by: Joe Buff
Protests. Marches. Strikes. In-your-face confrontations. These are controversial tactics used to gain economic justice. Sounds like a famous line sung with gusto on a bustling, seedy street scene in the Broadway musical, Evita: “Politics is the art of the possible.” The words evoke a feeling that political victory is at hand. Substitute the words “economic justice” for politics and you have the occupation of Lutheran Minister, Reverend Alexia Salvatierra, who works for CLUE, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice in Los Angeles County. This job requires courage to overcome fears, expressed in Deuteronomy 31:6: Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.
Alexia preached at both services of St. Luke on November 6, and discussed CLUE with the St. Luke Adult Bible Class. CLUE’s staff of 4 with 11 interns is the central core organization that plans and coordinates projects for the working poor for a coalition of over 600 religious leaders and 1,200 lay people from a broad range of ethnic and denominational constituencies, including Christian Evangelicals, Muslim, Jewish, Hispanic, Pentecostals, and Korean. CLUE also partners with the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, labor organizations, and community groups, with a stated goal of joining low wage workers in their struggle for economic justice. When dealing in this complex arena it is best to define terms: Justice is righteousness, the quality of being true or correct, or possibly, in economic justice in our modern world where laws say something is not illegal, expanding into fairness and morality. The operative word is “change,” the antithesis, represented by corporations, companies, businesses of all types, managements, supervisors, and individual bosses who may not be fair or moral in their relations with their employees and will resist change.
Alexia estimated the working poor in Los Angeles County, the largest county in the U.S. which is also more populous that 42 states in the U.S., and contains ¼ of California’s population, to be more than 1/3 of the 2010 census of 10 million, or over 3 million working poor, including their families. Alexia stated that for community organizing efforts, there were two primary goals for Christians: to bring moral authority to an issue in dispute, to speak out; and, the second, to be chaplains to the working poor. Her rapt Sunday School audience at St.Luke was concluding a series on the book, A Public Faith, by Miroslav Volf, and was trying to compare Alexia’s projects to Volf’s guides. Not an easy task. And hard questions arose about CLUE’s tactics, and a Christian’s response to a real need. Imitating Jesus, Martin Luther, Bonhoeffer, and others reminds us of their tactics and the frailties of human responses. Life is not so simple after all; neither is our response to economic justice.
Alexia, who is bilingual, reviewed CLUE’s actions in several major projects. One was the protest of service union hotel workers, where maids who normally cleaned a certain number of hotel rooms per day were told by management they would have to clean an additional number of rooms each day as a new quota so that the hotels could lay off a number of maids to save money. One of the women was a single mother of three earning $13.00 per hour and paying $1,200 a month for an apartment.
Another major protest involved health insurance for a grocery workers’ union, where the CEO of a major corporation refused to come to the bargaining table. In a series of stratagems, CLUE first learned of the CEO’s love of dogs and brought several puppies to his gated house in a protest march that was televised. CLUE also learned the CEO was religious, who his pastor was, and formulated protests that eventually brought the CEO back to the bargaining table.
Alexia ran out of time on November 6 so there was very little Q and A. The Adult Sunday School class reviewed and discussed her mission and her presentation the next Sunday, November 13. A wide range of subjects was covered. One hot topic was the inclusion of union members as working poor, since union members with good paying jobs and insurance and benefits did not appear to fit the profile of “working poor.” In many instances working poor in unions would be the bottom tier of a wage scale where the contentious issue of a “Living Wage” is a difficult issue. Who are the “working poor”? Dissecting the group of 3 million, it is obvious that there is a central core of people who cannot take care of themselves, and Christians, such as St. Luke, and organizations such as CLUE and other religious and commercial groups, should become involved to help. One large group is veterans, especially those unemployed, often mentally or physically handicapped who are not capable or competent to take care of themselves, as are large groups of non-veterans. And the Lord said unto Cain, where is Abel thy brother? And he said, I know not: Am I my brother’s keeper? (Genesis 4:9)
Other groups include students protesting college costs, immigrants, car wash protests for those fired over unjust labor practices by employers, and other projects seeking economic justice. These are hot topics of discussion for Christians, with wide variations of responses from the class that showed a lot of interest and empathy but also divergent views on tactics. Much more information is needed to understand other groups that CLUE works with. For more information, see CLUE’s web site, for other projects, such as college students protesting to the University of California regents (CLUE’s letter to the regents is online), as is the protests of car wash workers and others. Is it possible for such disparate groups to reach mutual agreements? Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand.” Matthew12:25). The recent “Occupy” movement said on national TV that one of their goals was “Economic justice.” Sound familiar?
Alexia was seeking advocacy for CLUE. As job losses and home losses in the economy spreads, and poverty wipes out more of the middle class of America, groups such as the working poor must be reevaluated and congregations and religious, business, and other groups must address the question: Is this a project we wish to become involved with? Alexia is a dedicated person who provided a personal, in depth educational moment to those who heard her, and agreed or disagreed with her tactics, as she does indeed live her life in a complex, confrontational world where “Politics and life and economic justice are the art of the possible.”
