Article: Singing for Justice

By Pat Plude

Come let us all unite to vote, reform 13!
Let corporations pay their share, reform 13.
There are too many loopholes, we lose our libraries and schools
Come vote with us for justice sake, reform 13!
Make it fair (hashtag!) Make it fair (hashtag!)
Come let us all unite to vote to make it fair!

This text, sung to the tune and harmonies of “Come, let us all unite to sing,” is the rousing opening song of twenty-three members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco (FMCSF), including three children and youth, participating in a non-violent direct action in downtown San Franciso on January 13. This “Sing-In,” held in the lobbies of three big financial institutions – Wells Fargo, Blackstone, and JP Morgan Chase – is part of 96 hours of direct action coordinated by the Anti Police Terror Project to reclaim MLK’s radical legacy.

Our second song is quieter, a new version of “Amazing Grace”:

Amazing space where neighbors thrive
and housing costs are fair.
We once were lost but now we’ve found
a way that all can share.

After the first verse, we hum quietly, while one of our members reads our demands:

“We are raising our voices in 4-part harmony to demand solutions to the California housing crisis and support for our schools and services. Singing traditional hymns with new lyrics, we are here to disrupt business as usual and demand that you address California’s housing crisis by supporting the repeal of Costa Hawkins, which benefits large corporate landlords, and supporting reform of Prop 13 to make corporations like you pay your fair share for public services. Both initiatives have been filed to be on the ballot this year and signature collection has begun…”

Our action is in direct opposition to the amoral tax legislation, which was recently passed by the U.S. Congress. Jesus calls us to stand with and for the poor. What better way to do this than to demand that state tax loopholes are closed, so that $9 billion can flow back into our schools and social services?

In the FMCSF community, the lack of affordable housing and shrinking budgets for public schools and social services are core issues. We are confronted with people experiencing homelessness on our streets daily and we struggle with our responses, including grief, anger, compassion, a need to be savvy and safe, and a desire for dignified human connection. Many of us live with chronic financial insecurity as rents rise to unaffordable levels. Members of our Mennonite Voluntary Service (MVS) unit wanting to stay in the Bay Area, struggle to find affordable housing once their service term is complete. Additionally, many of us work in the social services as nurses, teachers, social workers, and mental health providers in schools or marginalized communities. Our budgets are being slashed relentlessly, and the work we do is painfully compromised.

For over two years now, the FMCSF community has been engaged in study, prayer, and conversation about how we can support movements of justice. We have challenged ourselves to step out of our comfort zones and wrestled with what risks we could take and why (or why not). We have empowered lay leaders to step forward and have created structures to support their work. We have joined in actions sponsored by other communities, some of them risking arrest, one resulting in several of us being arrested. And, we are committed to doing the work of integration as direct action changes us, individually and as a community.

Finally, we’ve learned about how the early Anabaptists were joyful disrupters, filled with the Holy Spirit. Through MVS and through the vocations of our members, our congregation has had a long commitment to serving the poor and marginalized. So, when our ability to serve is compromised, we follow the example of the early Anabaptists: we joyfully disrupt – in 4-part harmony!

Fr. Richard Rohr – Franciscan priest and internationally recognized ecumenical teacher – writes, “God offers us quiet, contemplative eyes, but God also calls us to prophetic and critical involvement in the pain and sufferings of our world—both at the same time” (Fr. Richard Rohr, “The Balancing Point,” July 3, 2017, Perhaps the final verse we sang to the tune of “What wondrous love is this” best offers the prayer in our hearts as we strive to live at this vital intersection of contemplation and action:

We will be ruled by Love, ruled by Love, ruled by Love.
We will be ruled by Love today!
We will be ruled by Love, no greed, no fear from above.
In Love our hearts will sing for all, for all.
And justice will we bring for all!

To see all of the re-written hymns for this action, check out First Mennonite of San Francisco’s “Singing for Justice” songbook.

This article was first published by The Mennonite, used with permission.