October 2011


You might be surprised that sweatshop labor is in your backyard. I was! Sweatshop stories are typically from overseas and surround well-known companies. For instance, according to laborrights.org the official inductees of the 2010 Sweatshop Hall of Shame are: Abercrombie and Fitch, Gymboree, Hanes, Ikea, Kohl’s, LL Bean, Pier 1 Imports, Propper International, and Walmart.

But that’s all a world away. Right?

Faithfully demonstrating against sweatshop labor and wage theft

 

Sadly, no. I joined about 60 others Friday afternoon at a Heights area wholesale clothing company on 25th Street to confront the owners for their illegal and immoral practices. Two employees contacted The Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center after the company failed to fully pay them their last couple of weeks of employment. What was learned is shameful.

While working at the warehouse, the workers made shoes & bags for production, sorted large clothing shipments, and loaded and unloaded merchandise crates. They worked 6 days a week sometimes up to 12 hour days, often with no breaks and in a cramped space with no fire extinguishers, marked exits, or adequate ventilation, among other safety and health violations.

Bad enough, right? Not being paid for working in sweatshop conditions. But there’s more! In talking with the employees it was discovered the workers were never paid overtime and were both making below minimum wage. In other words: their wages were stolen.  They are currently owed over $6,500 in stolen wages.

These two workers who are part of the working families that help create our city’s economy, deserve more than sweatshop working conditions and stolen wages. They deserve more than having their former employers run out the back door when presented with documentation of their abuses. They are only two of thousands of Houston workers subject to these types of corrosive jobs which threaten the well-being of our communities and economy.

Wage theft in Houston is prevalent, but unquestionably illegal. The Texas Legislature passed stricter provisions against wage theft which took effect last month. Questions linger as to District Attorney Lykos’ willingness to pursue cases against employers who steal wages. But there are no questions that the Houston community stand in solidarity against this behavior. Area faith leaders, Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center, Good Jobs-Great Houston and OccupyHouston folks all stoodFriday with these two workers who courageously confronted their employer. And we’ll keep doing so as needed.

I stand with workers because as a Christian the God I follow loves justice. And as I’ve said elsewhere, “The work of justice ultimately demands only one thing from you: that you believe God.” Do we believe God when he says worship (ie fasting) is less important than justice? God asks in Isaiah 58

Is not this the fast that I choose: 

“We demand justice” & “Stop Wage Theft” posters as The Peace Pastor tweets out updates on the our meeting with the fleeting employer

 

   to loose the bonds of injustice,
   to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
   and to break every yoke?

As Jose Eduardo Sanchez, with HIWJ said, “All religions believe in justice, and we work with faith leaders to ensure workers have the respect and dignity they deserve.” Indeed. Many will read this on Sunday, your key day for worship. As you do, consider that God values justice more than worship.

If you or someone you know has had or suspects you have had wages stolen, please contact Houston Interfaith Worker Justice Center (713.862.8222). They can and will help! If you are interested in learning more about wage theft, standing in solidarity with workers, advocating for living wages or safe working conditions, or going on a delegation like described here, contact Laura Boston at HIWJ: lboston@hiwj.org.

Do justice Montrose and Westheimer, love kindness Midtown and Beltway, walk humbly Space and Energy city! You’re be blessed if you do & blessed if your persecuted. And together, we’ll be the remedy to the world’s great problems.

First published on Marty’s Houston Chronicle The Peace Pastor blog on October 23, 2011.

The other morning we were singing the African American spiritual “Be still, God will fight your battles (if you just keep still)…” My four year old son, ever the consistent ethicist, blurts out, “NO he won’t, because God’s not mean, fightings mean.”

That’s true, we’ve worked hard to teach our kids that fighting, hitting, kicking, biting, pushing or just plain being mean are not acceptable behavior. Sometimes words are the most destructive thing we can do, like using the word “hate.”

So why would it be ok for God to do those things?

Terribly, some in the church think so. For instance, a celebrity preacher from Seattle recently made headlines with his in-your-face sermon, shouting how much God hates people. Here’s an excerpt:

“Some of you, God hates you. Some of you, God is sick of you. God is frustrated with you. God is wearied by you. God has suffered long enough with you. He doesn’t think you’re cute. He doesn’t think it’s funny. He doesn’t think your excuse is “meritous” [the word he’s looking for here is “meritorious”]. He doesn’t care if you compare yourself to someone worse than you, He hates them too. God hates, right now, personally, objectively hates some of you.”

Or let’s not forget that the world is supposed to end today in a blaze of glory, according to one self-proclaimed prophet. Harold Camping, in the news for his missed prediction of doom back in May, is back today spouting a sad doctrine of God’s mean and hate-filled behavior toward us. In his twisted theology, earthquakes, death, chaos, violence and pain are all in store for people who don’t believe exactly like Camping.

