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This American Spring

Here in Washington, the winter is over. Cherry blossoms are in bloom, birds are singing, and folks in my neighborhood are already mowing their lawns. Spring is always a joyous time, a relief after several months of darkness and cold. It is as if the world had fallen asleep, and is just now waking up.

This spring is particularly special. We just marked six months since the beginning of Occupy Wall Street. The Occupy movement was an autumn counterpart to the Arab Spring that swept across North Africa and the Middle East last year. We sought to participate in a living, grassroots democracy where each person has a voice, regardless of the size of our wallets. Yet even as we occupied public spaces across North America and the world, we knew that the fall was just the beginning. Even greater things were in store for the American Spring.

Now, spring has arrived. What does this American Spring look like? In a word: different. The initial groundswell of spontaneous demonstrations, encampments and direct action is giving way to new strategies and tactics. Encampment, street protest and rallies – these all have a place in our toolkit. But in Occupy 2.0, we are working to develop organization that can sustain a long-term movement for justice. The American Autumn was an expression of our passionate refusal to cooperate with unjust structures, and the American Spring is about developing positive alternatives to those structures. We are not merely protesting – we are organizing.
One of the most common critiques of the Occupy movement this fall was that we refused to have “demands.” Rather than attempt to promulgate a list of policy positions for the movement, we focused on a very simple message: “A small group of wealthy individuals and giant corporations are dominating civic life and political expression, and we will accept nothing less than the restoration of a government of the people, by the people and for the people.” This was exactly the right tone to set in the fall. It was a stroke of collective genius that we did not attempt to nail down specific policy objectives to deliver to lawmakers. That would have played right into the hands of a corrupt system that has long experience in dealing with idealistic troublemakers.
As we emerge into the American Spring, our simple message of economic democracy has resonated throughout the culture. Talk of “the ninety-nine percent” and “economic inequality” has become a staple of our public discourse, and the Occupy movement is part of the national narrative. The work of the American Autumn is complete. Occupy 1.0 was successful in delivering our very simple message of grassroots democracy and economic justice. Now comes the hard part. It is no longer enough to sound the alarm about the threats facing our democracy and the lives of ordinary working people. Those with ears to hear have gotten that message. The time has come to mobilize for specific objectives and concrete victories.

The Occupy Church is embracing the American Spring by focusing on a few areas where we believe we can make a real difference. One example is our partnership in foreclosure resistance with Occupy Our Homes DC. Working alongside homeowners and tenants in Prince George’s County, we have already helped to ensure that Bertina Jones – an accountant, grandmother, and pillar in her family and community – will be able to stay in her home, despite the unjust dealings of Bank of America and Freddie Mac. And we are just getting warmed up. Our ultimate goal is to build a base of ordinary citizens who are equipped to stand up to predatory banks.

Another way we are moving forward is by developing materials to help congregations, organizations and denominations invest their funds in institutions that do not exploit the poor. We are in the early planning stages of a program to equip the Christian community to engage in stockholder activism, and to move its money out of the most exploitative banks and into local banks and credit unions.

One unique way that Occupy Church is participating in the American Spring is through the development of a theological basis for this movement. As Christians, we feel called to participate in the Occupy movement because of our commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ, who began his earthly ministry by declaring that he had come to bring good news to the poor. We understand the Jubileetradition of debt forgiveness as being central to Jesus’ message. As we develop a scriptural understanding of how God is at work in the lives of the poor, we are discovering how the Holy Spirit calls us to the work of reconciliation and economic justice. In addition to individual writing and study, we are exploring whether Occupy Church might release a declaration outlining our sense of how the Spirit is speaking to the churches in our present context.

If the American Autumn was about raising awareness, the American Spring will be a time of building on that basic awareness and moving into a positive program for change. While Occupy 1.0 was primarily centered in public encampments, the next phase of this movement is playing out in offices and living rooms, coffee shops and schools. This spring, we are rolling up our sleeves and getting our hands dirty in the messy business of grassroots organizing.

We are just getting started. The events of the last six months have raised up countless new leaders with a huge range of experience, skills and spiritual gifts. This spring, we will begin the process of nurturing these emerging leaders, equipping ourselves for the work that God is calling us into. We know from first-hand experience that the Lord calls the most unlikely of people to do God’s work in the world. As unworthy as we are, we in the Occupy Church pray that Christ will walk beside us and teach us how live into this calling. We trust in his promise that he will never leave us, even as he invites us into work that we are incapable of doing on our own.

