Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve: Scrooged, almost...

...but saved by a Ghost of Christmases Past, Present, and it is to be hoped, Yet To Come.

December 24, 2008: A bummer of a day after a bummer of a couple of weeks. After finally recovering from three days of camping out down the street in a wood-stove-heated couple of rooms in our son James' house during a power failure, and two more days in a hotel waiting for the power and daily life to be restored, my wife and I, after a couple more days of feeling merely tired but not so stressed out, then got wiped out by powerful colds. Nothing fancy like flu -- for me it was just a day of feeling lousy followed by a whole night with a constantly streaming nose followed by a day of sneezing and coughing followed by a day and a night of a painfully sore throat followed by a day of deeper coughing and then a day of intermittent mild reminiscing with the wispy spirits of former symptoms. Lots of teas and honey and lozenges along the way, and little or no fever. And then the blahs. I haven't gone beyond our front and back porches since forever, and Janet has gone out on an errand only once. No last minute Christmas shopping for us.

So there I was in the early evening, at the dining room table eating scrambled eggs with red peppers and hot sauce and toast while Janet was eating hers in the kitchen, without the hot sauce and too bummed out to move or talk. She had said earlier that this is her worst Christmas. She really feels rotten. And I suddenly felt as if I were channeling the Alistair Sims version of Scrooge eating his Christmas Eve gruel in his cold, barely lit house. Alone and dreary.

Janet and I had recruited substitutes to take our places as the appointed lectors for the Christmas Eve service at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, only a mile or so from our house, so the cheering effects of friends, music, liturgy, and focused emotion wouldn't be available. And we felt the loss of our only liturgical function and one of our last remaining theatrical pleasures, the public reading of the Bible with proper attention to its dramatic aspects -- lively and forceful, emotional and heartfelt, though with the restraint and discipline appropriate for that 'performance venue'. And there's the always great food afterward....

But then our son James and granddaughter Hannah came in and we had a few small laughs. He didn't stay long but Hannah went upstairs to use one of our computers, as is her custom after having exceeded her computer time allotment at home. And I went upstairs, too, and read some emails, wrote some stuff, made two small donations and a largish one, and wrote my children about the one, the larger one, that I had made in their names as their Christmas presents, as a memorial to one of my best friends. That felt a little better, particularly after our daughter quickly emailed back about how pleased she was with her present.

But what really made the evening was a video. Friday, I had sleepily seen part of an interview on BBC with two ex-hostages -- a journalist, Alan Johnston, who had been kidnapped in Gaza and held four months, interviewing Ingrid Betancourt, who was held for almost 6 1/2 years by the FARC guerillas in Colombia. She had struck me as being extraordinary - just as the French newspaper La Monde had described her: beautiful, fragile, and strong. So tonight I looked up the video on the web. It's only part of a much longer interview, but it's a very telling part. And there's some text there which covers other parts of the interview.

There's also an article in The Guardian/Observer based on an interview with her. It too is worth reading for background and for more of her extraordinary story of extraordinary strength and spirituality. (Yeah, that's a lot of "extraordinary"s; I think I'm in love.)

So I felt moved to transcribe part of the video interview. If you're not familiar with her story, she had been kidnapped while campaigning for the Presidency of Colombia and had put herself in danger by taking the risk of traveling into FARC territory. No other national politician had done that. And she endured torture and humiliation that she is not yet ready to discuss fully, some of which she says should always "stay in the jungle". When she talks in the interview of "forgiving yourself", she's referring both to the pain caused to family and to any shame over failures in behaving well in captivity.

Toward the end of the 3 minute clip, Alan Johnston asks her if the experience had changed her.

She said: "It was a mutation, not only a transformation."

Alan: "It's easier to be empathetic?"

Ingrid: "Oh, very. God, yes. You can understand everything and forgive everything. You can...

Alan: "Really?"

Ingrid: "Oh yes."

Alan: "You're forgiving your captors?"

Ingrid: "Ohh, yes. And those are...I mean...not all, but some of them are very easy to forgive. Not others, but, of course, you know, you have to pick. But then, no, you forgive everything -- and you also have to forgive also the ones who forgot you, and that you loved, and didn't move a finger to help you. That's hard, but you forgive, also, that. But the real hard thing is to forgive yourself."

She then asked Alan: "Did you forgive yourself?" Alan looked down with a bit of a smile. Ingrid laughed and said with delight, "Yes you have. Yes you have. Oh, I'm so glad." And thus ended the video clip.

I think you have to see her face as she says these things. There's warmth and sensitivity, thoughtfulness and tough realism along with vulnerability and a winning joy. As a Ghost of Christmas Past, Ingrid Betancourt can show us terrible things -- things that persist and flourish in Christmas Present and will continue to persist and, alas, flourish in Christmases Yet To Come. But as a Ghost of Christmas Present, she shows the liberating power of forgiveness, something that still has almost no place in public life, business, or international affairs. And as a Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come, she's one more Spirit pointing a slender hand to The Way that Pathfinders have blazed.

