The last week of July was a wild one at my church.
At our church, which used to be pretty quiet during the week, about three hundred people streamed in and out at all hours of the day and night, from late July through early August. And then again, some three weeks later.
As recently as three years ago, our church lay fallow for most of the hours between Sunday coffee hour and the following Sunday’s worship on any given week. Then there was a merger, and a new mission of “building hope and proclaiming peace on the Troost Corridor.” Our first real test of the integrity of that mission came a few months later, when we were asked to provide a home for Occupy Kansas City over the winter. We said yes and coughed up a large office on our third floor. Thus began our relationship with what is now the Midwest Center for Equality and Democracy. MCED formed the Worker’s Organizing Campaign of Kansas City, and that’s how we found ourselves at the center of a labor rights movement unlike any seen in decades—the campaign to alleviate some of the pain of low wage workers.
The recession has been good for fast food restaurants. Theirs is the segment of the industry which has grown since 2007. According to Bloomberg, McDonald’s saw its profit rise 135% between 2007 and 2011. It’s CEO made $8.75 million last year. None of that largesse has trickled down to workers, alas. The median salary for a fast food worker was $18,564 in 2012. Nearly all of them start at minimum wage, and raises are slow and difficult to come by.
There are lots of moving parts to this campaign, but the its primary thrust has been provided by a pair of nationwide strikes meant to highlight the plight of workers making poverty wages. In Kansas City, the strikes meant a whole lot of people in our church building. And out. And back in. We began at six a.m. on the strike days, and went into the evening, layering actions at fast food restaurants with rallies and even a bar-b-que. Then the walk-backs begin. For days after, the workers were accompanied by teams of community leaders—elected officials, organizers, faith leaders—as they returned to work. It was the job of the walk-back team to let managers know that their workers had been part of a legal job action, and that any retaliation would be unlawful.
Then we watched and waited. When workers were threatened, phone calls ensued. It is still too soon to know how effective the movement has been so far. We know that some workers have actually seen an improvement in working conditions and hours. There is still a mountain of work ahead to ensure a just and living wage for the workers, most of whom are over twenty years old, and many of whom are supporting families. But we are proud of the movement so far.
And I am proud of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church. It is not easy to host a labor movement. The day it rained, our floors looked pretty awful. There were many bags of trash and boxes of recycling. It was hot and humid, so our electric bill wasn’t pretty. And we didn’t pay attention to the folks going in and out of the fridge, so we didn’t notice until Sunday that some hungry body ate the communion bread. We used a hot dog bun a member brought from Chubby’s Diner after a frantic phone call from the communion assistant. I hope we never have to do that again, but I wonder if it wasn’t rather appropriate. A simple, even pedestrian representation of Christ’s body, on a week when we simply walked alongside the least of our siblings in Christ. A wild week in which God gave us so much more than we gave away, and in which we were indeed building hope and proclaiming peace.