Profiles in Prophetic Voice - Jessica Wilbanks

Marie Dalby

Nuclear weapons aren’t at the forefront of consciousness for many these days. After all, the Cold War is over, and though headlines about North Korea and Iran paint a panicked picture, the collective fear of nuclear annihilation has taken a back seat to other concerns. For Jessica Wilbanks, that’s a problem. “It’s not on people’s radar screens,” says Wilbanks, co-coordinator of Faithful Security, an action-oriented and faith-based organization working to reduce the global threat of nuclear weapons. “The issue is almost too immense for people to determine that it affects them directly, and in the moment.” Her goal, then, is to translate these issues and priorities so that people see the possibility of engaging.

Faithful Security has its seeds in the lifelong passion of Rev. William Sloane Coffin, who understood the threat of nuclear weapons as transcending political and national arenas into a realm of danger to all of creation. Through faith-based language that recognized all life on Earth as sacred, Coffin appealed to worldwide religious communities to work in the name of peace. In early 2006, shortly before Coffin died, Faithful Security was formally created to serve as a resource for leaders working within their communities against nuclear proliferation. “The first time I met Bill,” Wilbanks remembers, “I was a little intimidated. Here were all these religious leaders…and then me. But he was immediately embracing and warm toward me, and always made me feel—as he did everyone—like I was the only person in the world to him right then.”

Based in Goshen, Indiana, Faithful Security is the public face of the National Religious Partnership on the Nuclear Weapons Danger, a collaboration of denominations and official religious groups. While Wilbanks is technically the organization’s only fulltime staff member, both Fourth Freedom Forum and the Churches’ Center for Theology and Public Policy help co-staff Faithful Security and provide some funding to supplement its grants and fundraising.

Wilbanks is responsible for helping to coordinate a growing core of useful and timely information about nuclear issues, from contacts for potential speakers to PDF “toolkits” for spiritual leaders to download and share with their faith communities. “It takes time for us to develop the language and materials that will reach people,” she says, “but we’re getting there.” Time has taken on new meaning for Wilbanks, who at 26, recalls her most recent method for personal success in school and life: “I was used to just putting my nose to the grindstone and getting things done,” she says. “Now, the grindstone is still there, but it’s a vastly different time scale of success.”

Wilbanks grew up in southern Maryland in a conservative Christian evangelical family. “Religion was a huge part of my life,” she says, “I remember being very interested in religious questions from a really early age, and asking my dad questions about the Bible stories I didn’t understand.” A voracious reader of everything from sermons to poetry, as Wilbanks grew older, she began to find discrepancies between some things the church was teaching and what she felt in her heart. “I was raised to believe the most important thing about Christianity is love,” she says, “and I saw my church sometimes forgetting about these laws of compassion.” This was a moment of awakening for Wilbanks, who says, “I started looking at issues on a more global scale, and I became so hungry for different ways to work with faith.”

At Faithful Security, Wilbanks seems to have found just that, as she is now helping form a steady and persistent call for faith-based action. “In a way, it’s a very different thing than I was expecting,” she says. “Of course it’s a matter of working long hours and getting key individuals to sign on to a statement, but it’s not a quick campaign that will produce results and be over. It’s about relationship building within each community, and going slowly to respect and support what leaders can do in the moment.” For Wilbanks, the local, grassroots level of community activism is paramount, but her job has been to balance this with the training of leaders who can most effectively spread this message within their own constituency.

Wilbanks is working on the premise of faith as a connecting force, across lines of nations, politics, denominations, and cultures. For the staff of Faithful Security, faith becomes the way to divorce the issue of nuclear needs from a rhetoric-bound political agenda. “Faith can sometimes be a dividing line,” she says, “but for us it’s a connector. It brings this issue to the level of importance for all of humanity.”