Although during her captivity, she wove a rosary out of string she saved from the repairing of guerillas' ammunition belts that she was forced to do, she rejected the suggestion that her spirituality is exclusively an expression of what the Guardian/Observer interviewer called "redemptive Christianity". "You and I can call it that, but it is no specific faith. It could be any religion. It is a deep belief in God and the human spirit." Or something like 'the Tao that can be named is not the true [or actual or eternal] Tao'?

Merry Christmas -- or as they say in England, Happy Christmas. Perhaps 'happy' runs a little deeper than 'merry'.

And here's to empathic mutations that go beyond transformation, however painful the process.


Monday, August 25, 2008

A Labor Day op ed or bulletin insert

This piece is generic down to the dotted line. The rest shows what we're doing locally in our region. The first two sentences of the next to last paragraph are also "generic".

LABOR DAY -- what is it?

The last holiday of summer? A commemoration of a vaguely understood history of labor in the USA, and the achievements of unions in bringing about middle-class standards of living, the 8-hour workday and the 40-hour week, and the end of child labor in our factories? An honoring of the human right of association, the right of workers to organize and bargain for better pay and better working conditions? Labor Day is all of the above, plus an affirmation of our faith commitment to Economic Justice, deeply rooted in our sacred scriptures.

In the Torah, we find mandates for worker justice, such as Deuteronomy 24:14-15: "You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers…otherwise they might cry to the Lord against you."

In the words and deeds of Jesus and the letters of the New Testament, we find the good news proclaimed to the poor and specific admonitions, such as: "The wages of laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out…and have reached the ears of the Lord" (James 5:4).

The Qur'an reminds the community of Islam about its duty to promote fairness and economic justice for all people: "And O my people! Give just measure and weight, nor withhold from the people the things that are their due" (Quran 11:85).

Our faith traditions are united in honoring the dignity of labor. Our scriptures emphasize the importance of equity and justice in matters of wealth and work. They agree in insisting that the employer-worker relationship must be based on justice and mutual consent. This requires us to grapple with the problem of defining what is justice in employer-worker relationships in a society and world economy that’s very different from the societies described in the world’s great scriptures

On Labor Day, religious congregations across the country have an opportunity to reflect on these things, and to think about how our shared values might be more fully expressed in our economic life.


Locally, the Labor-Religion Coalition of the Capital District, as an affiliate of the NYS Labor-Religion Coalition and of the national organizations Jobs with Justice and Interfaith Worker Justice, offers congregations resources on faith-and-labor issues from various faith perspectives and also on current worker justice issues. IIn addition, in this "Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar" program, the Coalition picks out, each year, one issue as its advocacy focus for Labor Day.

Since so many people are out of town in August and don’t have time to schedule Labor Day weekend programs, the Coalition is extending Labor Day into Labor Month. During all of September, the Coalition can provide speakers and materials on this year's Labor Day local advocacy issue, the Employee Free Choice Act. This bill is an attempt to remove obstacles to union organizing that have developed during recent decades. Naturally, it’s very contentious, which makes it a suitable issue to take up in adult study groups and “peace and justice” committees where the pros and cons can be argued out and worked through. Those who agree with the bill might want to sign a postcard in support of it.

So, for Labor Day and Labor Month, we ask you to pray for working people, especially low-wage earners and those who are exploited, both at home and abroad. Remember to ask questions about how workers are treated; speak up in support of working people who are seeking respect and a voice in their working situations. And call the Labor-Religion Coalition for a speaker and information on the Employee Free Choice Act. We’ll be distributing and collecting the postcards for the rest of the year, to give to the new president in January.

[The LRC of the Capital District is an independent coalition of congregations, labor unions, community groups, and individuals. Its focus is on the struggles of low-wage workers for justice, at the point of convergence of our faith commitments with the best values of the labor movement. For more information, contact Marjorie DeVoe, coordinator, at 482-5595 or]

LABOR DAY: Labor in the Pulpits

I had meant to post this last month. It's a message from Interfaith Worker Justice about planning a Labor Day worship service or other event that focuses on worker justice. Think about it for next year.

LABOR in the PULPITS, on the BIMAH, in the MINBAR

Planning a Labor Day Weekend service focused on worker justice issues

Organizing a service on worker justice over Labor Day weekend is a great opportunity for your congregation to recognize the sacred work of all its members and support low-wage workers’ struggles for justice. If there is a local Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ) group in your area, that group can connect your congregation with a union member or labor leader who can talk about the connection between his or her faith and the struggle for justice in the workplace. Labor Day speakers receive special training and sample reflections to help them develop their presentations. Congregations organize Labor Day services on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday before Labor Day or special services on Labor Day Monday. (In some cases, congregations organize services, or reflect on worker justice issues, in the week or two after Labor Day.)

