It was a party – the Protest of ALEC three weeks ago! I arrived a little late at the Palmer House where the elites of ALEC were holding their secret meeting downtown. But out on the streets, it was already hoppin’! Even the Police seemed to be enjoying it! Others were still streaming in after me, and the line of protesters kept growing until it spilled around each corner of the block. It was one huge continuous circle! Everyone walking with everyone else! Lots of Union workers, like the Chicago Federation of Labor, AFSCME and the Chicago Teachers Union, and dozens of Community Organizations and their organizers, church groups and non-profits. Hundreds and hundreds of people on the sidewalk, side by side, all chanting in one voice, amidst whistles blowing, which had been handed out by the dozens. We were making a righteous and raucous noise that could have shook the walls of Jericho!
ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is supported by a number of large corporations. Its work has been to write pro-corporate legislation at the state level and spread it around the country, such as the NRA’s Stand Your Ground Law, that has spread to almost half the states now, including most notably, to Florida, where it protected George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of the unarmed teenager Trevon Martin. ALEC has passed hundreds of laws like this. It has led the charge in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and North Carolina, to eviscerate public education and the collective bargaining rights of unions. When all this was exposed two years ago, and under pressure from protests just like this, 49 embarrassed corporations, as rich and famous as Walmart, Bank of America and General Motors, resigned their membership in ALEC. They have been retreating into the shadows ever since, though, still dining together at their elite table of special privilege, are such guests as the tobacco, oil, and pharmaceutical industries.
But on the streets, on this day, the mood was festive. Together, shoulder to shoulder, were workers living on minimum wage jobs struggling to feed their families, teachers facing budget cut-backs or joblessness from the privatization of the schools, dutiful fed-up organizers, and people of faith. They were all in it together, one big circle, sharing the same cause, that felt strangely like a celebration too! It was anyone’s guess how it was going up in the Executive Suites of the Palmer House, with the exclusive meeting of ALEC’s leaders. But the celebration down below was the biggest, most colorful and fun protest I’d been to in Chicago!
In the 14th chapter of Luke, Jesus gets invited, somehow, to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the Sabbath. Unlike the local dignitary, Jesus is not rich – far from it. As a wandering itinerant preacher, he was more like John the Baptist, I suppose. But unlike John, Jesus enjoyed parties and festive celebrations, whereas John was known as the ascetic, eating a diet of locusts and wild honey in the desert wilderness. Jesus accepted invitations from rich leaders, like in today’s reading, but also from repentant tax-collectors, who may or may not be rich, but were notably held in contempt, as cheaters and enemies. For Jesus, eclectic table fellowship became a symbol for all of us, of the way he brought many diverse people to the table, in just and peaceful celebrations.
Notice at this meal though, we are not told what’s on the menu. Food is never served in this story. For better or worse, it’s not about the chief or our palettes. But, what it’s all about, is the guest list and the seating arrangements! As the rich rulers carefully watched Jesus, to see if they might catch him healing on the Sabbath again, Jesus himself took notice of the how the guests chose the places of honor to sit in, that is, up close to the host of the meal. Okay, said Jesus, you can do that if you want, but what if your host had other folks in mind for those seats, and asks you to get up and move to the lowest spot. Such shame could ruin your reputation as a prospective guest for good! Instead, pick the lowest place so that the host may come to you and say, ‘friend, move up higher,’ and you will be honored in the presence of all the guests at table. “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled,” said Jesus, “and those who humble themselves will be exalted."
It’s not about the food, but about the ethics of public relationships. And more than that, it’s about our reputations – that is, where they come from. Do we look solely to our best friends to like us, to give us a good reputation? And even if you’re one of the few where your friends haven’t let you down yet, what about all those who you exclude because of telling them to step down, or who haven’t even been considered worthy to be invited to the table?
So, Jesus also said to the one who had invited him, do not invite your friends or your relatives or your rich neighbors, in case they might invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous. Jesus says, this is how you should build your reputation.
When I was in High School I got a job at KFC to make a little spending money. Lots of kids did it. It wasn’t a great job, and it only paid minimum wage. I was a dish washer, and I’ll never forget the burns I got on the inside of my forearms from washing the pressure cookers that cooked the chicken, because you had to wash them immediately after the secret recipe-d chicken was done, when they were still burning hot! And, at the end of my shift, when from head to toe, I smelled like finger lickin’ good, deep fried chicken, and I couldn’t even get the smell out of my Olfactory Lobes, I didn’t even care to eat the couple of free pieces I was due. But still, it worked at the time, for what I needed out of it.
Today, however, more and more workers have turned to KFC, and so many other fast food employers, for their main sources of income. Willietta Dukes, for example, has worked at fast-food restaurants in North Carolina for the past 15 years. “I've spent more hours at Church's Chicken, McDonald's and now Burger King than I can remember,” Willietta says. “I make $7.85 at Burger King as a guest ambassador and team leader, where I train new employees… and perform the manager's duties in their absence. I've never walked off a job before. I don't consider myself an activist, and I've never been involved with politics. I'm a mother with two sons, and like any mom knows, raising two teenage boys is tough. Raising them as a single mother, on less than $8 an hour, is nearly impossible. If I had a day off, I was at their schools, checking in with their teachers and making sure they were keeping up with their education. I wanted them, when they were grown-up, to not have to work two jobs.
“I work hard – I never miss a shift and always arrive on time. But today, I'm going on strike for the first time in my life, and surprisingly, I don't feel afraid. Like so many fast-food workers across this country, I know what it feels like to be truly afraid – afraid of having your children go to bed hungry, or having your heat turned off in February, or being evicted from your home. Today is not scary. Today is empowering,” said Willietta, of joining the circle of protestors.
Our seats at the table – whether a table with enough food on it to feed your family, or the bargaining table where everyone has a voice and is treated with dignity, in their quest to dine at the banquet of a living wage every day – are seats that are shrinking and evaporating. Leaders and elites in our national household are actually organizing to deny more and more workers a place there. The pie they serve is a sliver for the many, and an embarrassingly large gorge for the few.
For fast food workers today, it’s about the seating arrangement, but also about the food too. Working in the food industry, in this land of plenty, how can it be that employees, working hard with food all day long, don’t have enough on their family dinner tables?
Jesus hosted meals of egalitarian welcome, that set the social standard for a life fulfilled, because he came down to bring the kingdom and realm of God among us. It was a joyous party seated in a circle of equality. Jesus, the leader, sat at the lowest place, serving in humility – a king, following the model of his heavenly father, who provides generously, and who welcomes the poor and blind, the rich, the rejected, and the repentant, wiping away all distinction between insider and outsider, so that all can find a place in the banqueting circle, and have their fill.
Come, you’re invited ‘to [this] feast of the universe.’ ("Let Us Go Now to the Banquet," Guillermo Cuellar) Everyone is invited to share their gifts, and we are made equal in God’s love, a celebration circle, where all people, and all workers, are given dignity, and will never lack for food.