In 1974 Conway joined the Church World Service of the National Council of Churches of Christ of the USA. He worked in Niger and Zaire for six years, and two years in Rwanda for the Cooperative League of the USA. The work was a challenge to create economic and social development through community-organized projects such as fishponds, agroforestry, food storage systems, reduction of post-harvest losses, and cooperative training programs.

Conway describes working with the Church World Service to help a small village of sedentarized nomads in the southern Sahara area of Niger. The village learned to dig wells, plant better seeds, market cooperatively, and use a better race of draught animals. The work succeeded in enabling the people to reach a new state of prosperity. However, they did not choose to reinvest their earnings, but rather, saved their money and made a pilgrimage to Mecca to assure their entrance to the Moslem paradise. “Did we misread them?” Conway wonders. “Was their decision wrong?” In his eyes, “they found a balance between this world and the next.”

In 1982, Conway entered the World Food Program of the United Nations for postings in Equatorial Guinea, Egypt, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Rome, and Peru. He has written food security projects, forestry projects, integrated rural development projects, projects for rehabilitation of displaced persons in Colombia, the funded value of which now exceeds 200 million US dollars.

After an interview on the Today Show in 1972, Conway was invited by various GTU graduate colleagues around the US to speak in their universities and theological centers. These visits enabled Conway to appreciate the alumni of the GTU, and to realize how important the work of the consortium is. He encourages GTU students and other alums to “Think of yourself as pastor or theologian as a potentially powerful social catalyst; a counselor who can do better than the shrinks; a community organizer who can do better than the social workers; a civil rights worker with an inbuilt credibility and a peace advocate beholden to no idols. The mantle of Ministry is powerful and versatile, but needs someone who can rise to the challenge."