If there is not an IWJ group in your area, consider identifying a Labor Day speaker from your congregation or community or discussing workplace justice in the pastor’s homily. If there is an IWJ group but your worship service or congregation tradition does not accommodate outside speakers, you could use these speakers before or after mass or at adult or teen education classes, or your pastor could incorporate a worker justice theme into the worship service. Think creatively about how best to plan a Labor Day service that will provide support to those struggling for justice on the job and lift up everyone’s spirits in the process. IWJ provides a variety of worship resources that will help you plan a successful Labor Day weekend service.

If you are interested in organizing Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar at your congregation, please sign up here so we can count you as one of the hundreds of congregations around the country lifting up worker justice issues over Labor Day weekend. Getting an accurate count will enable IWJ to publicize the faith community’s concern with worker justice in the national media, which will help bring worker justice issues to an even wider audience. Congregations and religion-labor groups organizing Labor in the Pulpits will receive a sample press release before Labor Day with the number of congregations planning to participate for use in publicizing the program locally.

Labor in the Pulpits/on the Bimah/in the Minbar is a joint project of Interfaith Worker Justice and the AFL-CIO.

If you have any questions or would like to brainstorm ideas for a Labor Day service, contact Renaye Manley ( at Interfaith Worker Justice, 773-728-8400 x15. You will find resources online.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

4th of July thoughts about peace

Someone on the Mennonite peace list forwarded this excerpt from a monologue on an NPR radio show.

It aired on the afternoon of the 4th. Original airing was on Memorial Day in 2005. The title of the monologue is "Ode to War and Peace", by Joe Frank.

"There are no medals to peace, no honors, no marching bands, no great monuments to peace, no hymns sung, no great odes, no martial melodies, no parades to peace.

"There are no gigantic fireworks displays, no champagne corks popped to peace, no last cigarette smoked in its honor. There is no night before peace, no declaration of peace. The very absurdity of a nation declaring peace on another shocks the imagination.

"And who among us can say that he has heard of the spoils of peace? Is there such a thing as a peace hero? Who among us have gathered with his old cronies late at night, hoisted a glass and told peace stories? What valiant young man has been welcomed back from peace?

"What young boy has gazed longingly at his father, saying that he would willingly go to peace to save his country?"

Joe Frank has a dark sense of humor, so this excerpt is the close of a satirical piece extolling war, in the vein of Mark Twain's famous story (and prayer), The War Prayer. The lines immediately preceding "There are no medals to peace" are:

"What is peace but an excuse, a reason for cowardice, a refusal to accept one's responsibilities? I spit on peace. I lift my leg on peace. I have my dog despoil the miserable garden of peace."

You can read the whole thing at

If you've never read the Mark Twain story, it's just 14 paragraphs long and well worth the short time to read it and the perhaps longer time to 'inwardly digest'. It wasn't published until late 1916, 6 years after he died. His family worried that it would be considered sacrilegious, his publisher felt queasy about it, and he confessed to having suppressed it out of fear. It was published in Harper's in late 1916, while the USA was still officially neutral in WW1. Five or six months later, it would again have been considered unfit for publication. Too "unpatriotic".

Friday, April 18, 2008

Global food crisis quotes -- read 'em and weep

These were gleaned from one NY Times article today. They deserve to be seen and reflected upon without the distractions of the reporters' text . Here's a global phenomenon, a catastrophe in the making, and it exists outside the range of our political discourse. No candidate makes the connection that here's a common cause for all humanity, located where climate change, tight oil supplies, water shortages, and food shortages intersect and interact. Talk about a Moral Equivalent to War. What a replacement for the Global War on Terror. What an opportunity to approach our "enemies" in peace.

If we only had "the will and vision". The problem is that many people do -- it's the institutional dominance of money and its will to power that keeps humans' political will and vision limited to a narrow range of "realistic" options.

I read these quoted words and think of all the Biblical texts about widows and orphans, the feeding of the multitudes, and what are treated, in effect and ineffectually, as just the platitudes of the Beatitudes. Read 'em and weep:

Haitian consumer of mud-cooking oil-and-sugar patties sold at street stalls: “It’s salty and it has butter and you don’t know you’re eating dirt. It makes your stomach quiet down.”

Haitian father, talking about his children who hadn't eaten the day before: "They look at me and say, 'Papa, I'm hungry' and I have to look away. It's humiliating and it makes you angry."

Haitian 29-year-old mother of five: "Take one. You pick. Just feed them."

Haitian political activist on rioting in Port-au-Prince: “Why were we surprised? When something is coming your way all the way from Burkina Faso you should see it coming. What we had was like a can of gasoline that the government left for someone to light a match to it.”

25-year-old Egyptian tomato vendor: “We can’t even find food. May God take the guy I have in mind” (said with hands raised toward the sky, referring to President Mubarak).

