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Discovering Our Common Purpose

Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. – Philippians 3:15-16

I was sitting recently in a meeting of Occupy Our Homes DC (OOHDC), and things were getting rough. We were having an epic meeting in which we were airing a lot of the conflicts and struggles that had been quietly brewing over the past several months. The emotional intensity was palpable, and at first it seemed like the group was on the verge of ripping apart at the seams. Some of us felt the need for a broad ideological framework that could provide a basis for our shared labor; others of us just wanted to get busy with the work of stopping evictions and to dismiss wider philosophical considerations.
I was one of those who leaned towards focusing on action. I wanted to work on practical strategies for how we could prevent residents of our city from losing their homes. I did not see the need for anything much deeper than that. Let’s get the work done, I thought, impatiently. Yet, there was something important being lifted up by the folks on our team who urged us go deeper in our shared understanding. They perceived that without vision the people perish; without a clear sense of what our shared purpose is, our group would have no cohesion.
We had a breakthrough when we realized that our shared purpose was not a cause, or an idea, or a program; rather, we were brought together by a person. We are working to ensure that one particular woman – Deborah Harris– is able to remain in her home. She is our basis for unity. As we gather together, to walk with her in the struggle to save her home, we find a concrete, human basis for our work together as an organization. With our focus on Deborah and her particular circumstances, we can allow everything we do be tailored to the goal of defending her home. Tactics, strategy, decision-making structures – all of these can be flexible as we adapt our community to focus on our singular goal, rooted in our commitment to a particular person.
Our life in Christian community is like this. As followers of Jesus Christ, we are not primarily drawn together by a shared set of rules or values. We certainly share many of these things, but they are the fruit – rather than the root – of our common life. Our life as a community flows out of our shared relationship with a particular person, a loving Teacher who guides us and forms us as we choose to walk with him.
The ground and source of our life together is our shared commitment to a particular person: Jesus. Our allegiance is not primarily to a particular set of ideas about Jesus, nor even to a specific code of conduct that must be performed by rote. Instead, we are invited to give all our attention to Jesus himself, and to allow his very substance and character shape the direction of our life as a community. What we believe and what we do as a community flows out of our living relationship with him.
We will always find something to disagree about, and that is OK. Unity does not mean unanimity. As a matter of fact, superficial unanimity can sometimes mask a deeper disunity that is festering within the community. Our shared silence, rather than containing a rich vibrancy where the Spirit can move, can become a place of unspoken tension and deadness. Christ’s light is the great Revealer, and we hestitate to approach God together when we are hiding our deeper feelings from one another.
When we are united in a particular person, we find the common purpose that allows us to break down the walls of niceness and to be real with one another. When we find our common ground in spirit and in truth, we are able to penetrate the walls of false courtesy that divide us. We are able to be true and honest, to really come to know one another in our common struggle for liberation.
As a Quaker, I find it deeply liberating to re-focus in this way. Rather than putting my energy into figuring out “what do Quakers believe?” or “what do Quakers practice?” I can instead set my sights on the most important matter at hand: “Who is this person, Jesus, and how is he calling me to live?” When I am gathered in a community that is actively asking this question, there is the real possibility of revolutionary transformation.
How do we find our common purpose in the concrete reality of another person? Do we allow ideas or rules trump the reality of the lives of those around us? How can we ground ourselves in the experience of the Risen Lord Jesus, allowing him to become the focus that orders and directs our lives as a community?

Drawn Into the Light – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #44

Dear friends in Truth,

This is turning out to be a summer to remember. The day after sending out my last ministry newsletter, I was arrested by US Capitol Police while attending a Senate Banking Committee hearing featuring Jamie Dimon – CEO and Chairman of JP Morgan Chase. Dimon was there to explain why his bank was engaged in risky gambling with billions of dollars, but some of us had other questions we wanted answered. I accompanied my friend, Deborah Harris, whose home has been foreclosed on by JP Morgan chase, and I held her in prayer as she got a chance to ask Jamie Dimon in person: Why don’t you face the people that you foreclosed on?

