The Sit-In, Ten Years Later

My friend the Rev. Sara says that she doesn’t care whether a service is high church or low church so long as it is not sloppy church. I always tell her that she probably shouldn’t come here, because sloppy church is about all we ever have. We are a tiny church in a tiny town, and our priest drives full time for FedEx out of Billings, which is several hours away, and we rely a lot on lay people, and we fumble from time to time, but we manage.

This morning’s fumble was that the person appointed to do the first reading inadvertently read the second reading, so when it came time for me to do that, I figured I’d better read the first one, and I’m glad that I did, because it might have passed over me otherwise. The sermon dealt almost exclusively with the Gospel, which was the story of Doubting Thomas, but it was the first lesson, from Acts, that caught me.

When they had brought them, they had them stand before the council. The high priest questioned them, saying, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name, yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching and you are determined to bring this man’s blood on us.” But Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than any human authority. The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”

We are witnesses to these things. That was the line that struck me: We are witnesses to these things, and we must teach about them.

This past week marked the tenth anniversary of the Students Against Sweatshops sit in at the University of Iowa, in which I participated and about which I wrote at great length at the time; the week was covered much more succinctly by the UE News (I am third from the left in the photo). Many of us who were involved did a little reminiscing about it on Facebook on Thursday, the anniversary of the arrests.* Several days later, I am still thinking about it.

The sit-in did not mark the end of the struggle, which continued for more than a year and, which continues today. A few weeks after the sit-in, we held a silent protest in front of Jessup Hall every day at noon for a week or two. We each wore taped to us a sign identifying a worker who had been abused in a sweatshop, and we wore red tape over our mouths to signify the various ways in which we, and they, had been silenced. I have a picture from one of those days, May 4, 2000, which was also the thirtieth anniversary of the killings at Kent State, and one of our number had made a sign commemorating those students, and the ones killed at Jackson State a few days later who are so often forgotten.

Today’s Gospel lesson is perhaps more relevant than I had first thought. Most of us had not seen sweatshop labor firsthand, and yet we believed. We were trying to stand as witnesses, that others might believe.

Mostly they didn’t, or rather they did but they didn’t think our solutions were the right ones, or they thought our solutions would cost the University a lot of money. At that time, the head basketball coach, Steve Alford, had a contract with the University and Nike guaranteeing him a base salary of $900,000 a year, a third of which was to be paid by Nike — unless for any reason Nike did not feel like paying, in which case the University had to make up the different. Kirk Ferentz had a similar contract with Reebok. We wanted the University to hold the people who made Hawkeye apparel (there are, or were, even Hawkeye coffins!) to certain basic standards: people who made the stuff should be paid a living wage and allowed to take bathroom breaks and not forced to take pregnancy tests and allowed to form unions and not have to work twelve hour shifts or work in buildings without proper fire exits. All of that and more still goes on, and we never thought we would end the practices single-handedly. The anti-sweatshop movement targeted collegiate apparel for strategic reasons — it’s a huge market, and the people who produce it are licensed to do so by schools, schools that frequently have human rights policies and thus a sort of lever that we could push. Of course, as you’ve seen, they also have hundred thousand dollar contracts with companies who are very interested in the status quo. The battle at the University of Oregon, alma mater of Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, was particularly wrought: Phil Knight pulled a planned $30 million donation to renovate a stadium because of the University followed through with one of the protesters’ demands.

I was explaining the whole situation, or as much of it as could be explained during idle post-church coffee hour chat, to some people today, and they asked if we got what we wanted. That’s a hard question to answer. We had three demands; the administration gave in to the first one during the sit in. Over the course of the next year they gave in to the next one, sort of. (It dealt with drafting a specific Code of Conduct for licensees; the Code was written, but six companies (including Nike) were allowed to sign a “clarified” Code, one with modifications that stripped it completely of its purpose.** Our actions, and those of the many other students at many other schools, and our many allies, eventually resulted in changes at one factory in Mexico. It’s not much.

But, as the song goes, I think many of us got what we needed. We were fighting not for ourselves but for others, for people we had never met and never would, and I would like to think our efforts had some effect, and that our movement was one of solidarity and not simply of privileged white kids play-acting at revolution, although there was inevitably a certain amount of that. If you asked the administration or the jury that convicted us, that was all there was.