But is God really mean? Does God hate, and kill, and judge like these men suggest?

Not according to most Houston area Christians I know. These groups reveal God as a God of love and not violence or hate. They live out a love for all people, expecting nothing in return, and are committed to the common good.

  • Newspring is a center for social entrepreneurship and business nurturing in the Spring Branch area of Houston. Because of their faith in the God of love, they are creatively and realistically addressing the instability in our community.  Robert Westheimer says in their promo video, “Newspring’s mission is economic development. Our vision is a community that offers people good jobs. Where stable incomes keep people out of the food pantry’s and resale shops; where children can stay in the same school.” 
    Good jobs are practiced through the Newspring Art studio, where local high schoolers are encouraged to create and sell artwork; through the annual Business Plan Competition at Houston Community College (Spring Branch campus); and through business development and microlending. Newspring practices God’s love not just for the whole person, but for the whole community.
  • Healing the Brokenness is a cooperative ministry of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church. They live out God’s love by addressing some of the most pressing issues of our day, such as violence, poverty, racism, migration, economics, etc… Their vision is “Bringing together Christian leaders from across racial, socioeconomic and denominational lines for a time of fellowship and learning with some of the world’s leading scholars.” On Monday morning October 24 Michael Emerson of Rice University will speak on the topic “How Race Works in the Contemporary U.S.” A leading scholar on Race, he “will explore the factors shaping racial inequality and race relations today, and consider how we can constructively address the issues of brokenness.”
    This lecture series clearly identifies hate and mean-behavior as being outside the nature of God, and speaking words of healing into those places of pain.
  • Ten Thousand Villages is one of the world’s oldest fair trade organizations, begun by Mennonite missionary Edna Ruth Byler whose love for God and people sought “sustainable economic opportunities for skilled artisans.” This store spreads goodness across borders by supporting global artisans through the Christian faith.Ten Thousand Villages is a fair trade store in Rice Village (2424A Rice Boulevard, Houston, TX 77005) that sells organic fair trade coffees and chocolate, clothing, jewelry and household items, toys and decorations. Volunteering, shopping, and living Fair Trade is a direct expression of God’s love for all.

None of these groups operate out of a theology of God’s hatred. None of them think God is mean.

On the contrary, the very point of their existence is to embody a God of love through both word and deed. So celebrate life, love, and faith today. And together, let’s work to put an end to the mistaken ideas that God is mean, or hates anyone. It’s just not true. And thankfully, there are plenty of folks who know that already. I hope you’re one of them!

Houston: God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

P.S. I’m glad you’re still here!

This one’s from the archives as we celebrate a very big day in the Troyer household: my daughter’s 1st birthday. She has helped me to imagine a different world. This was written soon after her birth.

In 1945 over the desert of the South West United States a code was devised to indicate whether the impending test was successful or not. President Truman would receive a short message saying either, “It’s a boy,” or “It’s a girl” – and he would know instantly the result. The test went forward, the bomb went off, blinding light exploded across the sky, the proverbial mushroom cloud ushered the world into the atomic age, and, with one short message the President heard, “It’s a boy.”

Boys, apparently, are inherently violent. A “girly” response would have meant failure.

Today my wife and I celebrate the profound joy of hearing one year ago the sweet words, “It’s a girl” ring out in our delivery room. Welcome to the world Clara Sue!

And with people of good faith around the globe we celebrate that the activity of God in our world is the making of peace, not war. As the father of a newborn baby girl, I celebrate an alternative message that says she is not a failure, not of lesser worth than her big brother. As the father of a 3 year old son I celebrate an alternative message of Christian peace that clarifies masculinity is not tied up with violence and militarism.

The words of the prophet Isaiah from 2:1-5 reveal peace to be the heart of God’s intention for the world. Jesus life and teachings connect peacemaking to an alternative perspective on both power and gender. God, and man, are  NOT inherently violent. Women, girls and nonviolence are not weak.

I am gracious my children will hear this message from church and scripture, because our culture sends a vastly different message indeed.

I remember in 4th grade being picked on by the school bully. I was pushed down from the top of the slide, and taunted with “sissy” when I refused to fight back. This fall our country has been sideswiped by the suicide deaths of multiple gay teens taunted to death for not being properly masculine.  In the recent election cycle over and again I heard conservative woman candidates challenging the patriotism and dove-like tendencies of male incumbents with phrases like “Man up!” or “Put your man pants on.” One Senator who opposes ratification of the New START nuclear weapons treaty with Russia has called the President “soft” and demands it be “beefed up” with multi-billion dollar spending on new nuclear weaponry.

We live in a world where might makes right. Where power is defined militaristically instead of morally. India and Pakistan have recently joined the ranks of nuclear powers, Iran and North Korea are soon to follow.  Everyone defines security based on the might of weaponry: from fire and iron to horses and long bows, guns, artillery and the ultimate weapon of annihilation. With 4-8 nukes aimed at Houston every second of the day, our world is not becoming insane; insane is the new normal.