As it turns out, the folks in charge do not like it when you publicly question them. For our thirty seconds of conversation with Mr. Dimon, we spent seven hours in jail. Last Tuesday, we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia, where we were subjected to drug tests and ordered to return for a status hearingon August 13th. It is not yet clear what will happen with our case. Please pray for a speedy and just resolution to this matter.

About a week after this new experience on Capitol Hill, I was off to Barnesville, Ohio for the Wider Gathering of Conservative Friends and QuakerSpring. The Conservative Friends gathering was really deep, and there was a profound sense of Christ’s living presence within us, calling us to respond in faith. I was left with the challenge: Do I really live in Christ’s life and power? How does my life demonstrate it?

QuakerSpring was also a powerful experience, though it was harder in many ways. Over the course of the week-long gathering, I became increasingly aware of the burdens that were weighing on my heart. I saw more clearly that I was struggling with anxiety and confusion around issues of financial security and support. I had gotten so caught up in worry about the future that I lost sight of my present Ground and Source, Jesus Christ. I was grateful for this opportunity to retreat for a week with Friends in Ohio. It was an opportunity for me to re-dedicate myself to allowing Christ to work within me, revealing my hidden darkness and drawing me into the light.

God has good timing, because my life was about to get even crazier. A few days after returning home from Barnesville, I began my new job as Interim Communications and Web Specialist for Friends United Meeting. For the next several months, my primary focus will be the FUM website. The current website was originally set up in 1997, and though the site has had an amazing 15-year run, it is clearly time for an upgrade! Once the new site is up and running, I will be able to enlarge my focus to encompass other areas of our communications strategy.

It is an honor to be on staff with Friends United Meeting, which at its best represents my personal faith: passionately Christ-centered, deeply Quaker and committed to mission. I feel hopeful that we at FUM – our staff, our Yearly Meetings and our local congregations – can help to demonstrate what it means to be Spirit-led followers of Jesus in today’s world.

Together with my new job at FUM, working as a technical writer for a national hospice newsletter, volunteering with Occupy Our Homes, writing for my blog and caring for the community at Capitol Hill Friends, I have got a lot on my plate! It has taken a little while, but at this point I have developed a weekly schedule that helps to bring together all the threads that make up my life’s work. I feel deeply blessed to have a life that is so full of meaningful labor, and I pray that Christ will continue to guide me in finding the right balance between work and rest, study and play, solitude and community.

Summer is a fluid time for most people, and perhaps especially for Quakers. Summertime is Yearly Meeting time, and I still have several to attend in the next month and a half. Faith and I will be at New York Yearly Meeting from July 23 to 27. The next week, I will visit Baltimore Yearly Meeting for a few days to speak on a panel and deliver a workshop about how our faith as Friends intersects with movements for social justice such as Occupy Wall Street. From August 7 to 11, Faith and I will be back out in Barnesville, for the annual sessions of Ohio Yearly Meeting. With so much travel and so many opportunities for new connections, it can feel hard to keep my feet on the ground. I pray for inward stability and rootedness in the Spirit. May God will bless each of the gatherings that we attend.

Even as everything is up in the air with summer travels, courtroom proceedings and changes in employment, Capitol Hill Friends is going through a transition of its own. In the next few weeks, we are saying goodbye to three William Penn House interns who have been a real blessing for our community. Lily Rockwell of Stillwater Friends Meeting (Ohio YM) is leaving town this Saturday as she prepares to head off to the University of New Mexico for graduate studies in speech language pathology this fall. Lily has been a vital part of Capitol Hill Friends for the past year, and we will miss her quiet, steady presence.

Sammy and Ceress Sanders are two William Penn House interns who are just here for the summer, but they have quickly become an integral part of our community. They will be leaving in a few weeks, returning to Barclay College, where they have one year left in their undergraduate work. Sammy and Ceress’ commitment to Spirit-led service and a Christ-centered engagement with those around them has been wonderful to experience, and I am praying that they might be able to come back to DC once they finish their college studies. I hope they have gained as much from their time here as we have gained from having them with us.