As I wrote way back then, though, that movement, and the ones that followed, and that follow to this day, gave us back tenfold what we gave to it. My work in SAS is part of who I am; in many ways it made me who I am. My understanding of bureaucracy comes from that movement, but also my understanding of courage, of camaraderie, of solidarity, and of hope.

Those of us who participated in the events of ten years ago aren’t currently occupying any buildings, at least not that I know of. But many of us are still working on the same things that led up to that occupation and that followed it — the bitter, hard, day-to-day work of teaching people and talking to people and being witnesses to these things, to poverty and exploitation, to intransigence and willful ignorance. We are witnesses to these things in a figurative sense, as we were then: we know they exist even if we have not stood on those factory floors. But we were witnesses literally to our own experience at that sit-in, to our own calling to obey an authority we considered greater than that of the building we sat in. We were witnesses to these things, and we are still here.

*Among other things, we were reminiscing about what changes technology has wrought. Back then, we had a borrowed cell phone, and to send out email updates, I had to unplug a phone in order to connect my 28.8 modem.

*I can provide documentation about the “clarified” code, but at present it would require going through some boxes and doing some scanning, as the newspapers that covered it don’t seem to have archives of the events online. (Some smart librarian will probably prove me wrong; please do post a link in the comments if you find one.)

For Lent

I always used to tell people — usually even if they didn’t ask, and mostly they didn’t — that I was giving up watermelon for Lent. I said this in the fond hope that maybe someday someone would recognize it as an allusion to Jennifer, Hecate, Macbeth, William McKinley, and Me, Elizabeth, but so far that has not happened, and now, of course, dear readers, I have tipped you off.

I said it jokingly, but in truth, despite being a religious person, I have never been much into giving things up for Lent. My intellectual reason for this is that I am so generally depressed and down on the world that the thought of giving up one of the few things I actually enjoy for forty days sounds like a pretty good way of making a suicide pact. My more mundane reason is that I am essentially lazy and weak of will.

Some years I get ambitious and say that instead of giving up, I am going to add. I am going to read the lectionary lessons every day. I am going to read my way through the Psalms. I am going to do the daily devotions for individuals and families from the Book of Common Prayer every day, or at least every night. I am going to take on some other spiritually uplifting program. I rarely — well, really, never — succeed for very long at any of these. In high school I once decided not to go see Wayne’s World because it was Lent. I think that’s the closest I’ve ever come to actual deprivation.

This year, however, I’m trying to realize that I may need to give up my boots. These are not just any boots. They are boots I bought, at an exorbitant price, at the Fluevog store in SoHo on my New York City vacation last fall. They are boots that I told myself I deserved, because I have wanted some black boots for years and years. They are boots I deserved because I paid for them with cash, as I paid for the rest of my week-long trip to Manhattan and Brooklyn. They are boots I deserved because, dammit, I deserve some things in life, do I not?

Last Thursday, I was in Cheyenne for the Wyoming Library Association Legislative Reception, wherein we librarians invite all our state legislators to come taste our home cooking (or, in my case, a box of goodies from the Meeteetse Chocolatier) in order to tell them how wonderful our libraries are. Of course, I wore my boots. And, because I had a meeting the next morning and the state would be covering my lodging and such, I figured I’d save them money and stay in a cheap motel. I checked out on Friday morning and was sure that I’d put the boots in the trunk of my car. I visited some friends in Denver and Laramie over the next couple of days, and yesterday, when I went to unpack my car, the boots were not there. I put in to a call to the motel, where the receptionist told me that they hadn’t seen anything like that but that there was a “basement store room” that hadn’t been checked yet, and they’d let me know. I haven’t heard back yet.

I did not leave a housekeeping tip on this particular visit. I didn’t have any small bills, and I was in a hurry, and I had barely messed up a thing in the room, and it was a cheap motel, and. . . insert your favorite excuse here. I spent much of yesterday afternoon thinking that this boot incident just Served Me Right, and thinking about how people in Haiti don’t even have houses, and I jolly well don’t need to be whining about boots. Today, having investigated and found that these boots are no longer available in my size, I’ve been considering offering a reward for their return.