Egyptian pensioner: “If all the people rise, then the government will resolve this. But everyone has to rise together. People get scared. But we will all have to rise together.”

Indonesian agricultural advisor: "The biggest concern is food riots. It has happened in the past and can happen again.”

World Food Program analyst, talking about riots in Senegal: "Why are these riots happening? The human instinct is to survive, and people are going to do no matter what to survive. And if you’re hungry you get angry quicker.”

Activist in Niger, who had helped organized protests in 2005: "As a result of that experience the government created a cabinet-level ministry to deal with the high cost of living. So when prices went up this year the government acted quickly to remove tariffs on rice, which everyone eats. That quick action has kept people from taking to the streets.”

El Salvador's President Elias Antonio Saca: “This is a perfect storm. How long can we withstand the situation? We have to feed our people, and commodities are becoming scarce. This scandalous storm might become a hurricane that could upset not only our economies but also the stability of our countries."

US economist/UN adviser Jeffrey Sachs: "It's the worst crisis of its kind in more than 30 years. It’s a big deal and it’s obviously threatening a lot of governments. There are a number of governments on the ropes, and I think there’s more political fallout to come.”

Source: New York Times, "Across Globe, Empty Bellies Bring Rising Anger": April 18, 2008

Friday, April 04, 2008

Two Speeches

This has been a day for reading and thinking about two speeches given a year apart, 40 and 41 years ago.

On this day in 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the Riverside Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The title was "Beyond Vietnam: a time to break silence".

The storm of criticism that followed was prefigured by this passage early in the speech: "Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: "Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?" "Why are you joining the voices of dissent?" "Peace and civil rights don't mix," they say. "Aren't you hurting the cause of your people," they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live."

A little later in the speech came a phrase that was a particular target of criticism: "the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government." Time Magazine called the speech "demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi". The Washington Post said that he had "diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people."

The critics generally ripped that accurate and inconvenient phrase about our government's violence out of its social and spiritual context. This is the paragraph in which it appeared:

"My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years -- especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they asked -- and rightly so -- what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn't using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today -- my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent."

Read on and compare his description of the violence being done against the Vietnamese land and people with what has been in Iraq. Think about the reaction if he spoke today, particularly if he were the pastor of a presidential candidate.

Exactly one year after delivering that speech, he was shot dead. The killer probably wasn't thinking of the symbolism of his timing. Still, that speech, that anniversary, and that death feel spiritually linked.

The second speech, given the night before the assassination, is noted for its foreshadowing of his death: "I've been to the mountain top".

Read 'em and weep, as is said in another context. Would that we will all be able to say something, religious or not, in the elevated spirit of  what MLK Jr. said that last night as he finished his last speech:

"And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

"Well, I don't know what will happen now. We've got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn't matter with me now, because I've been to the mountaintop.

"And I don't mind.

"Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

"And so I'm happy, tonight.

"I'm not worried about anything.

"I'm not fearing any man!

"Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!"

And those were his last public words.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

God and Wealth

I'm a member over at a site called CrossLeft and I blog and comment there. CrossLeft's masthead slogan is "Join the Progressive Christian Movement". The question of the meaning of terms like "progressive", "liberal", and "left" comes up from time to time, particularly in relation to the presidential election campaign.

I had written a comment complaining that Obama and Clinton are too caught up in the corporate system, and received a reply from an Obama supporter that one can take anti-corporatism too far. Following that, someone else posted a drawing of his to illustrate the passage in Luke that ends with Jesus saying "You cannot serve God and wealth" -- or in the older translations, "You cannot serve God and Mammon".

So this is what I wrote next, with a few emendations at the end, coming from my comments to responders:

Angelo's illustration for Luke 16:1-13 stimulates me to write about corporations, conservatism, and Jesus' teachings. Yeah, again with the corporations.

It really seems so simple and straightforward to me.

1. In Luke, Jesus says "You cannot worship God and wealth."

2. Business corporations whose stocks are publicly traded in the market have, under current law, only one duty -- a fiduciary duty to their stockholders. That means they're obligated to put stockholders' financial interests above all else. Net income and net worth are their only bottom lines. The production of wealth is the sole interest of these fictive legal persons.

3. As a legal person, a corporation of this type is literally a soulless person and feels unconstrained by any human values other than "wealth is good", "more wealth is better", and "no amount of wealth is enough". Thus, maximizing profits is at all times its only operational goal. Providing products and services are but means to this goal.

4. This strange wealth-seeking person is given perpetual life by its charter. It nevertheless may die, but if it makes profits, it need not ever die. With perpetual life comes the absence of 'death taxes'. The 'estate' is never broken up and redistributed to its human heirs; its wealth can build to a level far beyond that which is possessed by a single human person. The most successful corporate persons become economic entities that are larger than most nation-states. With size comes financial power. With financial power comes political power.