With Lily, Sammy and Ceress all headed back West, our fellowship at Capitol Hill Friends is bound to feel different. In our experience, spring and fall are pivotal times, moments when our community can really change in exciting ways. This will no doubt be all the more true this fall, as we adjust to the loss of a substantial part of our core group. I pray that God will gather together those people who have need of a community like ours, and teach us how to love one another as Christ first loved us.

Thank you for all of your prayers and words of support this past month – for me, for our work at Occupy Our Homes, for the ministry of Friends United Meeting and for Capitol Hill Friends. Though there have been great challenges, the Lord has stood with us through everything. With each passing day, I am more convinced that neither death nor life, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. May each of you be blessed, just as I have been blessed by God through you.

In Christ’s peace,

Micah Bales

The Price of Dissent

Last month, I was arrested along with several of my colleagues as we sought to speak with Jamie Dimon before he testified to the Senate Banking Committee. We accompanied Deborah Harris, a DC homeowner who was unjustly foreclosed on by JP Morgan Chase, where Mr. Dimon serves as CEO and Chairman of the Board. We stood with her as she asked this powerful man a simple question: Why don’t you face the people that you foreclosed on?

Jamie Dimon’s answer was clear: Because you don’t matter. Mr. Dimon never acknowledged Deborah’s presence, and we were arrested and locked in jail for most of the day. We received a forceful response from those wealthy few who control our government and our economy: You will speak only when spoken to. You will learn who is in charge here.

This message continued to be delivered as we were arraigned at the Superior Court of the District of Columbia on Tuesday morning. I was surprised by how much the court looked like TV courtrooms – think Judge Judy or The People’s Court. The dominant image was a very large seal of the court, with flags – of the United States and the District of Columbia – on either side. These symbols of authority rested immediately behind the judge’s seat, which sat far back, behind two long desks where about half a dozen clerks stood or sat, processing the perhaps fifty people being arraigned that morning.

The whole scene was purposefully crafted to elicit a feeling of reverence towards the authority of the court. The lawyers and those being arraigned sat in the forward part of the courtroom, on long, wooden benches that were very similar to pews in a church building. I leaned over to Deborah at one point and whispered, “I feel like we’re in church.” But I learned not to talk too much, as bailiffs regularly came by and sternly warned us not to speak or use our cell phones. Let all the earth keep silent before the authority of this court!

This sense of religiosity was no accident. When the judge entered the courtroom, one of the clerks pronounced a long string of official words, including, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” This invocation of God’s name – however shallow and formal – further emphasized to me the weight of the civil religion that permeated the court. Everything was mediated through ritual; all the details of the court’s furnishings, layout, decorum and vocabulary evoked an atmosphere of solemn reverence. But who, or what, were we venerating?

I was not sure whether it was Law, or the State, or the Court, or some vague spirit of Authority that we were being not-so-subtly pressured to worship, but one thing was very clear to me: It was not God. One of the most disturbing things about our arraignment yesterday was this blasphemous liturgy of the State, whose message was clear and powerful: Submit. Fear. Forget who you are and become what we say you are.

It was essentially the same feeling that I got at the jailhouse last month. The point of the system is to instill order, always defined in the system’s terms, regardless of the cost to human dignity. As we sat in our benches and were rebuked by the bailiffs for “talking too much,” we got the message: While we were in that courtroom, we were to be in utter dread of Authority, totally attentive to its whims. Just like in the jailhouse, the physical and psychological space was purposefully engineered to break down individual identity and self-will, transferring all agency and power to the officialdom and bureaucracy of the court.

It is one thing to write about this environment, but it is another thing entirely to experience it first hand. I would not have imagined it to be so irresistible, so psychologically overwhelming; yet I found it extremely difficult to stay grounded in God and in my true identity as a child of the light. Having this personal experience of the terrifying power of the court system – with all its blasphemous ritual and pomp – I am beginning to understand how truly bold George Fox was when he dared to stand before a judge and admonish him to “quake before the power of the Lord.” Fox knew better than anyone that the function of courts and judges and civil religion is not to tremble before the Lord, but to make others shake before human authority.