Normally, when you give something up for Lent, you get it back on Easter, when we bring the alleluias back into the service, and we move from the penitential cadences of Rite I back to the modern Rite II. My hopes are slim, but I suppose I may get my boots back as well. What I would really like to get, though — not get back, just get in the first place — is the ability not to care so much about so little. And that, if one can have a Lenten wish, is my wish for everyone.

Praise in the Park

Count today as the first time I’ve ever been at a church service whereat communion consisted of garlic flatbread from the grocery store and grape-flavored Gatorade. It was, shall we say, not the best combination I have ever tasted, but the Holy Spirit arrives in a variety of forms, and it is up to us to recognize it. Mustard seeds seem rather rare and precious these days. Perhaps if Jesus were around now, he’d be telling us that the kingdom of God is like unto a plastic bottle, BPA and all.

This marks the third summer that St. Andrews Episcopal Church has held an interdenominational service in the park with the Meeteetse Community Church, Western Frontiers, and, nominally at least, St. Theresa’s Catholic Church. For the past two summers, I’ve helped out with the music, which is to say that I’ve been one of the half dozen people standing up at the front and singing.

We music people meet a couple of times in the week before the service to hash out just what hymns we’re going to sing and in what manner we will sing them. It’s always a little bit interesting, because the people from the Community Church play guitars and sing from memory, and we Episcopalians have a piano (and sometimes an organ/accordian) and tend to like to see notes in front of us as we sing. They’re a little bit country, and we’re a little bit. . . Anglican. We sing “Come Thou Font of Every Blessing” in our best English choir boy fashion, and they sing “Shout to the Lord” with a bit of a twang and with improvised harmonies, but somehow it all works out.

We don’t always agree on things within my church, either, and we’ve nearly come to blows in recent weeks on the subject of gay marriage (with the added bonus subject of abortion! I said, “Hey, next week let’s talk about the death penalty!” For the record, I am pro, pro, and anti). Yet you could see us relaxing during the bits of today’s service that used the liturgy and tensing up somewhat during the bits where people said rambling prayers and lifted their hands up and said amen a lot. Familiarity breeds comfort, and though it’s good, I think, to be taken outside that comfort zone a bit, as we were today, it is that very comfort that makes it possible for me to pray each week along side people with whom I do not always see eye to eye.

The scripture read at the service today was one we read back on Trinity Sunday, Romans 8:12-17, which ends

When we cry, “Abba, Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ — if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

Being a child of God means a lot of things, and one of them is the work we do in order to be joint heirs not only with Christ, but with one another — even if that means joining in worship in ways that are not always comfortable, even if it means trying to reconcile garlic bread and grape Gatorade with one another in your mouth.

Once and Again

What follows is partially prompted by a discussion over at the Hermits’ place and partly simply my own muddled musings.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light.

I was told not too long ago that this hymn was removed from The Hymnal 1982 not because it refers to “man” (not humans, or souls, or men and women, or what have you) but because of a theological issue: there is no one time in our lives that we must choose between good and evil–we are called to do so constantly.

Of course, I think Lowell’s lyrics acknowledge that: the choice goes by forever, after all. I am not a theologian or an expert on hymns, or much of anything else.

The hymn comes to me at the moment partly because it is a great favorite of mine–we sang it at my camp long ago, and it shows up in The House with a Clock in its Walls, and Martin Luther King Jr. quotes it several times in his speeches and sermons. It comes to me also, though, I think, because I’ve been thinking lately about moments that occur once and moments that occur again and again.

The incidents at Virginia Tech remind most people of the shootings at Columbine High School, which took place eight years ago today. They remind many also, I suspect, of the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, which took place twelve years ago this week. For those of us with a connection to Iowa City and the University of Iowa, the thing that comes most to mind is, I suspect, the physics department shootings in 1991, which, bucking the April trend, took place in November, on All Saints Day. Some may recall the many other school shootings in this country–Red Lake, Minnesota; West Paducah, Kentucky; and on, and on–killings that get less ongoing attention but that were no less devastating for their communities. And any act of sudden violence cannot help but bring to mind the attacks of 9/11. One doesn’t equate these things–one can’t–but they come to mind, and one realizes that evil does not happen simply once.