5. The human persons who own stock in this fictive legal person are free from any legal responsibilities for what their corporation does. If they don't like what the corporation is doing, they can sell their stock. If they continue to hold their stock, they have no practical influence on "their" corporation's behavior. The structure of corporate governance makes it extremely hard for stockholders to have any significant impact on corporate policy and behavior.

6. Except as restricted by governmental regulation, the corporate personages are therefore set free to do as they like. The cumulative effects of what they like to do have, over the last couple of centuries, changed the face of the earth and changed the terms of human existence . Thus, the true revolutionary force in 'modern times' has been the corporation, aided by corporate-enabling and corporate-promoting nation-states. The Soviet Union's counterrevolution couldn't hold up against the corporate-based system' ability to harness science and technology to produce wealth and power. And China's has been absorbed by the same system within which it is now a major contender for power.

7. Wealth and power, relatively concentrated in key sectors, have made the corporation the dominant and defining institution in our society. People adapt to its needs more than it adapts to people's needs.

8. Our society has in this manner created a class of fictive legal individuals who constitute a totally new type of ruling class. These rulers are beyond the reach of the teachings of Jesus. "Serving Mammon" (I like the old words sometimes), they are unable to "serve God". Or, correlatively, "to serve humanity". Is it any wonder we non-fictive human individuals and our human societies have problems?

9. Those who serve these servants of Mammon as executives and highest-level support staff have generally taken for themselves the respectable term "conservative". They function as the human part of the new ruling class. (It's estimated that perhaps only 30,000 people constitute the "ruling class" part of the "upper class".) Their definition of "conservative", stripped of parochial social and cultural issues (the materials of "the culture wars" in the USA), comes down to maintaining the status quo of corporate domination.

10. Our constitutional structure and the structure of our election laws make for a two party system which is hard to challenge or change. Both parties are conservative in that they work to maintain the corporate system. One party tends to work to enhance corporate power, the other to improve the terms of the deal through incremental changes and reforms which help to stabilize the corporate system. FDR is the prime example of the latter, despite the fact that his reforms weren't experienced as merely incremental by the diehards of the corporate enhancement bloc. He took the label of "liberal" rather than "progressive", as "progressive" had become an outmoded and pejorative term. It was associated with basic challenges to the corporate system which had failed and which no longer had any traction.

11. The term "liberal', having been demonized and made into a pejorative by the Republican corporate party, was in turn rejected by many reformers within the Democratic corporate party, as well as by outsiders to the "left" of that party. "Progressive" became the term of choice for many. It had the virtue -- and the vice -- of blurring distinctions between the incrementalist reformers within the Democratic Party and the "leftist" system-challengers outside of the party. The virtue is that it has made it easier to form some coalitions across ideological lines in order to resist, in mostly ineffectual ways, some of the most extreme actions of the Republican Party. The vice is that it blurs ideological differences in a way that confuses thought and diffuses action. It makes it harder to discern what changes improve and support the corporate system, and what changes actually start to change the system.

12. Jesus said "You cannot worship God and wealth."

What do we mean when we call this place "CrossLeft" and ask people to "Join the Progressive Christian Movement"? Do we see connections between the words "You cannot serve God and wealth" and our American institutional life? Are we to abet those corporate persons and their servants who worship wealth? If we oppose them, how? And how do we discern the difference?

That is, do we take corporatism on as a major opponent? If we do, as I think we must, then what constitutes real opposition and what doesn't?

Those are the questions that will do much to define what we mean by "CrossLeft" and "Progressive Christian Movement". The tags "leftist", "liberal", and "progressive" are far less important than the issue of where you draw the boundary between "conservative" and "non-conservative" -- or more precisely, "corporatist" and "non-corporatist", as some paleoconservatives and Burkean conservatives see the dangers of corporatism.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Going Hungry to Make a Point

This article describes the Labor-Religion Coalition's Fast in March of 2000. The issue for that year's fast was the minimum wage which had been unchanged for many years at $5.15 per hour. It took a lot of organizing and lobbying work, and it took a few years, but with the efforts of unions, religious groups, and community organizations, the increase was won in 2004, and the wage was finally raised in 2005, to $6.00 per hour. In 2006, it went to $6.75 and then to $7.15 on January 1, 2007.

By comparison, the Federal minimum wage was raised last year to $5.85 and is scheduled to go to $6.55 in July and to $7.25 in July, 2009.

The effects in NY have been good -- the increase benefited thousands of low-wage New York workers. And, contrary to the warnings of opponents of the minimum wage hike, employment in industries employing large numbers of low-wage workers grew significantly. And hours worked increased, too.

Currently in NY, business organizations like the National Federation of Independent Businesses are again fighting a bill to raise the rates again and to index them to inflation:

"This year, a bill has passed out of the Assembly's labor committee to raise the wage in 2009, 2010 and 2011. The proposed legislation also mandates annual minimum wage increases starting in 2012, indexing the raises to a formula combining inflation rates and the consumer price index. Two-thirds of NFIB survey respondents opposed that idea. Under the bill, the minimum wage would rise to $7.75 in 2009, $8 in 2010 and $8.25 in 2011." []

The NFIB is also fighting a bill to mandate paid family leaves, which passed the State Assembly (controlled by Democrats) and is stalled in the State Senate (controlled by Republicans).