What is your sense of our next steps as a movement for economic justice and freedom? What are some concrete actions you feel called to this spring? How can we move into this American Spring, embracing a long-term struggle to make visible the Reign of God?

Fifty Years Later, Segregation Lives

I have drawn a lot of comfort and inspiration recently from reading Andrew Lewis’ book, The Shadows of Youth, about the young activists who were the backbone of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. It has been a delight to read about how women and men in their early twenties – like Diane Nash, Stokely Carmichael, Bob Moses, and John Lewis – had the courage to stand up against cruelty and injustice, and in the process helped to shape the character of the United States for decades to come.

Despite the gap in generation and historical context, the lives of these daring civil rights activists provide perspective on my involvement with the Occupy movement. I am intrigued about the many similarities that present themselves: the tension between reform and revolution; clashes between the old, pragmatic establishment and the young, idealistic activists; the friendships that hold the movement together; and the personality conflicts that break it apart. There is so much wisdom to be gained from the hard-earned lessons of those who have come before.

Reading about the civil rights movement is affecting me many ways. In addition to giving me insight about the nature of grassroots activism in general, it helps to sensitize me to the dynamics of race and class in the United States. Some of the stories told in The Shadows of Youth are so extreme as to be almost unbelievable. A prime example would be how the Freedom Riders of 1961 were met by violent mobs of white citizens who, with the cooperation of local police, beat these college-aged activists with baseball bats, chains and whips. White America was stridently committed to the perpetuation of Jim Crow, and it required great courage by black activists and white allies to be willing to take the insults, beatings, torture and murder that awaited them.

The sheer moral power of this guiltless suffering, captured by reporters and broadcast to the nation, had a huge impact on the culture. By the end of the 1960s, de jure segregation was no more, and though the pace of progress was slow, African-Americans were increasingly finding their voice in public discourse and governance. There was real reason for optimism.

Yet, as I read about these remarkable historical struggles that changed the face of our nation, I cannot help but notice how far we still fall short of the dream of racial equality and economic justice in this country. Despite the fact that segregation is no longer legally enforced, Washington, DC is deeply divided along racial and class lines. Of course, the strong links between race and economic class only increase the dynamic of de facto segregation.

I live in Deanwood, a neighborhood in DC that lies to the east of the Anacostia river. Those who are familiar with DC will know that white folks do not generally venture into this part of the city, known as East of the River. Many here are afraid to even visit my neighborhood, much less live here. On the other hand, since very few of the city’s cafes, supermarkets and shops are located East of the River, we frequently leave our part of town to buy groceries, or meet up with friends.

It is a strange sensation to people-watch as I commute from Deanwood to Capitol Hill. As I start out from my home, I am surrounded by my African-American neighbors. Kids returning from school. The man hawking newspapers at Benning Road and East Capitol Street. When I cross the river, the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, there are large numbers of well-dressed professionals and middle class white people. By the time I reach historic Capitol Hill, all I see are white folks jogging, walking their dogs and strolling with their babies. I am in another city entirely.

I cannot help but wonder: is this what Lewis, Nash, Carmichael and other civil rights activists thought they were putting their lives on the line for? De facto segregation in the nation’s capital? A city divided by enormous gaps in wealth and privilege, where most of its black residents are consigned to one isolated quarter of the District? Seeing the dynamics at work in my town, I am reminded that the long struggle for racial equality and economic justice is far from over. I wonder how I, as a white man involved in the Occupy movement, can humbly make space for a next step in the liberation of those who are marginalized in our culture and economy. How can I stay aware of the injustice that continues to hold sway in our society? How can I change my own ways of thinking and living in the world, to live into the dream of true peace and reconciliation?

Growing in Trust – Micah’s Ministry Newsletter #40

Dear friends,

It is shaping up to be a beautiful spring here in Washington. Even as God guides me into new and challenging work, we are experiencing the Lord’s presence and blessing in our midst at Capitol Hill Friends. Lately, we have had quite a few new attenders, and our community feels like it is growing in strength. I am constantly giving thanks to God for my brothers and sisters at Capitol Hill Friends, and for the ways that I see us growing together in maturity – both individually and as a Meeting.

The beauty of the spring is all the more radiant for me because of how challenging the winter has been. From November through February, I felt almost overwhelmed by stress and anxiety. The process of looking for a home in the DC area left me gasping for breath. The Occupy movement began its transition to a post-encampment stage, and for a couple of months it felt like everything was falling apart. As new homeowners, many new expenses emerged and stress over finances grew.