One also realizes–or some, at least, also realize–that we tend to pay more attention to the tragedies that are sudden as opposed to those that are ongoing. We lose sight of the ongoing killings abroad in favor of the one-off sensations. We barely even register the things that kill more slowly: poverty, homelessness, hunger, addiction, oppression.

It is remarkably easy to write off other people’s suffering. It is equally easy to judge the mourning of others, to believe that the woman who does not cry at her mother’s funeral or the man who does not seem affected by the school shooting that happened in his town are in some way not fully human or humane.

I do not believe that the choice between truth and falsehood is one we make only once, but I do believe that there is for each person one great tragedy–one thing that happens that defines your understanding of sadness. That thing may have already happened to you, or it may yet be coming to you (but make no mistake: it will come). It is one of the great comforts of my life, actually: as a friend once said, the great wheel of tragedy leaves no one untouched. Eventually it swings around to everyone. I try to remember that in a charitable way when someone says something appalling to me, but mostly, I must admit, I remember it in a more gleeful fashion. Oh, just you wait, I think. It’ll happen to you, too.

———–

I started this post a day or two ago but didn’t finish it, and now I’ve forgotten where it was meant to go–if, in fact, it was meant to go anywhere–I call this ramblings for a reason. Suffice it to say that I am always struck, at moments of great national or international tragedy, by how randomly tragedy strikes us, and how peculiar and personal our reactions to it, or our lack of reaction, must always be.

male, female, etc.

How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Luke 13:34 [partial]

I had thought to do a little blogging of the Lenten study we’re doing at my church (which does not have a website–it doesn’t even have a computer) but hadn’t gotten around to beginning. What follows is only marginally related to our actual Lenten study.

The Hermits have of late been considering biology and humanity, sex and gender, topics which lend themselves to diverse pursuits–scientific inquiry, theological reflection, and, of course, the taking of online quizzes.

The Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion, meanwhile, have been considering similar questions, although in a somewhat graver and larger fashion. (Background via Google or the NYT, if you are so fortunate as to have a subscription).

Today I heard the following opinions expressed:

  • gays are sinners and should be punished appropriately
  • gays are sinners and need to be saved
  • gays are children of God just like the rest of us
  • gays choose to be gay
  • gays have no choice about being gay (and, in an interesting variation, 3/4 of gays have no choice about being gay)
  • gays are gay because of a birth defect

Despite my years of regular church attendance, I am the sort of person that Ann Coulter would doubtless describe as a godless liberal (although I usually tell people I’m a communist–why not go all out, I figure?). In the course of my eastern education and upbringing (remember, anything east of Cheyenne is “back east”), I had never heard the last of these before.

I mentioned that I did not think that gay people were defective. The speaker said they were not defective (what with all being God’s children and all), but they were not perfectly formed in God’s image in the same way that people with birth defects are. I said that it seemed to me that since we are all part of God’s creation, God probably intended for us to come in a variety of configurations and sexual orientations and so on and so forth. I’m not sure how that went over.

It has occurred to me lately, though, that when we say that gay people are gay because they can’t help it, because they have no choice in the matter, we are doing them something of a disservice. Saying “you have no choice” is not quite the same as saying “you have a birth defect” (and, I should note, this whole discussion is probably doing an enormous disservice to people who have birth defects, who are also no less human than the rest of us), but it implies that you are to be pitied, that you are, in some way, a less than perfect example of God’s creation–sort of like saying that if you are female, you are somehow less able to relate to God, since in his human incarnation he was male.

Last week in Lenten study our lesson was Luke 13:31-35. I noted at some point that I thought it was either interesting or nice or both (I can’t recollect which adjective I used) that Jesus chose a feminine image in the bit quoted above–the mother hen gathering in her young. I have for years–for as long as I have been thinking about it–believed that humanity encompasses male and female and indeterminate and in-between, heterosexual and homosexual and bisexual, and, in general, more things in heaven and earth than we can dream of. Is there any reason that God should not also encompass all these?

I don’t consider the people whom I listened to today to be intolerant, on the whole. But sometimes it’s very clear to me that I come from a different place. We have a gender neutral restroom at our church, but we don’t call it that, and I don’t know that anyone thinks of it that way. But I may start to think of it as such–to be happy in the knowledge that there’s a place you can go around here where you don’t have to choose a label.