The struggle for equity and living wages continues -- the new minimum wages are still below Living Wage standards for NY. Religious groups will continue to share an economic justice agenda with labor.

From the New York Times, March 31, 2000, Friday,

Going Hungry to Make a Point;
A Fast for Poor Laborers Is a Sign of New Interest in an Old Technique

On college campuses and farmers' fields, in churches and immigration detention centers, and across a range of religious and political beliefs, people are fasting. They do it to make a statement, to prove a point, to draw attention, to make a personal kind of peace.

Indeed, across New York State this week, more than a thousand people, from the Roman Catholic bishop of Albany to janitors in Buffalo, have joined one of the country's largest fasts, this one to protest low wages and abuses in the workplace.

Fasting, of course, has been a spiritual undertaking and sociopolitical tool for centuries, and the lineup of famous fasters is vast and varied: Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Dick Gregory and, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. But fasting, it appears, is seeing a modest revival.

''There's been a definite increase in fasting,'' said Kim Bobo, executive director of the National Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice. ''Fasting has always been in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim tradition, and as people of faith seek increasingly to struggle for justice in this time of abundance, it's a natural outgrowth that fasting would be something they do.''

To many, the power of fasting, personal and political, feels especially strong in New York, where many of the streets, beginning with Wall Street and extending deep into the suburbs, seem to be awash in money and an obsession with wealth and excess.

Bishop Howard Hubbard of Albany said New York's religious and labor leaders came up with the idea of a 40-hour fast because they were upset that the problems of poor workers were drawing so little attention, while high-tech billionaires were getting all the publicity. Fasting, he said, is a way to make an unmistakable moral statement when so much of the populace is preoccupied with stock options and sybaritic consumerism. And what better time to do it, he said, than during the Christian penitential season of Lent?

''Everybody is mesmerized these days by the soaring stock market and how people seem to be doing so well economically, yet the gap between the richest and the poorest is wider than it's been in decades,'' said Bishop Hubbard, co-chairman of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, which organized the fast. ''Very often those not participating cannot speak for themselves, and we feel as religious leaders and members of the labor movement that we have to be a voice for the voiceless.''

In Albany, Brockport, Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and New York City, hundreds of clergy members, labor leaders, college students and others began fasting at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Subsisting on only water and juice, they have prayed together and joined street demonstrations to draw attention to a group they call ''invisible workers.''

These workers include janitors in Buffalo who earn $5.25 an hour, farm workers in Sullivan County who are required to work 70 hours a week and cafeteria workers at the State University of New York in Albany who cannot afford medical coverage. These workers, the fasters say, often do not earn enough to feed their families adequately.

Hallie Williams of Buffalo, who worked for 18 years as a unionized building cleaner before she was laid off and replaced by a nonunion janitor earning the minimum wage, applauded the fast. ''We can't do anything if somebody don't help us because if somebody don't help us, we're just out there without a paddle,'' she said.

The New Yorkers are fasting during the same week that six students at Purdue University in Indiana are doing so to pressure the university's administration to do more to ensure that clothing bearing the Purdue name is not made in sweatshops.

Last spring, six students at the University of California at Berkeley fasted for eight days to demand more instructors for the ethnic studies department. In 1998, half a dozen tomato pickers in Immokalee, Fla., fasted for a month to protest low wages, while janitors and labor leaders at the University of Southern California shunned food to protest the university's failure to sign a union contract.

Fouad Jabar, a graduate student at Purdue who began fasting on Monday, said, ''At other schools, there have been sit-ins and protest demonstrations, but instead of being confrontational, we chose to do a fast to show how serious we are about the sweatshop problem.''

The Rev. Kevin Irwin, a professor of theology at the Catholic University of America who has written extensively on fasting, said the recent upsurge is a healthy development, healthier than a trendier type of fasting that he has little patience for.

''The recent trend in fasting in our society was rather narcissistic -- we fast to lose weight, we fast to look good,'' Father Irwin said. ''The purpose of the fasting we're seeing now regarding social concerns is healthier. It is dependent on God and raises very important values in society.''

Those who choose to fast have many role models. In the Bible, the prophet Isaiah fasted to loose the bonds of wickedness and to undo the yoke of the oppressed, and Jesus fasted for 40 days to proclaim good news to the poor and to give sight to the blind and health to the sick.

Gandhi fasted to draw attention to Britain's colonial domination and harsh treatment of the Indian people. Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers, held repeated fasts of three weeks or more to make the public focus on the low wages and miserable conditions of thousands of farm workers.

