A People’s Cathedral in Wisconsin

A People’s Cathedral in Wisconsin
The Rev. Amanda Stein leads a worship service with the Rev. C.J. Hawking, left. Courtesy Interfaith Worker Justice

It is impossible to know upon which Scripture passages John Wesley was meditating as he rode out to the hinterlands to preach to the coal miners. He could have been thinking about our basic Christian tenets, as taught through Scripture: Who is my neighbor?... If you have two coats… and Whatsoever you do to the least of these….

These same Scriptures echo through the faithful people who have been making pilgrimages to their capitals in Wisconsin, Indiana and Ohio in recent weeks, many for the first time, to struggle for the right of ordinary workers to collectively bargain to secure decent wages, benefits and working conditions.

By now you’ve heard a good deal about the standoff in Wisconsin and what’s become a nationwide debate on public sector workers and state budgets. But let’s be clear on one key point: this isn’t about balancing budgets; this is about destroying the power of workers to act collectively on their own behalf through unions. The unions in Wisconsin long ago agreed to concessions on money and pensions.

Wisconsin’s proposed legislation, as The New Yorker recently explained:

“strips the state’s employees of their half-century-old right to bargain collectively — except over base pay, which can never be increased above inflation without a public referendum. It makes union dues purely voluntary and prohibits their collection via paycheck deduction. It requires the unions to face a certification vote every year — and, to get recertified, a union must win a majority of all employees, not just a majority of those voting.”

This flies squarely in the face of the United Methodist Church’s Social Principles.

Bishop Linda Lee of the Wisconsin Conference of the United Methodist Church wrote a much-quoted open letter to Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker citing the church’s exhortation in The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church (Social Principles, para. 163, B).

“We support the right of all public and private employees and employers to organize for collective bargaining into unions and other groups of their own choosing. Further, we support the right of both parties to protection in so doing and their responsibility to bargain in good faith within the framework of the public interest….”

“I share this with you,” Bishop Lee continued, “because I understand the importance of balancing our state budget while continuing to provide the best services possible to our citizens. But because of my belief that far more is accomplished for the best interests of all those we serve when employers and employees work together, I am writing to ask you to reconsider your initiative, which I believe would end the possibility for those who are government employees here in Wisconsin to negotiate settlement of labor and management disagreements.” 

Episcopal, Lutheran, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ and Roman Catholic leaders — including several bishops — have issued similar public statements.

My husband and I took our two daughters, ages 13 and 14, out of school for a day to bring them to Madison so that they could see firsthand that, as people of faith, we pray with our feet. “This is what religion looks like!” chanted the 75 religious leaders who marched into Wisconsin’s Capitol in Madison Feb. 22 in solidarity with the thousands of state workers and their supporters occupying the Capitol Building.

Since I have some experience in organizing in the religious community, I was recognized in the Capitol and asked to stay. My family went home without me, and, at this writing, I am in my second week of one of the most transcendent experiences of my life. I imagine the transcendent spirit is also true for those in Columbus and Indianapolis.

As I assist Rabbi Renée Bauer of Madison’s Interfaith Coalition for Worker Justice of South Central Wisconsin, the following has been accomplished:

  • More than 400 religious leaders state-wide have signed a statement in support of a just solution.
  • More than 120 religious leaders marched together in a rally of 100,000 supporters.
  • Shabbat services were led in the Capitol by four rabbis.
  • The Rev. Amanda Stein of Trinity United Methodist Church in Madison led an ecumenical service with an open Communion table.
  • Seventeen religious leaders wearing stoles, collars and yarmulkes stood ready to risk arrest in a civil disobedience action with hundreds of occupiers of the Capitol.
  • Churches and synagogues are opening their doors for forums, discussions and organizing teams.
  • Hundreds of clergy preached on the importance and power of the average citizen acting on behalf of the common good.

While all faith traditions teach us that another world is possible, the people of Wisconsin are showing us how.

Between 400 and 600 student, community, labor and religious leaders have slept in the Capitol each night. Guided mostly by the students, committees were established for safety, food, information, recycling, medical care, cleanup, civil disobedience training, media, the library and more. Tai chi and yoga classes were held daily, and certified massage therapists volunteered.

Battery-charging stations, free personal hygiene products, and every other human need were addressed. Thousands of poignant homemade signs became the voice of the people, prompting the Wisconsin Historical Society to preserve them to form a collection. It would take 24 hours to read all of them.

After a local pizzeria established online donations to feed the Capitol sit-downers and so much money came in — from all 50 states and 20 countries — anyone could walk into the pizzeria and eat anything for free. The day I was there, an announcement came over the speaker that donations had just been received from Egypt and the Czech Republic, with $25,000 being raised the previous day.

As I walked to the Capitol, the Wisconsin building trade unions were grilling brats and hot dogs, calling out to passersby, “Free food, free food,” a chant also heard throughout and surrounding the Capitol.

As large groups of supporters arrived, the drumming circle in the center of the rotunda parted to let them pass through and be recognized by the three floors of participants, which swelled each day. After working 12-hour shifts, police officers donning their union t-shirts came to the center. Each day the unionized fire fighters marched behind the U.S. flag and bagpipes, carrying their children on their shoulders and shaking the hands of admirers reaching out to them. Upon hearing that a group of 160 labor and community leaders had just arrived from Los Angeles by chartered airplane, the rotunda exploded in applause and cheers.

The sense of unity is as electrifying as it is indescribable.

People returned each day because this marked an extraordinary, transcendent experience of an intimate community — a community of thousands creating a sacred space and uniting for the common good of ordinary Wisconsin citizens. It is the people’s Cathedral, replete with side chapels for private moments of reflection.

After I assisted with Communion, a man in his 50s approached me in tears, saying he had never felt like this before in his entire life, to which I replied, “This is Church!” We both cried and hugged.

During Shabbat on Friday people danced as they sang ancient songs of liberation in Hebrew.

Everyone owns this space. God’s presence is palpable and unmatched in any sustained experience I have ever had in my life.
Indeed, another world is possible, and the people of Wisconsin, through sacrifice and determination, are showing us how.

The Rev. C.J. Hawking serves as the Harry F. Ward Minister of Social Justice at the Euclid Avenue United Methodist Church in Oak Park, Ill., and is the executive director of Arise Chicago, an interfaith group that partners with the religious community in support of justice for workers. She is the co-author of the award-winning book Staley: The Fight for a New American Labor Movement (2009) and a visiting lecturer in labor and social movements at the University of Illinois. She holds a Master of Divinity from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.

Posted or updated: 3/31/2011 11:00:00 PM
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