I was reminded of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, where Paul writes that there are indeed “many gods and many lords, yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” There are powers and rulers and authorities in this world, and we must decide which authority we are to place ourselves under. Will it be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ? Or will it be some other authority?

The image of Christ as judge, holding court and delivering the ultimate verdict at the end of time, takes on new relevance for me now that I have experienced the dread of the human court system. For though human courts can be unjust, Christ rules with equity and impartiality; while human courts direct veneration and awe back to themselves, Jesus directs our attention, awe and worship back to the Father, our sovereign Creator.

I do not mean to suggest that human courts are essentially evil and should be done away with. Paul writes in his epistle to the Romans that all authorities that exist have been instituted by God. The courts of the United States can only exist because God has created Authority itself; human institutions are intended to reflect this authority, which God created as a servant for good. Unfortunately, this God-given authority that was created to preserve life in human community has been twisted and corrupted by human sin – both individual and collective.

There is no doubt in my mind that our court system is deeply affected by the distorting effects of sin. Worst of all, our human institutions of authority often play a role in sustaining the fruit of sin: violence, injustice, dehumanization and fear. Probably the clearest example of this is the way our legal system perpetuates systematic racial discrimination. Except for most of our group, who had been arrested for a political offense, all of the other people being arraigned yesterday were African-American. We got to hear quite a few of their arraignment proceedings before our turn came around, and the great majority of them were charged with drug possession. Observing this process, I was more convinced than ever that the Drug War is being used as a tool of oppression, and racial and class discrimination.

Even for a case like ours, which has nothing to do with drugs, all of us were required to submit to a drug test. This did not sound so bad, until I learned that the test involved urinating into a cup in a room full of mirrors while a man stood by, watching me. This was really unnerving, and I had to try a second time before I could bring myself to do it.

Even after all of this, our case is still pretty much up in the air. We have been ordered to stay away from the Dirksen Senate Office Building, and we were assigned a status hearing for Monday, August 13th. We will not know anything more until then. In the meantime, I would ask for your continued prayers. I find the uncertainty that comes with being caught up in this legal machine very stressful, and I need all the support I can get to stay grounded.

I am so grateful for everyone who has reached out and shown support since the arrest. This whole process has really taught me the meaning of the word solidarity. Imprisonment and court proceedings are a special kind of distress, and having my community behind me is so important. Thank you for all the love and support that you have shown me. This would all be much harder if I did not have you to lean on.

Let me close with George Fox’s epistle #237:
Dear Friends and brethren,

The Lord is with you all everywhere, who suffer for his name and truth’s sake,
in all your bonds and afflictions be of good comfort, for the Lord is with you;
neither be dismayed at your sufferings, for if you suffer, Christ suffers;
and if you are persecuted, it is Christ who is persecuted;
and if you are not visited, it is Christ who is not visited;
and if you are oppressed, it is he who is oppressed.
And he will lay no more upon you than you are able to bear. […]
[Christ] has a fellow feeling with you all, in all your bonds and afflictions;
and Christ who suffers, will overcome all his enemies.
He reigns,
and they must be his footstool to stand upon.
And so, be of good faith, and be valiant for the truth upon the earth.

George Fox 

Gathering in the Spirit – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #42

Dear sisters and brothers,
I have been given many opportunities this month to travel in gospel service to a variety of communities, both among Friends and in the wider ecumenical Church. In all of my travels, I have joined with my brothers and sisters in asking hard questions: As followers of Jesus, how are we called to work for economic justice and the practical liberation of all people? As disciples of the enfleshed Word, how are we to understand our lives as sexual beings? As a people who have been transformed by the love and authority of the Lord Jesus, how do we lead lives that proclaim him – his joy, his power, his peace?

The lengthiest trip I took this month was to visit Friends in Pendleton, Indiana. Several months ago, I was contacted by the clerk of Whitewater Quarterly Meeting in Ohio Valley Yearly Meeting, inviting me to speak at their gathering in April. I could speak about whatever God laid on my heart – though he mentioned that Friends would be very interested to hear about my experiences as a Quaker in the Occupy movement.