Think back on the last few years, all that has happened: we crafted, debated and voted on a statement of welcome to people of “diverse racial and ethnic background, physical and emotional needs, sexual orientation and gender identity” that puts us on the roster of “Reconciled in Christ” congregations (thus the rainbow heart on our new signs) – and led in its way to our being willing to open our sanctuary to Grace Road Church. We began new ventures in spiritual growth, from Sanctuary for visitors, prayer and depression groups, to historical and now Womens’ Bible Studies. And we created Project Hope to help people effected by the economy, a thriving Loaves & Fishes ministry of hospitality to the homeless, and now concert fundraisers for the food pantry. Not to mention all the work on our buildings, communications and committee restructuring. And it hasn’t always been easy! Some of our planning didn’t seem to go anywhere; some of what we tried didn’t work. God shapes us even through our frustrations (see council article …)
We also crafted a mission statement: “we are a Christian community extending God’s love and compassion, welcoming all to share the joy of faith in Jesus Christ?” Much of our energy has been focused on different aspects of this mission. So what’s our vision for the next few years? As author Anthony Robinson puts it, “given our mission, what is God calling us to do in the near future? If mission is our ‘main thing’ then vision is our ‘next thing’.” How do we determine vision? God’s clear directives (see Matthew 28), our sense of the gifts God has awakened in this community, the situation we find ourselves in, and common sense certainly would all be factors.
The council and a “vision task force” have been exploring some ideas for vision and direction in the next few years. There will be some discussion time set for January, but we welcome your input at any time.
– First, what kind of community is St Luke becoming? One metaphor that we have found compelling (inspired?) is that of a garden or vineyard, as in Jeremiah 31:12 “their lives shall become like a watered garden, and they shall never languish again” and John 15: “I am the vine, you are the branches, abide in my love.” We’re here to help one another grow and flourish in faith, love, joy and compassion.
– Second, if we are about “flourishing,” what does that mean for our general approach to ministry in this time and place? We recognize that people are stretched and stressed: we want church to be a place of nurture, support, and joy – not just more demands. For many, the primary place of “service” won’t be church but work and home life.
– Sunday is the “Lord’s Day” and our primary time together, especially when people are busy. Does our worship, educational hour and fellowship time reflect our mission statement? In the near future, we are planning a comprehensive look at our sanctuary space, with regard to arrangement, maintenance needs, accessibility, beauty, etc… Attention to worship and education “experience” in general requires constant attention.
– With regard to “welcoming all” the conversation has gone in two directions. First, let’s continue learning to embrace neighbors not simply as “potential members” but as friends and conversation partners who also “flourish” among us. The recent concert series benefit for the food pantry has been one great way to ally with neighbors over a common cause. Second, those who do want to learn the faith increasingly come from little or no church background. Let’s think through and strengthen our congregational practice of welcoming people to the faith, through the “Sanctuary” process and other means.
– Finally, we want to build on current efforts at “sharing the joy of faith” and “extending God’s love and compassion.” Two examples might be “Loaves & Fishes” ministry and Women’s Bible Studies – can we continue to improve how we do these things? Involve children in coloring bags to serve meals in? Supplement regular studies with biblical literacy “basics” courses?
“Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and give glory to your Father in heaven.” I shared some thoughts on these words some time ago; they come to mind again as members of St Luke discuss Miroslav Volf’s book “Public Faith.”
Jesus uses the words “your light,” not simply God’s light, in you: there is something particular about each community and each person (handed a candle with these light-words at baptism) that needs to be seen and known. The light catches our eye; we turn and see good works (Jesus will go on to talk about such topics as prayer and reconciliation). That light – those works – aren’t the kind that lead us to praise the “good people” doing such nice things (in Matthew 6 Jesus is quick to make the distinction). Our light and works draw attention to and praise for the Father of Jesus.“Let your light shine.”
Let your faith be public! We bristle when we hear that. Creationism is taught in public schools, religious leaders manipulate voters, a mosque is proposed near Ground Zero. (More issues here– could one even say that “Occupy Wall Street” is opposition to the influence of Mammon-ism on politics?) Religion seems to be in each week’s headlines, faith is already public. The topic has been raised – so what’s our response?Volf’s chapter on “Coercive faith” addresses what many people believe: that faith made public simply makes things worse. Doesn’t it? Shouldn’t churches be relatively silent enclaves, private places you go to? You look for some experience: divine presence, fellowship, opportunities to serve – or maybe for a place to hide from a rapidly changing world!
If there is talk about “shining your light,” the idea isn’t so much glorifying God as attracting others to join in, bolster the fortress: you want people to see what kind of great experiences they can have in your church. All are welcome! But however inclusive it may be, it’s still a private party. Whereas Jesus’ words about light recall Isaiah’s words about a public vision: “Arise, shine, for your light has come … nations shall come to your light … and shall proclaim the praise of the Lord.” (Isaiah 60) The nations don’t move in to the city, become Judeans, or stop being who they are. But the light opens their eyes to God and inspires them to praise in their own voices.
Faith made public may attract members. It might also mean joining “secular” causes or taking sides, while giving an “account of that hope that is in us”- “I support human rights because I believe all people are loved by God.” I’m also drawn to Volf’s idea that Christians’ primary distinct, public witness is our “vision for human flourishing.” Can we show (not just talk about) what human fulfillment looks like? Think of some of the best “public” displays of faith; the Amish forgive a murderer, a Jesuit priest in LA helps to provide jobs for former gang members. Do people just understand that these are good or peculiar people? Or don’t their actions point to God – who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good?”(Mat 5:45a) Doesn’t even our participation in worship or help for the poor raise questions to the people around us about life and God?
“You will know them by their fruits,” says Jesus in Matthew 7: “Are grapes gathered from thorns, or figs from thistles?” Paul says to the Galatians (5:22): “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.” People are drawn to the image of St Luke as a garden, where people grow and flourish. But this garden isn’t fenced in. The citrus tree in your neighbor’s yard, with branches stretching over the sidewalk. Faith is public so that passerby can pluck and enjoy what God is doing in and through us.
During the month of October, St Luke was pleased to host a concert fundraiser by “Border Radio” – who play “eclectic accoustic Americana and dustbowl swing.” Here’s their website. Together with the previous month’s concert (Sometimes in Tune) we were able to raise close to $2000 for the West Valley Food Pantry. And all had a fabulous time!