Service Title: Struggle & Lament: Let Us Wail
Scripture: Amos 5:11-12, 16

Katie Thiesen, Kairos Center

Amos chapter 5 has me needing to start tonight with stories from my heart. I was a hospice and home health social worker for over a decade. People who had chronic and acute health issues, and people given 6 months or less to live welcomed me into their lives.

People taught me many things in our time together about the holiness of ordinary moments – and I almost expected to find that holiness there. What I did not expect was for people who were ill and dying to teach me that my heart and the systems in this country need a revolution of values that can only come from a fusion movement led by people most impacted by interlocking, systemic injustices. 

I must confess that there were days as a social worker when it felt like there were too many people who needed something that felt unattainable. I have a very vivid memory of someone calling me day after day, sometimes twice a day, to ask if I had heard if their state application for an ADA ramp had been approved. I remember when they called for the umpteenth time. I was sitting in a cubicle staring at a list of names that represented real people who also had real needs that I could not meet. I lost my cool on the phone that day. I was becoming angry at people suffering instead of being angry at the systems. I confess the harm caused by my misplaced anger that day. And I am here to wail with you because the systems were set up to keep all of us down and divided.

I credit a higher power than myself for all the days I did not lose my cool while also naming that there were many days I felt beaten down and disheartened. Once I met a teenager who was trying to manage their diabetes in a homeless shelter. I met families searching desperately for affordable and accessible housing while the news on the radio in the background was raving that Wall Street was on another upswing. I met families needing help to get on a waitlist for the state in-home care program because contracted agencies did not have enough workers. Why? Because they were paying people that unlivable minimum wage. I was with dying people filling out SNAP applications so that they could eat while they were still alive. And then I was with loved ones applying for cremation assistance once their beloved person was dead. It was and is impossible for many of us to afford to live and even for us to afford to die.

I was ready to wail, yet needed to see where to direct that wailing.

I will never forget visiting one couple, sitting by their bedside, as they directly asked me to join them in writing to our state legislature to demand better funding of the state in-home care program. They knew right where to put their wailing. They weren’t frustrated with me that I could not get them help. They weren’t frustrated with the in-home care workers who quit because they were not paid a living wage. They were ready to wail at a system that was failing all of us. And they were asking me and everyone they met to join them in that wailing.

So, after over a decade as a social worker, I decided to take out more student loans, returning to school, wanting to wail for justice. In the midst of this, I started a job as a grocery store cashier to help pay bills. In my grocery store’s new hire training, we were told that unions are not needed because unions make us go through a middle person instead of resolving things directly. From the start of this job, I was being intentionally divided from co-workers. Another part of the training included how to watch for and turn in shoplifters. Now, I was not working at a store that sold excessive, extravagant diamonds and yachts. The store where I worked sold apples, bread, milk, and baby food. I was getting trained to be a minimum wage worker during a global pandemic, not offered healthcare nor paid days off, and I was being taught how to catch another poor person who was trying to survive. These immoral systems have the gall to steal our wages and then teach us how to turn one another in over a missing package of cheese. And the system is successful in dividing us because it is ready to punish us if we don’t punish each other.

And these punishing systems dare to say that there is not enough to go around – that there’s scarcity. Yet there are holy moments that we cannot make up nor predict that remind us how much overflowing abundance there is.

Some days it was my task to go through the grocery store shelves to remove expired items. One day, I stood amidst boxes of food that was past its sell by date, when I heard a customer, a fellow human being, say “Excuse me. Can you help me? Do I have enough money to buy this? I’m really hungry.” I looked up, my hands full of expired abundance, and saw that this person had 3 pieces of taffy in one hand and a nickel and a penny in the other. My immediate reaction was to reach into my pockets to see if I had any cash to help purchase food. Then I paused wondering why the hell I was looking to see what change was in my empty pockets when we were surrounded by so much food that I was literally in the process of throwing it away. The system would rather throw abundance away than give everyone access to their BIRTHRIGHT of food on this earth!

Oh, I can hear Amos screaming to these systems: “YOU TRAMPLE ON THE POOR!” And I hear Amos calling all of us intentionally divided ones: “Therefore, God says, there shall be wailing in all the streets and the public square!”

We need to wail against systems that are oppressing and saying there isn’t enough, and we also wail because that system has divided us. As movement mentor Willie Baptist shares, systems do not oppress everyone in the same way so as to keep us all divided. When we’re battling each other, we are ignoring the systems.

So, we find ourselves oppressed differently in this battle over the system’s day-old, leftover crumbs. This cannot be ignored. Instead, we must build a moral fusion movement led by the most impacted to take on all the ways we find ourselves divided and oppressed! We are only going to end poverty when we end white supremacy and racism, the war economy and militarism, patriarchy, xenophobia, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, religious supremacy and white Christian nationalism, ecological devastation and on and on.

I hear Amos saying we have to call out the trampling of the poor – not for some of the poor but ALL of us who are poor – not putting us in silos and dividing us, but calling it out together – all of us wailing on each and every injustice that keeps us down, because we know the injustices are connected. And I hear Amos’ call, and as I understand it, I hear God’s call, to be in the street together. I wonder if we are called to wail in the streets and the public square for a few reasons. We are most definitely to be in the square to publicly call out the systems that are keeping us down. And I wonder if we are also called to wail publicly so that we can no longer deny our common humanity and all our blessed differences – our sacredness. Including the hardest part – seeing the oppressors as humans. The systems have kept us divided, counting on our ability to hate, wanting us to demonize each other, making it hard to even know where to begin to build a fusion movement. Perhaps we are called to the streets to wail so that we hear one another’s wailing, witnessing each other’s humanity, no longer allowing the systems to pit us against each other as enemies while they trample us, but to experience each other as fellow wailers – fellow wailers here to take apart systems of injustice together and figure out how to be and build beloved community.