''It's a commonly accepted practice: one afflicts one's own body as a sign of identifying with the pain of another,'' said Balfour Brickner, rabbi emeritus at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in Manhattan. ''The fast in New York is appropriate because these people, these workers, are hungry. They're hungering for economic and social justice, and our fast is a manifestation of our identity with their cause.''

Brian O'Shaughnessy, statewide coordinator of New York's labor-religion coalition, acknowledged that it was hard to count how many people were participating in the fast. But he said close to 1,500 people had told the coalition that they would participate.

The coalition chose to make the fast 40 hours because 40 is freighted with symbolism: the 40 days of Lent, the 40 days of rain in the Great Flood, the Jews' 40 years in the desert, and the 40-hour workweek.

This is the fifth year the coalition has held the fast. Last year, after the participants focused on the plight of farm workers, the State Legislature raised the minimum wage for farm workers. This year the fast began two days after the New York State Catholic Conference held its annual lobbying day in Albany, and it will end at noon today.

''Fasts like this highlight problems and highlight the need for us to continue to address the inequities in many provisions of the labor law,'' said Nicholas Spano, a Westchester County Republican who is chairman of the State Senate Labor Committee. ''We are listening, we are responding, and we have to do more.''

The participants say they want to press the Legislature to raise the state minimum wage above the federal minimum of $5.15.

Bishop Hubbard said he hoped the fast would grow in future years, and some labor and religious leaders say they will try to spread it to other states. The fasters, Bishop Hubbard said, were following in the footsteps of Jesus, who, the Bible said, fasted to prepare for his public ministry to help the needy.

''I think we have the same mission in today's society,'' he said. ''The issues may be different, but the call to reach out to those who are neediest and most vulnerable among us is every bit as much a part of our religious mandate as it was when Christ walked the face of the earth.''

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Immigration: A 40-Hour Fast For a Moral Solution

For the last 12 years, The Labor-Religion Coalition of New York State has organized a 40-hour Interfaith Fast during the Christian season of Lent, to highlight issues of social and economic injustice and to move people to prayer, reflection, and responsive action. We fast because we hunger for justice and righteousness.

This year's 13th Annual 40-Hour Fast focuses on Immigrants. It will start at 8 PM on Tuesday, March 4 and end at noon on Thursday, March 6.

What we do in NY can be duplicated elsewhere. Please read, and then think about what you can do where you are. Downloadable brochures and other information are at


"You must not oppress the stranger...
for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt."
Exodus 23:9


During our fast, what can we do?


Pray daily that immigrants are welcomed in our communities as sisters and brothers and that all workers receive fair wages and are treated with dignity.

If you know of any worker not being paid overtime or the NYS minimum wage, contact the NYS Department of Labor at 1-800-447-3992. New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status, must earn at least of $7.15 per hour (including tips).

Contact the Fiscal Policy Institute (518/ 786-3156) to receive a copy of Working For a Better Life: A Profile of Immigrants in the New York State Economy or download a copy at

Learn about the rights of workers to overtime wages, prevailing wage rates for certain public building projects and other programs and services available to all without regard to immigration status. For information or to schedule a presentation, contact the Bureau of Immigrant Workers’ Rights in the New York State Department of Labor at 518/ 457-6162 (upstate) or 212/ 775-3665 (downstate).

Visit to learn what some religious congregations are doing to make immigrant families visible as children of God in the face of raids and deportations.

Attend (or help to plan) a community forum or roundtable discussion on immigration. Contact a Labor-Religion Coalition to connect with planning in your region.

Support statewide policies that give farmworkers and domestic workers the rights and protections from which they are now excluded.

Read the Unity Blueprint for Immigration Reform, available (along with other resources) at It provides specific legislative proposals aimed at achieving a workable, just and fair immigration system.


An overhaul of U S. trade policies such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement), which have led to the impoverishment of working people in Mexico and other countries. These policies have created a desperate need to leave one’s country and migrate to the U.S. in search of survival wages.

Adequate funding and enforcement of all U.S. labor laws, including wage and hour laws, health and safety laws and protection of workers’ right to freely join a union. Addressing these issues for U.S.-born workers is part of what it means to create a welcoming climate for immigrants.

A program that values families and favors the unification of family members.

A pathway to earned citizenship, building on the values we all share. Exploitation, punishment and mass deportation of immigrants isn’t right or workable.

(Based on the Summary and Users Guide to For You Were Once a Stranger: Immigration in the U.S. Through the Lens of Faith (2007). Download at Interfaith Worker Justice,

--WHY 40 HOURS?--

The number 40 has special significance in both religious and labor traditions.

The Hebrew scriptures speak of the 40 years in the wilderness and the 40 days of rain that preceded a new covenant with Noah, both transformative events.

For Christians, the 40 days of Lent are a time of sacrifice, prayer and action rooted in Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert.

The labor movement, after many years of sacrifice and struggle, gained a 40 hour work-week for most workers in the US.