I got very anxious about how we were going to be able to pay the bills, living in one of the most expensive cities in the country. With a mortgage to pay and a combined household income less than a starting schoolteacher’s salary, I felt the pinch that is familiar to so many of us right now.
I began to succumb to the temptation to put financial security above obedience to God’s leading. In all my anxiousness around money, it was hard for me to hear what God was truly calling me to do. I wanted to feel in control, to have a sense of security in my finances. I felt tempted to abandon the work God was calling me to in order to get a job that paid a livable wage.

Ultimately, I needed to get out of DC in order to get my head on straight. In mid-February, way opened for me to make a visit to Friends in Philadelphia. I had opportunities with a number of folks who were clearly putting God first, allowing the Spirit’s leading to shape every aspect of their lives. In some cases, this had profound financial implications. I was inspired by the example of Jon Watts and Maggie Harrison, who are focusing on the ministry that God has given them to do. They are demonstrating their faith in the Lord in very concrete ways.

Instead of working for money and giving God whatever time and energy they have left over, they are setting their sights first and foremost on the mission that God has for their lives. They are seeking first the Kingdom of God, and its righteousness – trusting that God will provide for all of their temporal needs as they are faithful in the work. Rather than getting unrelated jobs, Jon and Maggie are exploring ways to make this work financially sustainable.
This was a huge breakthrough for me. I came to my senses, and realized that Jesus wants me to be focused on the work that he is calling me to, and to trust him to provide for my needs. My tendency is to tell him, “Yes, I will follow you. Only first let me go and make sure my bills get paid.” But Jesus tells me, “No; let the dead bury the dead. I will provide you with everything you need. But first, follow me.”

In the last several weeks, I have begun to understand that what God is requiring of me at this moment is to focus my attention on the Occupy movement. In particular, I am feeling God’s call to throw myself into full-time organizing for the Occupy Church, an ecumenical Christian witness for economic justice in our local communities. One concrete way that I and other Christians are bearing witness is through our partnership with Occupy Our Homes DC.

As part of Occupy Our Homes DC, we are resisting the unjust and illegal lending practices of the big banks. We have already claimed our first victory in the case of Bertina Jones, who was going to be thrown out of her house despite her willingness and ability to pay the mortgage. As a result of our direct action at the offices of Freddie Mac, who presently own her mortgage, we were able to secure a committment from Freddie Mac and Bank of America (the original lender) that Bertina would be able to stay in her home and resume her mortgage payments.
As we continue to nail down the specifics of a final deal in the case of Bertina, we at Occupy Our Homes DC are ramping up our engagement in Prince George’s County, where thousands of families live under the threat of eviction. We are canvassing neighborhoods, showing up at foreclosure auctions and meeting with local community leaders in order to build a broad base of support for a just resolution to the foreclosure crisis.

Occupy Church has a particular role to play in all of this. I, and other Occupy Church organizers, are working to develop relationships with clergy and members of area churches with the ultimate goal of building a coalition based in the local community that can stand up to the abusive lenders that are forcing families out of their homes. In the months ahead, I will be focusing much of my energy on this effort, as we seek to stand with the families that are being ruined by the callous greed of the big banks.

I am still surprised to be involved in all of this. Six months ago, I had little interest in activism. I was mostly focused on nurturing my local Christian community and sharing the gospel as best I knew how. But now I am convinced that this form of engagement is what Christ’s gospel requires of me. I have been astonished as God has clearly called me into this work, despite all my protestations and anxiety. With every day that passes I am all the more aware of my weakness and inability to accomplish anything on my own. Yet, I am convinced that God is directing me in this work, and I have to trust that the Lord can use even me.
God has a long track record of using the young, the inexperienced, and the weak to bring God’s plans to fruition. I have decided to step out in faith, despite my trepidation, and to trust God to provide for my needs. With divine assistance, I pray for the courage to seek first the Kingdom of God and its righteousness. I want to follow Jesus, even as he takes me far outside my comfort zone.
I am grateful for the way that the Spirit is helping me to grow in trust. Through much wrestling and prayer, the arc of the last month has bent towards courage. God has been at work in my heart, releasing me from fear and inviting me into the risky work of the Holy Spirit in the world.
Thank you for your ongoing prayers and encouragement. May the blessing of God’s living presence be with you and your communities.
In the light of Christ,

Micah

Occupy and the Rise of the Millennial Generation

The Occupy movement has been an emotional roller coaster. At first, there was great surprise that this movement was even happening. As we occupied the streets, parks, banks and public buildings, surprise gave way to elation. After all these years of waiting for someone else to take charge and set our country back on track, we were compelled to put our bodies where our hearts were. We stepped into the streets and out of a lost decade of fear, disempowerment and despair.

