Seeing God at the Oakland Army Base

There’s a heart, broken in two pieces. Written on it: “Family,” “Community,” “Workers.” And there was a moment on Tuesday, June 12, when those pieces came together—the heart was unbroken, or whole. To me, that was the heart of the faith engagement of the Revive Oakland! campaignfor good jobs at the former Oakland Army Base.

Rev. Donna Allen prays over the city council committee meeting

As a citizen of Oakland, I’m proud that city, labor, community, religious and youth leaders came together and, despite the many obstacles to unity that are placed in the way of any great movement, created an agreement that provides hope to the next generation of workers in our community. As a community activist/organizer/do-gooder, I’m particularly proud that this coalition created an unprecedented jobs package.

But as a person of faith, I was proud that people of faith responded almost viscerally to this campaign: God’s call to justice rang clearly and loudly to us and through us. (And people of faith are already saying, “And how do we make sure it really happens?” But we’ll talk about that in a minute. I just wanted to name how deep the commitment runs.)

By way of background, the Revive Oakland! coalition worked with the city of Oakland and the developer of the former Oakland Army Base to create a plan for building warehouses in partnership with the Port of Oakland. Often the jobs at warehouses don’t benefit the immediate community and the jobs are poorly paid jobs filled through temporary worker status (which avoids providing benefits or paying fair wages). The miracle that the coalition achieved can be summarized from this excerpt from a Revive Oakland! press release after the June 19 city council meeting:  “We’ve won a commitment that a share of construction jobs will be for new people entering the trades. We’ve won a living wage for every worker on the site and the nation’s first jobs standards in the warehousing industry. We’ve won a job and training center for West Oakland so our friends and neighbors know where to access to these jobs. We’ve advanced the movement to gain job opportunities for community members who have criminal records. And we’ve won a seat at the table for the long-term oversight and enforcement of these standards.”

There are still formalities to go through (a council meeting on July 3 and a committee meeting to finalize details on July 10), and the implementation process will take years (and will require the community’s continued engagement to make sure the community benefits we fought for remain in place for the sake of the next generation). But as we take a moment to celebrate years of hard work and amazing possibilities for the people of Oakland, I want to reflect on the distinct role of the faith community in this campaign, as seen from a glimpse at the final week.

On June 12, one of the city council’s committees met to work through a draft proposal about a warehouse project on the former Oakland Army Base. This proposal had been years in the making, and the Revive Oakland! coalition had been engaged almost from the beginning.

In some communities of faith, people talk about the moment when you’ve done all you can and there’s nothing left to do but pray. The people of faith involved with the Revive Oakland! campaign, however, recognized a spirit-led moment where prayer was not a desperate act because there was nothing left to do. It was an opportunity to breathe God’s power into those advocating for justice and dignity. It was an opportunity to call into existence the possibility of a city where people really could receive a second chance after they had served their time in prison. It was the chance to breathe life into a vision of a city where our youth could dare to hope that they could raise and support a family with a job where they worked hard and earned a fair wage and benefits. It was a moment to dream and pray into reality a city where the bullets stopped flying because Oakland was a city of opportunity for all.

We prayed and sang and named God’s vision for justice for our people for over an hour, and we laid hands on the leaders who went in to represent us. And according to the people who went in, the energy of that meeting was completely different than it might have been. The advocates for good jobs spoke out of a place of power, knowing they were grounded in God’s truth. And they spoke in a positive way, casting a vision for the city council members in the chamber. And city council members spoke with conviction about justice for people in west Oakland, and about making sure that people who have served their time get a fair chance at a job. And we handed hundreds upon hundreds of postcards and photographs of people of faith standing for jobs with dignity for the next generation in Oakland.

I don’t want to romanticize one moment of prayer. People of faith were at the table from the beginning of this vision, and their contributions shaped not only a strong commitment to justice but also a way of engaging in this struggle from a moral place grounded in dignity, grace, compassion and conviction in equal measures. People of faith, at our best, contribute not just to the content but to the process. (In particular I have learned that lesson from working with Servant BK Woodson and Kristi Laughlin of Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice, who consistently helped me reframe my organizer instinct into a spiritual framework throughout my brief time with the campaign.) But that moment of prayer (and the powerful words spoken by people of

Rev. Jacqeline Duhart prays a blessing for jobs with dignity.

faith at the council meeting on June 19, and the messages from people in the pews on behalf of the formerly incarcerated and on behalf of youth and on behalf of people they had never met but knew to be brothers and sisters) symbolized for me what we are about: Muslim and Jewish and Christian and Unitarian leaders stood with and for their brothers and sisters, and they called God’s presence into the midst of a process that often dwelled in the technical. In so doing, we elevated the technical into the divine. My fervent prayer is that in the days and months and years to come, we will continue to fulfill that distinct role within the justice movement here in Oakland. As the warehouses spring up, let us make them holy and just. Amen.


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