I felt clear to accept the invitation, traveling under a minute from Rockingham Monthly Meeting and Stillwater Quarterly Meeting (Ohio YM). During the afternoon session, I spoke out of the silence, and it was opened to me to speak about God’s call for us to emerge from our addiction to comfort and pride. I invited Friends to embrace the radical worldview of Christ’s Kingdom, which challenges us to engagement in a broken world. Grounding my sermon in Christ’s words to the Church in Laodicea, I felt moved to encourage those present to pursue the passionate commitment and humility that our faith demands. If we open ourselves to the transforming power of the Spirit, we can emerge from lukewarmth and fear, embracing the prophetic faith of Jesus.
The word I was given did encounter some resistance from some Friends present. Nevertheless, I was encouraged to see that others received the word with joy. Some were deeply moved by the message, feeling directly addressed by the Lord.
A couple of weeks later, I had another opportunity to speak, this time as part of a panel discussion at Virginia Theological Seminary, one of the premier Episcopal seminaries in North America. I was invited to speak alongside several weighty leaders in the Episcopal Church, including a retired bishop turned activist and the current rector of Trinity Wall Street – a very prominent parish in lower Manhattan. I was thankful for the opportunity to address an assembly of seminary students and professors, representing a significant portion of the present and future leadership in the Episcopal Church.

I was able to speak about my experience as a Christian occupier, working for economic justice in the name of Jesus Christ. I felt that the Spirit was present with us in the gathering, and it was opened to me to exhort those present – especially the seminary students – to dare to question the moral assumptions of the present culture, which relies more on laissez-faire capitalist philosophy than on the loving example of our crucified Savior. Though much of the Church has been seduced by these human philosophies, we were reminded that our authentic witness as followers of Jesus will seem like foolishness to the world.

The last major trip that I took this month was to a retreat held by Ohio Yearly Meeting on the subject of human sexuality. For almost two years now, Friends in Ohio Yearly Meeting have been openly wrestling with our shared understanding of God’s intention for human sexuality, and what this means for us in practical terms as a fellowship. Last summer, the Yearly Meeting directed a committee (which I served on) to organize a gathering where Friends could hold these concerns in the Spirit together, sensing how God might be guiding us.

For my part, I was very nervous about this event. This is hard stuff for Friends to talk about, and at times I wondered whether anybody was even going to show up. To my surprise and joy, there were around fifty Friends who traveled from almost every Meeting in the Yearly Meeting to practice shared discernment. This in a Yearly Meeting with an active membership of maybe two hundred!

Even more important than the number of people present, the Holy Spirit was there with us. The whole gathering was grounded in worship, and we were able to largely avoid the caustic back-and-forth the so often characterizes conversation around sexuality. Speaking largely arose from a place of vocal ministry or intimate sharing of personal experience, rather than debate. I felt that we emerged from this gathering with a greater sense of love, trust and fellowship – praise God!
The biggest single insight that I perceived to emerge from our time together was this: We in Ohio Yearly Meeting have significant areas of unity in our understanding of human sexuality, though there are also major areas of disunity. There was a shared sense that we would do best to proceed in love, examining first those areas where we sensed unity, and gradually working our way into the harder areas, those subjects where there is serious disagreement. Our understandings of homosexuality are, as one Friend put it, “the deep end of the pool.” We know that there is a large range of opinions about the rightness of gay and lesbian relationships, and we will need to proceed tenderly – and deliberately – as we seek the Lord’s will in these matters.
I left the gathering with a sense of unity in the process of discernment that we are engaging in together. I felt that despite our serious disagreements on some subjects – particularly our understandings of gay and lesbian relationships – that everyone involved is acting in good faith and seeking the Lord’s will as best they know how. This goes a long way towards reconciliation between individuals, and eventual unity within the Body as a whole. If we can stay humble and grounded in the Spirit, I dare to hope that the Risen Lord will draw us together in one mind and the same love.

Back in DC, the work continues. Capitol Hill Friends continues to grow in spiritual depth, as well as in numbers and vitality. I give thanks for the amazing sisters and brothers whom God has sent to help ground this little church in the midst of the city. I continue to pray that the Lord will send more workers into the field of his harvest. My work in the wider community is moving ahead, and I continue to be active in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes. In all of this, I am learning how to practice self-care and not over-do it. I am finding that a life grounded in prayer and the study of Scripture is essential to the kind of public ministry that God is calling me to, among Friends and in the wider community.

