December 28, 2018

The best gift of 2018

As 2018 winds to a close, I'm thankful for a lesson it taught me: that unexpected good fortune can come when things seem pretty dark. I'm thinking particularly of the great and victorious WV 2018 Teachers' Strike (technically the teachers' and school support workers' work stoppage, but let's not be  picky).

That historic struggle inspired other successful strikes in several states and gave hope to those who believe in the labor movement and public education. And it just resulted in another victory of sorts, a year of coverage under the Public Employees Insurance Agency without benefit cuts or premium increases. This wasn't a perfect or even a long term solution but it was a clear win.

Charleston Gazette-Mail statehouse reporter Phil Kabler, who has been doing his kind of work for about as long as I've been doing mine, summed it up beautifully:

...What was most remarkable was that this was a grassroots effort. It wasn’t, as critics unsuccessfully tried to portray it, as labor bosses directing their minions. It was teachers fed up with low pay and benefits and a general sense of being unappreciated banding together to let leaders in Charleston know they weren’t going to take it anymore.
Also remarkable was the spirit. Despite the seriousness of the issues at hand, the rallies at the Capitol were joyous affairs, with singing, chanting, dancing, and featuring colorful (and clever) signs. This was a celebration....

Wearing red, teachers in 2018 paid homage to the state’s proud labor heritage, and when the governor and legislative leadership tried to use the strategy of divide and conquer, trying to pit school boards against teachers, then parents against teachers, and then state employees against teachers, the teachers stood united.
Early on, when leadership contended that students would suffer, particularly those needy students who depend on school lunches, teachers and others did the noble thing, rising before dawn each day to pack lunches for their students before heading to Charleston, not only putting their students first, but assuming the moral high ground in the fight.
Most importantly, West Virginia teachers started a movement that spread, so far, to Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, showing that while organized labor may be a shadow of its former self, the ability of working people to fight for their rights may not be lost.
I can still see plenty of hard fights on the horizon in the coming year--including further assaults on public education in the legislature--but these will take place on a completely different landscape.

So thanks, teachers and school workers, for many things, including reminding me that we live in an open universe in which all kinds of wild and unexpected things can occur, some of which may be better than anyone could have expected.

December 27, 2018

On the border

Recently, more than 400 clergy and people of faith took part in a nonviolent direct action at the border in San Diego as part of the “Love Knows No Borders” Moral Call for Migrant Justice campaign.

Closer to home, here in West Virginia, Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Charleston opened their doors to a multi-faith vigil to express solidarity with migrants, refugees, and particularly with those now trying to exercise their legal right to apply for asylum in the United States at the US-Mexico border.

At the event, my colleague at American Friends Service Committee, Rick Wilson, led everyone in a thought experiment: Imagine your house, and everything in it. Imagine your neighborhood, your community, and everything that is familiar to you.

That part is easy to imagine, right? What is impossible for us to imagine is what degree of desperation would compel anyone to embark on a dangerous journey, for thousands of miles, knowing that the outcome is entirely uncertain, that you may not be welcomed, and worse you will be regarded as a criminal, or an invader, and treated accordingly with tear gas, separation from your children or incarceration.

Jackie Lozano, a young mother living here in Charleston, shared how, as an infant in Mexico City, she had life-threatening health problems. Her mother, desperate to pay for the medicine Jackie needed to live, made the treacherous journey from Mexico to the United States.

Her story reminds us that we cannot know the multitude of reasons people are seeking asylum or a life here in our country, but that all monotheistic faith traditions give us clear instruction about how we should regard the stranger.

Rabbi Urecki of B’Nai Jacob told the crowd gathered at St. John’s that, “You shall love the stranger in your midst” is repeated 36 times, more than any other commandment, in the Torah.

The rabbi went on to say, “To be a Jew means we do not see asylum seekers; we see the face of our ancestors. We don’t see migrants, we see us. We do not see ‘them,’ we see God’s children.”

The Christian faith also demonstrates how to regard people at our borders seeking a better life for themselves and their children. In Matthew 25:35 it says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

In Islamic tradition, according to Ibtesam Barazi with the Islamic Association of West Virginia, “We are taught to care for poor immigrants who are forced out of their homes and their properties.”

In stark opposition to any of these teachings, we instead see racist, nativist violence at the border today, all being committed by our government, in our name.

Whether these atrocious acts of violence continue in our name, or whether the “better angels of our nature” prevail, is up to each of us and the degree to which we are willing to speak out.

(This op-ed by Lida Shepherd of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project ran in the Charleston Gazette-Mail.)

December 24, 2018

Annual Christmas Hamlet quote

That's right, it's that time of year again, which means it's time to quote the sentry Marcellus as he stands on the battlements of the castle of Elsinore in Act 1 Scene 1 of Hamlet.

The tone of the scene is pretty ominous. Marcellus and Bernardo have invited the student Horatio to join them in their lonely night vigil where for some nights past a ghost has appeared resembling the late King Hamlet, father of the prince who is the main character of the story.

Horatio represents a prototype of modernity, an intellectual familiar with the tradition but skeptical of it. Yet even he must concede the power of the unknown after witnessing the phantom, which he takes as a portent of bad things to come.

Marcellus then points out that there are also sometimes portents of good, particularly at this season of the year:

Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time.
At this point, all I can do is say with Horatio, "So have I heard and do in part believe it."

Would that it were so this holiday season and beyond.