"Fasting is a transforming act--it has the moral power to bring about political change worthy of our state…"
Bishop Howard Hubbard, Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany

"…workers in New York are hungering for economic and social justice, and our fasting is a manifestation of our identity with their cause." Rabbi Balfour Brickner

"Muslims fast from daybreak until dusk during the entire month of Ramadan. Denial of sustenance is one way Muslims share a connection to those who suffer from hunger and poverty."
Imam Djafer Sebkhaoui

"Way back in the beginning of our union, someone asked what we expected from the church. I answered that …we wanted the Church to be present with us, willing to sacrifice for justice."
Cesar Chavez

"This, rather is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke, setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke." Isaiah 58:6


During these 40 hours you are invited to go without solid food for one or more meals, or for the time between sunrise and sunset on March 5, or for the entire 40 hours, or for the time between meals.

How to fast
The Labor-Religion Fast asks you to not eat solid food during the 40 hours or during a period you identify. It is important to drink plenty of liquids while fasting. In your hunger, you are asked to take action, "to hunger for justice" so that on-going and persistent injustice in New York State may be alleviated.

It is hoped you will invite others (family members, co-workers, your religious congregation, your union brothers and sisters, etc.) to join the Fast. Call 518/ 213-6000, ext. 6294 for more brochures.

Fasters need not change their normal schedule; however, you are encouraged to join with others in your local area for an opening of the Fast on the evening of March 5. Many groups will also "break the fast" together with a simple noon meal and prayer service following the 40th hour on March 7.

You are invited to join others in 2007 FAST events. Click here for details.

Medical Advice for Fasting
(adapted from Women Against War, sponsor of a 24 hour fast)
Most healthy adults can safely fast for 24 hours. However, some people should not participate such as those with diabetes, liver or kidney disease, persons on chronic steroids, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

It is common to feel some uncomfortable sensations during a period of fasting. These include headache, fatigue, some nausea later in the fast, lightheadedness or dizziness especially with standing up. Regular coffee or tea drinkers are more likely to experience withdrawal headaches or migraines triggered by fasting.

Preparations for fasting:
•In the first 12-16 hours of fasting most of our readily available calorie sources are consumed.
•It probably helps to eat a carbohydrate rich meal before beginning the fast. Carbohydrate rich foods include cereals, breads, pasta, grains, rice, legumes.
•Coffee and tea drinkers may try to reduce their consumption several days before their fast.
•Once the fast begins, it is important to conserve energy. Plan to rest and nap throughout the time.
•It helps to have warm clothing to help maintain body temperature.
•It is important to continue to drink plenty of water.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Words and Deeds: Modeling Good Behavior

I've long felt that Christians should talk less and do more. This interminable political season makes me feel more strongly about that, both as regarding Christians and politicians. People like to talk about "values" and then too often act like slobs, demonizing their opponents and behaving in ways that betray their professed ideals.

I came across an anecdote this week that illustrates the problem. It's told as a jab at a certain way of being Christian but it's equally applicable to all sorts of people who proclaim noble sentiments and then act badly. With a few changes of slogans and bumper stickers, you could rewrite it to mock frustrated "peace and love" liberals or other ill-tempered but high-minded targets. I'll pass it on in the form in which I received it, though, as I continue to think that, in the world of religion, "evangelism of the deed" is more needed at this time than "evangelism of the word". We need more Good Samaritans and fewer pious preachers.

Here's the story. I think it speaks for itself:

An honest man was being tailgated by a stressed out woman on a busy boulevard. Suddenly, the light turned yellow, just in front of him. He did the right thing, stopping at the crosswalk, even though he could have beaten the red light by accelerating through the intersection.

The tailgating woman hit the roof, and the horn, screaming in frustration as she missed her chance to get through the intersection, dropping her cell phone and makeup. As she was still in mid-rant, she heard a tap on her window and looked up into the face of a very serious police officer. The officer ordered her to exit her car with her hands up.

He took her to the police station where she was searched, finger printed, photographed, and placed in a holding cell. After a couple of hours, a policeman approached the cell and opened the door. She was escorted back to the booking desk where the arresting officer was waiting with her personal effects.

He said, "I’m very sorry for this mistake. You see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping off the guy in front of you, and cussing a blue streak at him. I noticed the 'Choose Life' license plate holder, the 'What Would Jesus Do' bumper sticker, the 'Follow Me to Sunday School' bumper sticker, and the chrome-plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk. Naturally, I assumed you had stolen the car."

--Credit for this story: Rev. Mike Burr, Koinonia Community, Grand Junction CO. He says "in all likelihood, it was borrowed...feel free to use it." It was on the "Pastor's Page" in an essay entitled "Is it Christian? Matthew 7: 21-23"

The passage from Matthew is a good warning to those of us who are proud and overly confident in our righteousness, whatever our brand of Being Right might be, religious or secular.

Matthew has Jesus saying: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.’"