For many occupiers, the past ten years had been a time of intense darkness. A wordless despondency had crept over my generation. We watched with tears as war finally came home on September 11th, 2001. We groaned in helpless outrage as our nation’s leaders took advantage of our collective trauma and fear to invade weaker, oil-rich nations. We despaired as we saw America abandon any semblance of respect for the international community, instead striking a belligerant pose of imperial might.

Though few of us could clearly articulate it at the time, we knew that this new posture represented weakness, not strength. We, the generation who had come of age at the “end of history,” were beginning to realize that history had only just begun. America would not last long as the world’s sole superpower. The economic collapse that began in the fall of 2008 confirmed our suspicions that we were nearing the end of the American Century.

Yet, there was hope. With the election of Barack Obama, many of us dared to believe that America might change its trajectory. Using the economic crisis as an opportunity for spiritual growth, perhaps we could once again become a respected and respectful member of the world community. With new leadership, we could begin to address the climate crisis that threatens all of us. I personally held out hope that this new regime would focus more on education, health care and poverty reduction – rejecting the pattern of endless military build-up and systematic reduction of civil liberties established during the Bush years.

After a couple of years in office, however, it was clear that Obama would not bring change we could believe in. We had been duped once again by a politician who promised a fundamental shift in our society’s way of operating. In practice, he mostly propped up entrenched elites – the financial and banking industries, the military-industrial complex, pharmaceutical companies and Big Oil. As thousands were losing their homes and poverty soared, we saw the political landscape with new eyes.

We watched with disgust as virtually all of our lawmakers colluded with powerful, elite interests that ignored the needs of ordinary working Americans in favor of their own narrow interests. Many of us were becoming convinced that neither Democrats nor Republicans offered solutions for the multiple crises that we were facing as a country. All of them – Left and Right, Democrat and Republican – were more interested in the concerns of the wealthy elites than they were in the long-term health of our nation as a whole.

So, when young people in New York City began to “occupy” Lower Manhattan and call for justice for the “99%,” we knew exactly what they were talking about. Not only did their words resonate, but we soon began to realize that public dissent and direct action were the only ways that we could exercise our civic duties as citizens. The ballot box had been reduced to a choice between Pepsi and Coke. Only the streets, parks, and public spaces of our cities remained free. It was there that we could make our voices heard and begin to take part in a real conversation about the direction of our country.

In a very real sense, many of us became citizens for the first time as a result of this struggle. Always before, our voices had been confined by the straightjacket of the corporate-controlled two-party system; but now, we were free to express directly our rejection of a system that privileges the greed of the wealthiest 1% over the needs of our whole society.

Though the Occupy movement initially rallied around a shared rejection of the status quo, we are quickly discovering ways that we can put forward a positive program for change. In recent months, occupiers have thrown themselves into practical, positive work for a more just society. At this early stage, foreclosure resistance figures prominently in our efforts. We seek to thwart institutionalized theft by predatory banks and to empower ordinary homeowners and renters.
This is a hard struggle. There were several weeks in December where I almost completely dropped out of the movement. I had to, if I was going to retain my sanity! Everything was happening so quickly that being involved in Occupy DC meant living in a constant state of crisis. Clearly, that level of stress and anxiety is not sustainable.
The first months of the Occupy movement were a process of birthing a new reality. Across the country, thousands of new activist leaders emerged in a matter of weeks. We are now discovering together what it means to live out a vocation as organizers for positive social change while maintaining our spiritual grounding and living healthy, sustainable lifestyles. Many of us are brand new to this whole activism business. All of us are learning how to be effective change-agents in this new space that has emerged as millions of Americans awaken to the urgent reality of economic injustice and ecological crisis.
This movement is messy. There is so much to do, and it is easy to become overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that we have taken on. Some of the smartest, most kind-hearted people I know feel like they are in totally out of their depth. Thousands of us have been thrown fresh from college or unrelated jobs into the trenches of street organizing and grassroots activism. We were not prepared for this!
But the work itself is schooling us, and as time goes on more experienced organizers are stepping up to give us the practical training that we need. The learning curve is steep, but we are climbing it. We are testing our limits and pushing our breaking points.
This is just the beginning. The Occupy movement represents nothing less than the activation of the practical citizenship of my whole generation. In just a few months, Millennials have stepped out from the fearful conformity of the 2000s and are embracing our power as a generation that can make real change, now.
As someone who has spent most of my adult life working under the supervision of people over fifty, it is amazing to be involved in organizations like Occupy Our Homes DC, which is made up almost entirely of people under the age of thirty-five. All of our lives, we have looked to the Boomers for direction, guidance – and permission. But in this movement, we have definitively stepped outside of the old generational hierarchy. It is a joy to see that we, the Millennial generation, are taking leadership and inviting our elders to join us in the struggle for heart-change as a society.