We are now a third of the way through May, and it looks to be a beautiful summer. I am so thankful for the many blessings that God has poured out on me and my fellow workers here in DC. Thank you for your support and encouragement. Your prayers have real effects that are felt here. Never doubt it.

In Christ’s love,
Micah Bales

Another Victory for Occupy Our Homes DC

On Sunday night, I got a call from one of my fellow organizers at Occupy Our Homes DC, who had just gotten out of a meeting with Dawn Butler, a local DC resident. US Marshalls would be showing up at her house early the next morning, and they planned to evict her. Some of our organizers had gathered information on the case, consulted legal counsel and met with the tenant in person. We made the determination that Occupy Our Homes DC should act immediately to prevent the eviction.
If carried out, this eviction would not simply be unfair – it would be illegal. In the District of Columbia, tenants have the right of first refusal when their landlords are foreclosed upon. That is to say, tenants have the legal right to buy the foreclosed property if they so desire. Yet, despite the fact that the law makes provision for Dawn to buy the home that she had lived in for years, JP Morgan Chase determined that it would be be more profitable to evict her and sell her residence to someone else. As so often seems to be the case in these situations, the pursuit of maximal profit trumped everything – even the rule of law.
Though we had less than twenty four hours’ notice, we decided that Occupy Our Homes DC could play an important role in helping to turn the tide in this case. We sent out the word: If you can make it, be at Dawn Butler’s house at 9:00 on Monday morning. It could make the difference between her being able to stay in her home, or being thrown out on the street.
I knew I had to be present for the eviction defense, regardless of the day or the hour – but I was skeptical that we would be able to turn out enough people on twelve hours’ notice to effectively make a stand when the US Marshalls arrived. I was astonished the when I showed up the next morning to find a dozen folks already assembled. By nine ‘o clock, there were perhaps thirty or forty of us present, with huge signs, two sound systems, and a readiness to stand in the way if the Marshalls insisted on throwing Dawn out of her house.
A little before nine, the movers showed up. It was a vanload of mostly African American men, whose job it was to haul out the belongings of those who were being evicted. I talked with some of these guys, and they told me that they often evict multiple houses a day. Some of them seemed sympathetic to Dawn and the unfair treatment she was receiving, though others avoided eye contact. What a lousy job, I thought. It must be terribly demoralizing to spend your days throwing people out of their homes! Many of them probably had few options and were doing what they felt they had to do to get by. At the same time, I wondered where personal responsibility came in. As a result of this experience, would any of them conclude that they could not longer participate in these evictions?
Fortunately, we were not forced to directly challenge either the US Marshalls or the movers. At around ten ‘o clock, we got word that Dawn had secured a stay of eviction from the judge, allowing her to remain in her home until the next court hearing, later this month. This was a huge victory, allowing her to mount her legal case – which is a strong one – and hopefully be able to purchase her home.
Dawn told us later that the people at court knew that Occupy Our Homes DC was mounting resistance to the eviction, and that she got much better treatment by the court than she ever had before. Before, the court treated her as just another number; but now the courts and JP Morgan Chase know that Dawn has growing community support behind her. If they want to kick Dawn out of her house, they will face a serious public relations battle – one that will expose their immoral and illegal actions.
This rampant illegality is what really astonishes me. For better or worse, I expected big banks to be involved in unethical business practices. That seems par for the course in our economic system, which values maximum profit over all other considerations. But I never imagined how brazenly the biggest banks are engaging in outright illegal activity, nor how the court system goes right along with it! Occupy Our Homes DC will continue to work with residents of the DC metro area to expose these systematic unjust and illegal practices.
There are thousands of families being left destitute by predatory lenders, and we know that we can only help a few. Yet, we hope that those we are able to partner with will be transformed by the experience. Our goal is to empower grassroots leadership to arise in the community and challenge the grip of the big banks. We are learning that we do not have to accept the unjust status quo. We are discovering that we have the power to resist the abuses of the big banks and the corrupt court system. We are beginning to empower our local communities and economies, putting our money where our hearts are.
The work of Occupy Our Homes DC is important, but it is nothing compared to the power that will be unleashed if we unlock the leadership potential of ordinary Americans. We are looking for ways to empower our local communities, working to find shared solutions to the challenges we face. One thing is clear: We can no longer rely on big banks, big business or big government to solve our dilemmas.
Does this resonate with you? Are you involved in similar efforts in another city? What are other ways that you think we can be involved in empowering ordinary folks to do extraordinary things, living into the dream of participatory, grassroots democracy?

