My sermons keep getting shorter. This sermon includes the scripture reading and intro. The passage is about Moses getting water from the rock when his people are thirsty, but also about how our fear causes us to do harm when it remains unchecked.
I’m in my second day of a five day fast with night janitors for a cause most people don’t even realize is a cause: many immigrant women cleaning buildings across our country live in fear of sexual assault by predatory managers who know they are working alone and need to keep their jobs. It’s stuff so sinister you can picture one of those cartoon villains twisting his moustache as he plans the act. But it is real. It is happening to people who clean buildings we or our family members work in. And finally, despite all the risks, some women stepped forward to speak the truth about their experiences and change things for their sisters.
I first learned about this hidden crisis during a screening of the Frontline film Rape on the Night Shift a couple of weeks ago at the state building in Oakland. You can watch the whole thing online and I dare you not to cry. What moved me even more than the film, though, was listening to the stories of women who had to find the courage to risk their jobs and means of supporting their families to do what was right for themselves and for other women at risk. What struck me in particular that day was a young woman whose mother is part of the campaign. She said something along the lines of “there are certain things you never expect to talk about with your mother: sex, rape, violence at work.” She then expressed how proud she was of her mother and how proud she was to stand with her. I was deeply moved.
Last week, one of the organizers of the film told me that the workers would be fasting Monday through Friday of this week, demanding that Governor Brown follow his moral compass and sign AB 1978 into law. According to the United Service Workers West,
Female janitors face unique risk of sexual harassment and assault as their jobs often require working alone at night in empty buildings, an epidemic PBS Frontline profiled in “Rape on the Night Shift,” and in a report from UC Berkeley earlier this year: “Perfect Storm: How Supervisors Get Away with Sexually Harassing Workers Who Work Alone at Night.”
AB 1978, the Property Services Worker Protection Act would enhance the Department of Industrial Relations’ authority to prevent assault by requiring employer training and prevention plans, establishing a hotline for victims, and toughening enforcement for employers who leave workers at risk.
As janitor and activist Maria Gonzalez said,
“I was sexually assaulted at work, twice. The employer transferred the supervisor and me to the same building. With nowhere to go, I felt trapped. As survivors, we have stepped out of the shadows to fight back against rape and exploitation, because we know the bosses count on our silence to keep us vulnerable. Ya Basta! We built a movement that can’t be stopped because more and more women are coming forward to support each other and create a safe workplace. Now Governor Brown must do his part and sign AB 1978, because no woman should ever be afraid to go to work.”
I heard stories like this from the women who were fasting when I met them yesterday. One woman was assaulted, took self-defense lessons, fought off her boss with a letter opener when he attacked her again, and was fired for her efforts. Other women were assaulted, forced to do things against their will, and raped. And they said they were glad to be doing this, that they had released their fear, that they were proud to be doing this for the women who follow them into these workplaces. They were excited to be fasting.
There is something about workers fasting that hits me at my core as a person of faith as well as an activist. At a rally yesterday, a labor organizer announced that the workers would be staging a hunger strike.
Fasting has strong, ancient roots. Fasting is a critical part of the Christian faith (and Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, and Jewish among others) for spiritual as well as sometimes justice reasons. But even when justice is part of it, fasting involves connecting to something bigger than oneself (and in this case praying for divine intervention to evoke right action by our state’s elected leader).
Fasting can be about community, even when it is a solitary practice. Several of the women fasting this week are Catholic, like Governor Brown. I saw some of them holding rosaries as they received a blessing from Rabbi Rothbaum yesterday. I saw some of them reading Catholic devotionals in Spanish. And I heard one of them say “Having religious leaders visit us and pray with us reminds me that we are not just activists. We are tools being used by God to make the world better.” The ten women fasting will be community for each other, and I hope that knowing I am fasting with them will remind them that there is a larger community supporting them. But most importantly, I hope that their spiritual act will remind their and my governor that our shared ties of faith call us to treat God’s children with deep compassion and dignity, and that our shared faith does not allow evil to continue undisrupted.
