North Carolinians stand up for the poor, vulnerable on Moral Mondays

July 29, 2013
Phil Rees of Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, holds the church’s campus ministry flag during a Moral Monday rally in Raleigh. Photo/Lisa Fischbeck

Phil Rees of Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, holds the church’s campus ministry flag during a Moral Monday rally in Raleigh. Photo/Lisa Fischbeck

[Episcopal News Service] It’s not every day a bishop receives a courtesy call from one of his priests letting him know he plans to get arrested.

Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry received just such a call from the Rev. Randall Keeney, vicar of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, before Keeney’s May 6 arrest for civil disobedience during the second “Moral Monday” protest against actions of the state legislature in Raleigh. On July 29, the movement marked its 13th week with a march to the state capitol and an interfaith social-justice rally. The weekly rallies – although not the push for change – may now take a hiatus until lawmakers return from their summer break, participants say.

“We are in the middle of a movement that is only just beginning, and it’s a church movement,” said Curry. The North Carolina NAACP launched the rallies, led by the Rev. William Barber, its president and a United Church of Christ minister. The interfaith protests, which draw believers and nonbelievers alike, are “revival-like,” Curry said. “There’s singing and there’s praying and there’s preaching, and Jesus gets talked about a lot. … The Hebrew prophets are quoted regularly.”

The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a regular participant in the Moral Monday protests in the state capital.

The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a regular participant in the Moral Monday protests in the state capital.

The number of protesters – including Episcopalians from across the state – has grown weekly, reaching 2,000 on July 15, said the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, who has been participating since June 3. “Every time I’ve gone, there’s been at least 1,000, and slowly edging up.”

“You begin to realize that numbers do make a difference,” she said. “As numbers increase, that makes a statement. That’s been part of my motivation, is just to go and take a stand, because I don’t know what else I can do at this point.”

The impetus for Moral Monday rallies was a series of legislative actions that protesters believe hurt the state’s neediest and most vulnerable citizens.

“There was a legislative agenda that was being enacted in the General Assembly that was disproportionately impacting the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable, and potentially disenfranchising even some voters,” Curry said. “So what could have been seen as simply politics as usual became much more a matter of public morality.”

The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina’s bishops and some of its clergy and laity participate in a Moral Monday rally. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina’s bishops and some of its clergy and laity participate in a Moral Monday rally. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

Curry, Assisting Bishop Alfred “Chip” Marble, then-Bishop Suffragan-elect Anne Hodges-Copple and other religious leaders signed a letter supporting the movement June 8, and Curry has participated in two rallies.

From Jesus’ teachings, he said, “It is abundantly clear that a Christian moral witness must always focus on how to help and support the vulnerable, the weak and the poor. It’s the classic biblical language of the widows and the orphans, and the action of our legislature was going to harm the widows and orphans.

“It was going to harm them by taking public money away from the public schools and redirecting some of that money to vouchers … It was going to harm them by ending the Racial Justice Act, which allowed decisions that could lead to capital punishment for people to be revisited for racial bias. … They’ve now done this by disenfranchising many voters by one of the most stringent voter ID laws in the country.”

They’re also refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and have cut unemployment insurance, he said.

And, Fischbeck said, they’ve “drastically reduced the number of teacher’s aides in public classrooms” while increasing the number of students per teacher.

“This is cruel. This is inhumane,” Curry said. “This is not a liberal thing or even a conservative thing. This is a human thing. The state of North Carolina is harming and hurting its citizens by law, and that’s wrong, and the church cannot sit idly by, and people of good will and decency cannot sit by and be silent. And that is the root of Moral Monday.”

“What’s even more problematic,” he said, “aside from the specifics of the legislation, the people who have been leading these legislative changes have for the most part refused to even be in conversation about them. … There’s been no room for debate or thoughtful discussion, which is key to an effective democracy.”

Beginning earlier in July, clergy and others began having weekly meetings with a bipartisan group of legislators about the reasons for the recent legislation and how it might change to reduce the burden on lower- and middle-class people, said the Rev. Lawrence Womack, rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. The conversations have been “a mixed bag,” starting well but then moving “back a few steps,” he said. “We’ll see.

“It’s definitely going to be very important to stay vigilant and to continue to work on keeping the pressure up in terms of the public piece, but also to really push to have these conversations and to build some relationships,” he said.

Womack has participated in three rallies and been arrested for civil disobedience once, along with 150 other people that day. At last count, more than 500 people had been arrested during Moral Mondays, he said.

“People who are going to be arrested have to go through an information session ahead of time,” said Fischbeck. Each week, protesters gather at a mall adjacent to the legislative building for a rally from 5-6 p.m. focused on a particular theme, such as women or voting rights, she explained. Then those who volunteered to be arrested enter the building and are arrested after they refuse to leave.

Womack said he entered the statehouse rotunda with an ecumenical group who sang, prayed and shared stories about how the legislation would affect them. Then the capitol police arrived and gave them 10 minutes to leave or be arrested for trespassing, disobeying a police officer and, in some cases, for carrying placards into the building. Refusing to leave, they were handcuffed, processed in the statehouse basement, then transported via corrections department buses to the county detention center. He was assigned a September court date and released at 4 a.m.

