Before arriving in Chicago to attend seminary at the Lutheran School of Theology, I never thought I would spend time in jail. Though there is a history of civil disobedience in my family, I was raised to engage the political system for the advantage of myself and others. At Luther College, I organized students around campus issues and participated in student government. I served on the board of regents at Luther College winning a three-way race in a landslide to lead as Student Senate President. I excelled in my political science major, worked in a Congressmen’s office, trained in Portland, Oregon as a future progressive political leader, and was all set for law school at the age of 22. But something changed in me.
Instead of going to law school, I put that thought off so I could live out my faith with the Urban Servant Corps in Denver, Colorado. I spent two years living in intentional Christian community in a house of eight strangers as we worked in local non-profits serving homeless and marginalized peoples. We struggled with living on our individual $100 stipends per month, and the communal budget that needed to pay all the bills. We grew in love and service to one another, but also to service and love of our neighborhood and workplaces. It was in Denver that I felt the call to ministry and the discernment of my Lutheran theological identity as I worked with local churches, non-profits, and advocacy networks to construct an urban immersion program. Everything changed in Denver.
Instead of accepting a lucrative job in DC, I opted for a second year of service to work with homeless, runaway, and at-risk youth. Providing basic needs and case management for young people, poverty went from the detached statistical charts in my policy books and presentations to young faces with real stories. After a year of seeing the impacts of the broken criminal justice, education, and economic systems, I found a job working for justice and dignity as a labor organizer for the state employees union of Colorado. While organizing with labor, I applied to seminary and continued to be involved with Lutheran congregations and local non-profits. When an opportunity arose to unite my passion for organizing and social justice with my faith, I took the job as the interim policy director of Colorado Interfaith Voices of Justice for the 2010 Colorado state legislative session. During five months of work, I and other faith-based advocates lobbied around issues of criminal justice reform, increased spending for education and social programs, and predatory lending reform.
Even though I had great experiences in social justice workplaces, I still had yet to understand just how deep the economic recession affected the homeless and impoverished I served and lived near-by in Denver. When I came to Chicago; community activists, organizers, and local South side pastors help me understand the grim realities a little better. The mortgage industry had preyed on working class and middle-income families with outrageous loan rates they knew people could not pay, and yet they gave them these risky loans anyways because they would make a profit. As the bankers and their banking institutions received billions of dollars in the federal tax payer bailout of Wall Street greed and corruption, sisters and brothers in our communities and neighborhoods have not received the forgiveness and mercy our elected officials showed the banks. Instead, the banks have refused to renegotiate loans for those families facing home foreclosure on the South side and throughout our country.
Over this summer, leaders of SOUL (Southsiders Organized for Unity and Liberation) approached me with a scandalous scheme to engage in a demonstration calling the Mortgage Bankers Association of America to accountability. Since the bankers were refusing to show mercy and act justly in the face of a worsening economic recession and creating more homelessness for families on the South side and throughout all of Chicago, Soul proposed that we move in with the MBA. Since they are kicking us out of our homes, we have no choice but to move in with them for the week that they are in town at the Hyatt Regency. I decided that I had done everything I could legally to work for change and advocate for a different vision of our world. Now, it was time to go outside of the law of humans, not in violence but in non-violent resistance. I accepted that subverting the laws of our land has consequences in our legal system. But I could no longer pretend that I was okay with laws that uphold property and economic privileges for the few to demonstrate for the greater law of God which says, “All people have dignity and deserve their human rights,”. I accepted that I would go to jail for breaking the law aware that there would be troubles, tribulations, and “oppressions” ahead.