We know that slight modifications of the present order will not be enough. We need a fundamental revisioning of our whole way of life. We must examine the ways in which our own entrenched attitudes and habits have contributed to a society in which a small elite controls most of the wealth and dominates public discourse. Now is the time to have these conversations. We have a window of opportunity to profoundly reshape our national self-understanding, to live up to America’s founding creed of liberty, justice and equal opportunity.

As my generation is moves out of the trauma-induced paralysis of the 2000s, we are finding our voice as equal participants in the national conversation. I hope that elder generations will take this shift seriously. Just as the rise of the Baby Boomers in the 1960s forever altered the nature of America’s public discourse, so too will the coming of age of the Millennial generation. One thing is certain: Business will not continue as usual.

Occupy Our Ideologies

I was at an organizing meeting recently where we were discussing our vision for moving forward a particular campaign. Our group had already experienced some major success, and we were considering how we could take these efforts to the next level, and what our shared objectives might be in the long term. It had the potential to be a good discussion, to clarify how we wanted to work together to achieve concrete goals.

Instead, we engaged in a mostly fruitless debate about macroeconomic principles. We had among us moderate supporters of the Democrat party, Libertarians, Anarchists, Socialists and Christians. Each of us had a different take on what an ideal world would look like. Rather than focusing primarily on the specific objectives that we as a community could accomplish, we were sucked into an airy discussion about how to landscape utopia.

For those of us involved in the Occupy movement, it is easy to get seduced by ideology. We are idealistic people, and sometimes we simply assume that everyone else in the movement shares our own particular ideals. But in reality, the Occupy movement is made up of all sorts of people. We embrace a huge variety of dreams and visions. This ideological diversity can be frustrating, and it is easy to fall into an endless debate about what the world should look like someday. There is a temptation to try to hash out ideological uniformity before moving forward.

Yet, it is a temptation. If we choose to go down the road of ideological purity, this whole movement will stall out. The participants of the Occupy movement come out of a variety of irreconcilable worldviews, and we are not going to harmonize these views by talking through them – much less convince everyone to adopt a party line. If we attempt to do so, the Occupy movement will disintegrate into theoretical squabbling that distracts us from the real business at hand – making concrete gains for ordinary working Americans.

None of this is to say that ideology is bad. We all need a vision to help keep us on track, and many of us are part of communities gathered around a specific vision. These groups can help to empower the whole movement. But the Occupy movement is not primarily an ideological movement. Certainly, there are certain broad principles that occupiers everywhere hold to – that 1% of the population should not control most of the wealth and dominate public discourse, for example – but the Occupy movement does not represent a monolithic vision for what, exactly, a just and democratic society should look like. We are part of a broad movement, encompassing a whole spectrum of ideologies and organizations.

I say all this as someone who has a definite ideological bent. There are certain ways that I would like to see our society run, and I hope that the Occupy movement will move our society closer to that vision. Nevertheless, I recognize that there are other perspectives within the movement, many of which are sharply at odds with my own. Despite these differences, we can work together harmoniously when we focus on concrete actions, rather than some distant, philosophical endgame. Today, we are making practical gains for justice. We can continue to do so, despite our disagreements about what utopia looks like.

As a Christian, my ultimate desire is to see all people living in the peace and beauty of God’s power. I want to see the fearless love and radical justice of Jesus fill the world and transform our whole society. Yet, I recognize that this kind of total transformation comes through small acts of practical faithfulness – caring for modern-day orphans and widows, and seeking liberation for the oppressed. I trust that if I am faithful in the work that I have been given today, God will take care of tomorrow. Rather than trying to determine what the whole structure will ultimately look like, I can be most faithful – and, ultimately, most effective – by simply picking up the brick that I have been given and setting it in place.

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?