Protesters who volunteered to be arrested for civil disobedience as part of Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, North Carolina, wait inside the statehouse. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

Protesters who volunteered to be arrested for civil disobedience as part of Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, North Carolina, wait inside the statehouse. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

“There were so many of us that we wouldn’t fit in a holding cell,” he said. “We were just all basically in the general room there. We sat next to each other and talked, and people swapped stories.” There were “some really wonderful theological discussions about what this would mean.”

Clergy talked about how they would preach the next Sunday, and some wondered how their congregations would react to news of their arrest, he said. His congregation, he noted, “has been very, very much on the cutting edge from its founding with issues of social justice and activism.

“The leadership to a person and the vast majority of the congregation were very supportive of my actions,” he said. “It was a sort of outward and visible sign of what we claim as being members of our particular church.”

During rallies, people have approached Womack and thanked him for participating, saying, “We need clergy to be here.”

Such public witness for social-justice issues is important, he said. “For many in our society today, there is this perception that the church just does church stuff at church. … For some, I think it’s been an eye-opener across the board that maybe there’s a little bit more to this religion, this church thing … that there really is a deeper call that pushes us, pulls us, compels us … into the world.”

Fischbeck agreed. During a recent rally, at least 80 percent of the crowd cheered when asked to identify themselves if they were not in any faith group but were participating because it was the right thing to do, she said.

“One could argue that this is an evangelical moment,” she said. “The church is showing Christianity is not about all the negative things that the media sometimes portrays, but that Christianity also cares for the poor and is in the public square.”

Whether protestors end up coming to church or not, it’s important for them to see the church’s witness, she said. “Here is something very positive that is being done in the name of Jesus, in the name of God, in the name of faith.”

The Rev. Jane Holmes, a deacon in Charlotte, was arrested the same week as Womack, Curry said. “I talked to her the next day, and she said that it was the right thing to do, and she said she did it ‘because I’m a 72-year-old woman, and there are younger people who have children at home. They can’t get arrested, but I can. So I did.’ I said, ‘Now that’s a profile in courage.’”

The Charlotte Observer reported that Mecklenburg County subsequently withdrew Holmes’ privileges to serve as a jail chaplain because of her arrest. “Now that’s just ridiculous,” Curry said.

Those who have arrested protesters, he added, have “done their jobs, but they’ve been very respectful of the protestors … more than one whispering to the people they are arresting, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’ Moral Monday may be bringing out the best of us even in the midst of what could be the worst. There is a large reservoir of good will and human decency.”

But not all exchanges have been positive.

“The legislature has clearly taken notice, and usually the Democratic legislators are out there,” Fischbeck said. But one Republican legislator dubbed the rallies “Moron Mondays,” she said, and “the governor has gotten a lot of grief for saying it was clearly outside agitators. That made a lot of people carry signs saying things like, ‘I’m a sixth-generation North Carolina schoolteacher.’”

Said Curry, “This is a movement, it really is. It’s not just a fad.”

The gatherings have gained momentum, and the crowds are multiracial, multiethnic, interreligious and intergenerational, he said. “I haven’t seen anything quite like this.”

“The people who are coming out for Moral Monday are not really coming out for their own self-interest,” he added. “By and large, these are pretty much middle-class people, professionals who would get a deal from the tax breaks. They’re not personally themselves, for the most part, losing unemployment benefits or eligible for Medicaid. … They’re standing and speaking for those who don’t have lobbyists in this legislature and who don’t have another voice to speak for them, and that’s a religious and faith witness at its best. Because we’re not protecting our turf; we’re protecting common ground for us all.”

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori noted the movement’s efforts during a sermon at St. James Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia, on July 21.

“God gives us abundance, but we’re only going to know the sweetness of that basket of fruit if it’s shared,” she said. “Anybody who tries to hoard it might be able to enjoy one piece, but not the whole pile. That person is going to spend his energy protecting what he has from somebody who might come and ask for a piece.

“Our neighbors in North Carolina are wrestling with that reality right now. The legislature is passing bill after bill trying to turn back the clock on the fruit of several decades of justice-making that had helped to create a more enlightened society – education for as many as possible, just working conditions, care for those who can’t care for themselves. At the moment the folks in the statehouse are undoing piece after piece of that just community. The fruit is being squashed and thrown in the rubbish bin, in a fit of pique. The most surprising element is that most of the legislature is unwilling to engage in dialogue.

“Some of our fellow Episcopalians, together with other people of faith, are doing something about that famine of hearing the word of the Lord. They’re going up to the statehouse on Mondays to preach about God’s basket of summer fruit and the justice of the Lord. Some people are hearing that the word of the Lord is about justice, not hoarding.”

Now that the legislative session has ended, some of the legislation that was passed faces legal challenges, according to an editorial in the News and Observer.

Moving forward, Fischbeck said, she believes the movement will move toward voter registrations, “really empowering people to get more involved, hoping that the attention that’s been given now to the concern will translate into changes in legislation and policy.”

Said Curry, “We’re going to stay involved. We just don’t know what form it’s all going to take yet.

“I am committed to being a part of any effort that will seek a better North Carolina, where all children have access to good, quality education, where the poor are cared for, where all have equal access to the right and privilege to vote, where our laws are humane and decent and serve the common good,” he said. “The common good must become our rallying cry again, and not just individual self-interest.”

“This is just the beginning, and I’m committed to that, and I think a whole lot of other people are, too,” he concluded. “And we’re going to join hands ecumenically, interfaith, Democrats and Republicans and Independents and anybody who wants to seek the common good for real. We’re going to work together.”

– Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.

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