A Step Forward Towards Justice for Bertina

On Friday, I shared the story of Bertina Jones, a resident of Bowie, Maryland, whose home was auctioned off by Bank of America. She lives under the threat of eviction by Freddie Mac, despite the fact that she has done everything she was told to do and has the ability to make her mortgage payments. Despite her desire and financial ability to remain in her home, the banks have refused to listen. They thought they could ignore her and take her home away.

Until yesterday. On Monday, folks from Occupy Our Homes DC showed up at Freddie Mac’s offices in downtown DC to insist that this government sponsored bank be responsive to the needs of ordinary citizens. Bertina Jones, along with a few community representatives, entered the offices and attempted to deliver a letter to the executives inside. Meanwhile, we rallied outside the entrances to the office complex. We chanted, we sang, we performed street theater.

We did our best to let the public know how Freddie Mac is taking advantage of ordinary citizens, throwing them out of their homes. Above all, we made sure executives at Freddie Mac know that we see what they are doing, and that we will continue to disrupt their business as usual until they make it their business to seek justice for the needy.

I am pleased to say that the Occupy Church was out in force, playing our own particular role in this important action. We began our vigil in McPherson Square, processing through downtown DC with a paper-mâché golden calf on our shoulders. Robed clergy carried the cross ahead of us as we walked through throngs of office workers and men in expensive suits. Our best song was definitely the foreclosure resistance remix of “Down By the Riverside,” with lyrics such as, “We’re gonna call out predatory banks, down by the riverside… And live in debt no more!”

After a long procession through the city, we arrived at the demostration fashionably late. It seemed as though our arrival had a positive effect, and we were grateful to be able to lift up the Church’s witness that God stands with the poor and those who are struggling under heavy burdens of debt. I was reminded of Jesus’ words in Luke 18, where he observed that even a corrupt judge will listen to those who agitate with persistence. How much more will God listen to we who cry out to him day and night for justice?

“I tell you, God will see that [we] get justice, and quickly” (Luke 18:8). Sometimes a lot more quickly than we expect. Almost immediately following our mid-day action downtown, Freddie Mac promised to work towards a “positive resolution,”which would allow Bertina Jones to remain in her home. This is potentially a huge breakthrough, showing that the corrupt judges that reign over our financial sector can indeed be swayed by our incessant cries for justice. If we keep up the pressure, we may be able to rescue many more homes from the clutches of foreclosure-happy banks.

It is important to remember, however, that the battle is not yet won. Bertina’s home remains in jeopardy until the ink is dry on a contract which guarantees the just reinstatement of her mortgage. Until we have legally-binding guarantees from Freddie Mac (and, perhaps, Bank of America) that Bertina’s home is safe, we cannot let up the pressure. We will not be distracted by empty words and false promises. Even as we hope for the best, we are prepared to defend Bertina from eviction. If the big banks want to take her home away, they must be aware that we will not go quietly.

We will continue to cry out for justice, trusting that God hears our voice – and that, eventually, the rulers of this world will, too. We know that there are thousands of people just like Bertina here in the DC metro area, and we will not rest until the big banks have heard their cries for justice. This is just the beginning.