When the workers shout “¡Ya basta!” it is a prayer. It is the prayer of our God who will not tolerate sexual violence. And it is God’s own prayer put into action by faithful women, as has happened for millenia: faithful women have put hands and feet to God’s prayers.
I believe the saint Teresa of Avila is saying to the women fasting at the Capitol today, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes through which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands through which he blesses all the world. Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes, you are his body. Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”
And the workers I met, who have survived sexual violence in the workplace, are serving as Christ’s hands and feet, answering God’s “¡Ya basta!” prayer as loudly as God would wish.
If you live in California, please contact Governor Brown and ask him to sign AB 1978 today to end rape on the night shift: (916) 445-2841.
When I was in eighth grade, I saw a bumper sticker on a car (in Akron, Ohio) that said, “Honk if you support civil rights, religious liberty, gay rights, disability rights, women’s equality…” I turned to my mother and said, “I would honk for the rest of them, but gay rights?” My mother is really smart and so said nothing, knowing I would have to do the math in my head about who deserved rights and who didn’t. Because she had raised me to know that everyone deserves rights and deserves self-determination.
Some folks still talk about homosexuality being a choice. You know what I got to choose every day of my cis-gender heterosexual life? I got to choose whether to acknowledge the basic human dignity of the LGBTQ community as a whole. I got to choose whether to stand with LGBTQ individuals or whether to be silent and therefore participate in violence done to LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community. Because when I throw the LGBTQ community under the bus (through my words OR through my silence), I’m also doing harm to every individual within the community.
That’s what choice looks like.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe this tragedy is about access to horrifically dangerous weapons. I believe it is about “toxic masculinity.” While I think it has very little to do with Islam or even ISIS, I believe it is about the values cultivated in relationship to craving a role in militarized organizations. Since the instance of gun violence closest to me is connected to two people’s struggle over their sexual identities in relationship to one another, I have no problem believing this might be about the murderer’s internalized hatred unleashing itself on others. And it is about lack of exposure to consistent teaching that God loves all of God’s children and that God never wants to see unmitigated, unrestrained violence against God’s children. For millenia we have failed to teach consistently and strongly that above all things God abhors violence.
But the massacre at Pulse is also about over 100 anti-gay bills in 22 states this year, creating a growing culture of acceptance of contempt for LGBTQ life. And it’s about pastors and politicians preaching hate that creates a culture of bullying and suicide. (More here and here .) And it’s about the ways race and gender identity have been pitted against each other as if there’s only enough tolerance for one, and we might have to choose us versus them…and if you’re both a racial/religious minority and LGBTQ, then there is no room for you. Millions of people helped set the stage for this tragedy. And that’s where my choices matter.
I’m not Orlando. And in all the ways I haven’t fought to reject efforts to legislate against the basic human dignity of LGBTQ people in the past year and for decades, in all the ways I’ve not fought hard enough for LGBTQ incusion in the church, in all the ways I’ve not created space for people to know that they are not bad people for struggling with their sexual or gender identity, I’m the people who let Orlando happen.
This morning I sat down to write a letter to a beloved recent teen in my life, a newly minted thirteen-year-old. We go to protests a lot, and museums where we learn about farm workers and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.
This beloved recent teen has been to hell and back, and the amount of resilience that is demanded of her is, to my mind, stupid. By which I really mean unjust. By which I mean I wish I could protect her and it makes me furious that I can’t. And by furious, I mean helpless.
I debated whether to mention the shooting in South Carolina. I debated it because she may not be watching the news these days and I don’t know that it is helpful for her to know about more suffering in the world. Mostly because I don’t want her to have more to be sad about or to be scared of or to hate the world for.
I’ve been reminded recently that it is hard to talk about any issue in a way that speaks to everyone’s lived experience, and when talking about anything related to race, it is that much harder, because we do have the same amount of skin in the game, but the way the game goes does not affect us the same way. (That is, even White people who HATE racism benefit from it, and Black people don’t, and the rest of us have a very complex terrain to navigate.) A great illustration of how privilege and oppression shape our responses to racial issues is that popular Facebook meme about police brutality and Black Lives Matter that reads “Black people are saying ‘STOP KILLING US!’ and White people’s response is ‘But…'”
More recently, though, (more…)
Can we talk about “the talk?” – teaching children how to protect themselves from “Protect and Serve”
I remember an incredibly uncomfortable Thanksgiving during Occupy Oakland. Not the cliche uncomfortable of Republicans and Democrats getting into immigration policy over the mashed potatoes and gravy.