A day after thousands of people from community organizations, labor unions, and Occupy protesters in Chicago demonstrated against corporate greed and corruption and for a fair economy that produces good jobs, good homes, and good schools for all people; sixteen of us set up a tent home in the Hyatt Regency skyway to risk arrest. On October 11, 2011, as SOUL and Occupy Chicago protesters marched in front of the Hyatt and tried to enter the conference demanding to speak with the head of the MBA; we set up our tent. With the cardboard depictions of a front yard and picket white fence, and the rearrangement of the hotel skyway furniture set, we engaged in protest. Led by a community activist who lost her home to foreclosure, we asked, “Hey! Hey! MBA! How many homes did you steal today?” Led by a South side pastor who preached to police and bankers alike, we sang “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me ‘round” and “We shall overcome.” Led by our fellow protesters outside the Hyatt demanding changes to the economic system rewarding Wall Street corruption and greed, we chanted “This is what democracy looks like” and “We would like to speak with David Stevens (the head of the MBA).” For a half hour we chanted and sang, and various leaders expressed our demands to the police, and to nervous looking bankers and hotel personnel.
Finally, the last warning came that we would be arrested if we did not move. At that time, I heard the office say something to me so I got up from my seat; put my arms behind my back and said I was ready to get arrested. I was the first person taken into custody by the police and put into a paddy wagon. Other demonstrators “went limp” which meant that they lost all bodily control and became dead weights. They were dragged from the dismantled tent home we had set up: putting on display for the protesters, bankers, hotel staff, police, and every day people the reality and violence of home foreclosures. We were taken to a police station: put into a holding cell together, processed and finger printed one at a time, and then locked in individual cells. Many of the officers expressed sympathy and said, “You are standing up for what’s right,” and “I agree with you, but I have to do my job.” The officer who arrested me said, “You know, they are going after my pension, too. I’m part of the 99% and I am behind you.”
From my end, the police treated me with a lot of respect, though others did not have the same experience. The group of us noticed the tensions along racial lines not only in how we were treated but by the approach of officers of different races, ethnicities, and genders. I struck up conversations with my citation and finger printing officers learning about their passions for travel, their educational and neighborhood backgrounds, and their career on the force. The head officer on duty actually spoke with myself and the two clergy arrested that day to tell us, “You are leading the flock: you are truly shepherds standing up for justice.” Even though we were treated with care by most of the police and many officers offered their sympathies and smiles, the processing was dehumanizing.
At every level, we were stripped of our dignity—not by the officers, but by the system. We were impersonal objects to be locked away; even if it was for a short period of time. Having had nothing to eat since 9 AM breakfast, I finally received a single-stripped bologna sandwich on two pieces of dry white wonder bread at 4:30 PM. We had been in custody since 11:15 AM, and at the police station for over four hours. Though I haven’t had bologna in years, I ate that sandwich because I didn’t know when I would get out. When I was placed in my cell, the officers’ advice to ask a family member to come down to the station to give me a coat was beyond helpful. It was a cold and dirty cell, but I could hear my brothers in the row with me. The challenge became, as Rev. Mike Russell articulated at an anti-racism training early in September, “to go sane.” I’ve heard one musical artist describe as “Stay human.”
Whether you are in a holding cell, being searched and processed, or held in isolation, there is no sense of time. Minutes can seem like hours. However, in the holding cell; we had each other. We talked and celebrated our actions. We laughed and were in awe of the 55-80 year old grandmothers who were arrested that day as well demonstrating against Bank of America and its foreclosure practices. These older and elderly women ended up in jail because their communities were facing decreasing property values and rising crime in their neighborhood as a few foreclosed homes became a garbage dump for people’s trash. There is violence in the banks’ neglect, just as there is violence in the mortgage lending practices that create homeless families.
When we finally entered our individual cells, we had to stay connected with one another. I decided, the only thing I could do was sing. I sang to God and we sang together across jail cells. We worshiped and praised the Lord who delivers people from oppression and death. We gave thanks to Jesus that the system and others do not define us, but our Living God dignifies all of us. So long as there was breath in my lungs, voice in my chords, and words that could flow from my mouth, I could do no other. Around the time my voice started to crack, three hours after being placed in isolation; an officer came by and let me out. I joined my fellow prisoners and together we left the jail rejoicing in pizza, soda, and hugs with our sisters and brothers who stayed with us and monitored our situation on the outside.
My prayer is that the Church can learn to sing boldly again as we act for justice and dignity, restoration and new life, and reconciliation and forgiveness. I pray that we can join Paul who risked imprisonment for the sake of the Gospel boldly proclaiming “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5), and singing:
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:5-11).