Foreclosure Resistance: An Answer to Prayer

Guard me, O Lord, from the hands of the wicked;
preserve me from violent men,
who have planned to trip up my feet.
The arrogant have hidden a trap for me,
and with cords they have spread a net;
beside the way they have set snares for me.
-Psalm 140:4-5

Bertina Jones lives in Bowie, Maryland, in a home that she purchased in 1997. She is a professional accountant and makes a liveable income. However, like millions of Americans, Bertina has been affected by the economic crisis. In 2008 she lost her job of 17 years and fell behind on her mortgage payments. Thankfully, she was able to find work again within several months.

Once Bertina had secured a new job, she contacted Bank of America and asked for a loan modification, and Bank of America eventually consented. The terms of the new agreement included an initial payment of over $12,000, and the reinstatement of regular monthly payments. Bertina paid Bank of America the huge lump sum, and resumed her regular payments. All the papers were signed, and everything seemed to be in order.

But Bertina’s nightmare had just begun. Though she had done everything that was asked of her, Bank of America repeatedly lost Bertina’s paperwork. Each month, she sent in her monthly mortgage payment, and whatever paperwork Bank of America asked for. Mysteriously, the bank always promptly cashed Bertina’s mortgage check – but they always “lost” her other paperwork.

I say to the Lord, You are my God;
give ear to the voice of my pleas for mercy, O Lord! […]
Grant not, O Lord, the desires of the wicked;
do not further their evil plot, or they will be exalted!
-Psalm 140:6,8
Bertina worked in good faith with Bank of America, dutifully filling out whatever paperwork they demanded from her, but it was always “lost.” Finally, one month, the bank returned her mortgage check to her. They informed her that her loan remodification was no longer valid. Bank of America was going to foreclose.
Bertina soon learned that her house had been put up for auction. Though she makes just enough money to be ineligible for legal aid, Bertina cannot afford a lawyer. She tried to resist the auction of her house, filing the legal paperwork herself. She spent her precious free time in the Annapolis law library, trying to figure out how she might prevent Bank of America from selling off her home, but her efforts were unsuccessful. The auction went through, and her home was sold out from under her.
I know that the Lord will maintain the cause of the afflicted,
and will execute justice for the needy.
Surely the righteous shall give thanks to your name;
the upright shall dwell in your presence.
-Psalm 140:12-13

Today, Bertina’s home is owned by Freddie Mac, an enormous, government-sponsored mortgage bank. While an eviction notice has not yet been issued, it could come any day. Bertina lives each day under the shadow of eviction, the possibility that the corporations that have already taken so much will rob her of everything she has left.

Bertina has worked hard her whole life. As a single mom, she has struggled in ways that many of us can only imagine to raise her family. Today, she is nurturing her adult children and their families, even while continuing to work as an accountant. Her home represents her life’s work. And as Bertina nears retirement, it also represents a possibility of aging with dignity. Everything is at stake.
Apparently out of options, all Bertina has left is prayer.
We’re not about to lose my home. I’m believing in God, to tell you the truth. – Bertina Jones
But God is responsive to the prayers of the oppressed. In recent days, Occupy Our Homes DC has partnered with Bertina to resist eviction and seek a just conclusion to this shameful chain of events. Bringing together citizen activists from across the DC metro area, we are standing together to ensure that Bertina is able to stay in her home.
The Occupy Church movement is throwing its weight behind the effort to resist unjust foreclosure. In some small way, we are seeking to be an answer to Bertina’s prayers – to become a concrete expression of God’s love for the poor, and for those who are having their lives torn apart by entrenched, systematized greed.
We are learning to put flesh and bone on our prayers. We are praying with our eyes, really seeing the damage that predatory banks are doing. We are praying with our lips, bearing witness to the way in which mechanized corporate greed is stealing people’s homes out from under them. We are praying with our feet, rallying to draw attention to Bertina’s situation – and, by extension, the suffering of thousands of families who are in a similar spot. We are praying with our whole bodies, preparing ourselves for the possibility that we may be called to physically stand in the way of this unjust order, defying the legalized theft of Bertina’s home.
How is God calling us to stand with those who are being exploited and marginalized by our economic systems? How can we be faithful to the mission of Jesus, who preaches good news for the poor, liberation of those in bondage and the forgiveness of debt? Do we hear the Spirit’s invitation to convert our prayers into action, demonstrating God’s love and justice in the world?