A friend of mine who had been arrested during Occupy for carrying an umbrella (the citation indicated it was a temporary dwelling, which had been banned from the plaza in front of city hall) was regaling us with stories about what it had been like to be in jail, and how they sang together and made jokes to the arresting officers.
Across the table, another friend was clearly not amused, while his daughter’s eyes got wider and wider.
See, my friend had been working really hard not to normalize jail or prison as a regular part of life for Black people in his daughter’s eyes. He wanted his daughter to believe that to be Black in America did not mean an expectation that jail or prison would be a regular and normal part of life; even though they have people in their family who have been to jail and prsion. He did not want her to see it as “no big deal” or a laughing matter. Now, he was also raising her to know about civil rights and justice and fighting for fairness, and when she reached the double digits, they would likely start talking about the prison-industrial complex, because he knows how real the New Jim Crow is. But the light, comical treatment of jail life at the dinner table was the opposite of what he was going for at this moment in his daughter’s formation.
Parenting is hard. Parenting a Black child in America is harder.
A friend of mine has vowed to recognize every action as an act of love or reaching out for love.
She vowed that in the midst of the Ferguson and New York protests and possibly even after the police shootings that was followed by some truly alarming statements by Fraternal Orders of Police and police officers’ unions (the Bay Area’s statement was somewhat tame in comparison) about the need for a police state and unquestioning loyalty to the police. (Another friend explained that they were doing what unions do — assuring their members that they have their members’ backs under any circumstances, in ways that can be alarming or seem entrenched and militant and hostile to outsiders; he noted that teachers’ union statements can come off as militant and unyielding as well, although I bet they don’t talk about teachers as the only barrier against anarchy and chaos and the only line of defense of civilization.)
I would like to be as compassionate as my friend, because in my heart I believe that is true; it’s just that many of us have been scarred so much that our expressions of love or need for love have become misshapen in some incredibly problematic ways.
And so my intermediary step is this: I’m going to start trying to find compassion for the FEAR that underlies aggressive language and behavior. (more…)
I’m finally listening to the series Serial that everyone’s talking about (or at least all of my intellectual liberal White friends). It’s about a guy who’s been in prison for 15 years for killing his high school ex-girlfriend except he maybe didn’t do it.
(As an aside, I’m on episode 8, and finally an attorney from the Innocence Project at UVA just said something I found myself thinking in episode 1: It’s interesting that the guy in prison was pretty much their only candidate even though the case was pretty shaky, and that they described his “dark side” and how he was “controlling” in their relationship even though the ex hadn’t experienced him that way. He’s Pakistani, which is why I found the descriptions of his personality interesting. Hello, profiling.)
Listening to the show and all of the evidence gathering and so forth reminded me of my own brief interactions with the Baltimore PD back in 1996. I googled my ex-boyfriend who is still behind bars and came across a quirky after-the-crime story. He brought a case in 2000 demanding that Johns Hopkins University grant him the degree he had earned; he finished his degree work in December 1995 and killed his best friend on campus in April 1996. Hopkins didn’t offer early degrees, so he would have received his degree in May 1996, but the university decided that killing a fellow student on campus was grounds for withholding his diploma. The court supported the university’s decision. The homicide unit called me in the immediate aftermath of the 1996 shooting to ask a few questions but weren’t all that interested in my answers because it was such an open-and-shut case. (The ex’s defense attorney was much more interested in me because he had read all of my ex’s and my emails and said he felt like he knew me. If you wonder why I care about internet privacy, it’s because I know how embarrassing the violation of internet privacy feels.)
We’ve fallen out of touch over the years, but I remember the ex telling me in a phone conversation maybe 6 months into his sentence that the inmates were watching a cops-and-robbers movie and everyone else was cheering for the robbers, and he was still rooting for the cops. He definitely didn’t think he belonged there. (more…)