I’m an agnostic, and I’m uncomfortable in church and with organized religion in general. But this past weekend, I had a transformative experience that made me better understand the power of faith, and what congregations can do to positively shape our world.
I work for the economic justice non-profit EBASE, and one of our programs is the Faith Alliance for a Moral Economy (FAME). Every year, we coordinate a program called “Labor in the Pulpit” in which dozens of low-wage workers share their personal testimonies in religious services across the Bay Area to engage people in local campaigns for worker and immigrant rights.
Usually, I hang out in the background doing logistics back at the office. But this past Sunday, I headed out to Imani Community Church with FAME Director Kristi Laughlin, and Nimoy Goodlow, a Foods Co. grocery worker, to share the good news about Measure FF to raise Oakland’s minimum wage to $12.25.
Upon arrival, I was met with warmest greeting, as if I was part of the family. I got hugged and wished good morning with an authenticity I didn’t think possible. As you read this, maybe you are thinking that this is simply part of church. But for me, I felt like the greetings were sincere wishes from fellow community members who really wanted me to have a beautiful morning and to feel welcomed. It didn’t matter that I was a white girl in a predominantly black church. They made me feel that I was part of the flock that day.
As the usher led me to the pew, my agnostic anxiety started to grow. But I was delighted when the choir came marching down the isle to the stirring music, soulfully singing while everyone got down to the beat. I clapped and danced with everyone. When the choir leader encouraged the congregation to get into it as much as “the visitors,” as he looked my way, I didn’t feel embarrassed because he seemed so pleased that an outsider would be fully participating.
If this was religion, I could get into it. My openness grew when they sang us a special “Welcome to Imani” song and invited newcomers to stay for an orientation after service.
After the singing died down for various fun community announcements, FAME and Nimoy were invited up to the pulpit to speak about Measure FF. Nimoy, is a dedicated father of five living on just $9.25 an hour. He described to the congregation his duress at having to play a shell game every month with his bills, robbing Peter to pay Paul. He spoke about how the $3 an hour raise would allow him to live with greater dignity, how it would allow workers to contribute more to the economy, and how it would reduce crime.
The congregation was very affirming and gave him rousing applause. I was moved because I saw a worker who normally gets treated poorly all day on the job – who is marginalized in our society – get up in front of more than 100 people to be embraced – to have his voice heard – and to have his experience so validated.
Maybe asking the folks at Imani to raise the minimum wage is kind of like preaching to the proverbial choir – pun definitely intended – but I saw the profound social and spiritual impact a program like Labor in the Pulpit can have.
FAME and Nimoy’s testimony fit right into Sunday’s sermon about climbing mountains and overcoming struggle. It was clear that earning $9.25 is quite a common struggle to overcome here in Oakland. I saw a whole congregation readily apply their faith toward a concrete policy issue like raising the minimum wage. And I saw a policy issue about economics and numbers be transformed into a larger moral issue that is at the very heart of people’s religious convictions that we should all be able to live a dignified life and support our family.
Imani’s service was beautiful: the music was uplifting; the interpretive dance left not a dry eye in the house; the sermon provided hope; and Labor in the Pulpit gave everyone – including me – a chance to connect politics to religion and have faith be a key component in envisioning and shaping our world.
If you had told me last week that I would have enjoyed a three-hour church service, I wouldn’t have believed you. Now I am questioning my own distaste of religion. If church can be so filled with love, so welcoming, so deeply committed to lifting up the most downtrodden in our society, and bold enough to use the pulpit to strengthen our community and call people toward more humane policies to transform our city, perhaps I need to re-evaluate my own pre-conceived notions. Perhaps even my plans for next Sunday morning.
For more information on the YES on Measure FF Campaign, and to get involved visit: http://www.liftupoakland.org/