And while I love Amos, I know they do not have a monopoly on this call to wail nor on moral imagination. We need every ounce of morality from all our various traditions, from our communities, from our movement ancestors and families, from our blood and our bones, from our earth – goodness knows Mother Earth is wailing too, calling us to wail with her – Let’s use all these sacred wisdoms to wail until the unjust systems trampling on us are overtaken by our community of wailers working to be and build loving justice.

Let’s go, let’s continue the long, hard work of building this nonviolent moral fusion movement. Let’s do so by witnessing one another’s sacredness as we wail together at the systems that trample on the poor – wailing from city halls all the way to the capitol in DC on June 18th  – not stopping our wailing until every single one of us and all the earth knows love and liberation! Amen.

Keith Bullard, Raise Up / Fight for $15

Freedom Church of the Poor, I’m grateful to be with you as we are together in this season of Struggle and Lament. I had to read the amplified version of this text for my understanding.  The Amp reads:

Therefore, because you impose heavy rent on the poor
And demand a tribute (food-tax) of grain from them,
Though you have built [luxurious] houses of square stone,
You will not live in them;
You have planted beautiful vineyards, but you will not drink their wine.
For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great (shocking, innumerable),
You who distress the righteous and take bribes,
And turn away from the poor in the [court of the city] gate [depriving them of justice].

Therefore, thus says the Lord God of hosts, the Lord,
“There is wailing in all the public plazas,
And in all the streets they say, ‘Alas! Alas!’
And they call the farmers to mourning [for those who have died]
And professional mourners to wailing.

As I was reflecting on the scripture, the Prophet’s words became more and more familiar. Amos illustrates this message in a way that makes all those who cry justice not just hear his words but feel it. We feel it because it is our all too familiar explanation for why we are wailing.  Workers are wailing because during this pandemic Jeff Bezos is reported to be one of the top 10 richest Americans that made an average of 1 billion dollars a day. While Bezos and his bank account are racing to the moon, his employees and other essential workers are racing to places like plasma centers to donate their plasma, their bodies, to put food on the table or to pay rent. Workers are wailing in the streets because companies like McDonalds are failing to ensure the safety of their employees. There have been multiple claims of sexual harassment, workers have been robbed, assaulted, and even murdered while on the job. Even as it relates to COVID, essential workers have become the professional mourners that are wailing for their co-worker, family member or friend, who isn’t there all because their employer prioritizes their profit margins over the health of their employees and their families. 

Next, I would like to introduce a Raise Up the South organizer Clara who will talk more about the cries and power that is being organized in the South.

Clara Hazlett-Norman, Raise Up the South

My name is Clara, and I’m so honored to be part of this powerful, truth telling program with you all today. Like Keith said I’m an organizer with Raise Up, the Southern chapter of Fight for $15 and a Union. We’re building a bold, worker-led movement of fast food, long-term care, grocery store, and other low wage workers building power to win higher pay, better working conditions, and a voice on and off the job. I’m speaking today lifting up the Starbucks fight to unionize.

Starbucks presents themselves as a progressive company. Their mission statement is “To inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighborhood at a time.” They call workers “partners” and say their company is about “creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome… [and treated with] transparency, dignity and respect.”

But Starbucks’ mission statement doesn’t match what’s going on in stores. 

Last week, I spoke with a worker who can’t afford childcare as a single mom living paycheck to paycheck. She made $12/hr and tips don’t add much because corporate won’t pay the fee to allow credit card tipping. I talked to a worker the week before who is dealing with severe nerve damage in his arm after working 10 years as a barista and another who saw a coworker’s knee snap backward rushing to fill orders while working short staffed. One worker says she’s just waiting to get covid because half her coworkers already have it and the store won’t enforce the local mask policy. In Raleigh, a district manager wouldn’t close a store and let people go home when the oven broke and fumes were so bad workers were vomiting. He said it was bad optics to close early. I’ve spoken with Starbucks workers who have lived out of their cars while working for the company. And all this while the CEO gave himself a nearly 6 million dollar raise and made 20.4 million dollars last year.

Starbucks doesn’t listen to their workers. Raleigh workers who filed for union election – the first public step in the process – earlier this month say in their letter, “we believe that unionizing is the only way for us to become true partners.” Union rights means a voice on the job. It means a seat at the table to fight for higher pay, workplace safety, and everything else. Starbucks could recognize the union right now but instead they’ve launched an expensive and hypocritical union busting campaign– workers are dealing with everything from mandatory “listening sessions” to straight up threats. Starbucks portrays themselves as a progressive company but they’re failing workers at every turn. But the movement is growing; workers are wailing for justice. So far, over 100 stores have filed for elections across the country. Just last Friday a third store this time in Mesa, Arizona won their union. This is a movement of low wage workers stepping into their power and demanding fair pay and a voice at the table and WE ARE WINNING.