Another example of how insanity has become our new normal are recent reports of the depravity of the wars our country is fighting in our name, even while we worship.  Bush’s just war retaliation against Afghanistan for the pain of 9/11 turned quickly into Obama’s “Good war” with nothing good to show for it. Iraq followed all too quickly though thin evidence of justification has completely disappeared. In both countries, however, more and more reports have come out since Wikileaks posted over 90,000 documents online regarding civilian deaths, torture, and military war crimes. We’re implicated in a complete systemic failure of moral and spiritual imagination.

66,000 civilian deaths in Iraq alone, over 20 times the civilian casualties of 9/11, cry out for us to lament and repent of our ways. Obama lauds his troop withdrawal yet masks the reality of tens of thousands of paid and non-accountable mercenaries who filled the void. Troop surges and counter-insurgency campaigns continue unabated in Afghanistan without any acknowledgement that it simply is NOT working. Drone attacks in Pakistan have amassed more flights in the last month than in the previous 5 years, killing thousands of innocent lives. The Tea Party demands fiscal responsibility while maintaining blind and unquestioned devotion to the military industrial complex and its record budget. President Bush, Vice President Cheney and the lawyers who justified the policies have paraded around our bookstores and televisions defending the practice of torture which is now known to have been widespread.

Boom-“It’s a boy!” “Man up!” Bullying. Torture. War. Rendition.

This is the world my kids are growing up in. What, my friends, do we have to be thankful for today?

I am thankful that God is re-creating our world in the image of shalom and not empire. I am thankful that God is transforming swords and bombs into plowshares. I am thankful that my children will hear the gospel of peace and not war. I am thankful for the power of women and nonviolence and that I have the blessed responsibility to raise both. I am thankful that Jesus, and not Truman, Bush or Obama, is king. I am thankful that “the Prince of peace is Jesus Christ. We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace (Menno Simons).” May it be so for you today my friends. May it be so for our world. AMEN.

“Every day the sun comes up is world day against the death penalty,” says Rick Halperin. He says the world community stands in near unanimous protest to this barbaric practice. The United States is like a passenger left behind on the docks as the world ship sets sale without us on this issue, waving ‘bon voyage’ to we and our strange executioning bedfellows: Iran, China, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, etc… Today as we celebrate “World Day Against the Death Penalty,” Texas, which stands as the western capital of capital punishment, stands nearly alone.

The Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty and Amnesty International co-sponsored a local event yesterday to hear the stories of 2 Texas exonerees and a keynote address from Halperin, former director of Amnesty International and current Director of the Embrey Human Rights Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Anthony Graves brought the audience to tears sharing his heartbreaking story of how “one man with too much power” stole 18 years of freedom from him (over 12 on Death Row).  Graves was finally freed October 27th, 2010 and works passionately to bring an end to the system that twice set dates to execute this innocent man. Clarence Brandley’s story, like graves, reads like a modern day story of racism run amok. His freedom came after 10 years on Death Row, though perhaps “freedom” is too strong a word, considering he is still required by the state of Texas to pay child support for the years he was unjustly incarcerated for a crime he did not commit.

The stories of these two men are in no way stories of how “the system works,” proving that the system can and does protect the innocent by exonerating them. Left to itself the judicial system would have never in any way freed these men without the consistent, demanding, investigative work of those outside the system such as The Innocence Project.  These outside voices stopped two innocent men from being murdered by the state by creating an “issue” the system doesn’t admit exists. The system is perfectly designed to kill people, whether guilty or innocent, and has no room for claims of innocence, says Halperin. The very recent case of Michael Morton, exonerated and released just last week after 25 years in prison, clearly tells this same story.

The Worst of the Worst
Several stories stood out to me from yesterday’s event, both wrestling with the idea that the death penalty exists to rid society of “the worst of the worst.” Who are the “worst of the worst”? What do we mean by that phrase? First, Haperin told the story of Rwanda, a country seared into memory by the horrific genocide of a million people in 1994 simply because they were “unlucky enough to be born Tutsi.” The perpetrators of genocide would likely fit the bill, ‘the worst of the worst’ for most of us. Clearly the death penalty fits the crime here, and Rwandan society would be better today if they “rid the world” of these bad guys. However, instead of death, Rwanda sought for years to abolish the death penalty in response to the atrocities, doing so in 2007.

What about terrorists? Do they deserve death? In the case of the Oklahoma City bombing, Timothy McVeigh was prosecuted in a federal court and executed for the deaths of 8 federal officers. His accomplice, Terry Nickels, was convicted of killing the other 161 people, but received life in prison without the possibility of parole. One of the key reasons being Nickels’ confession of finding “religion and remorse.” Halperin notes Nickels conviction was for “TWENTY TIMES” (emphasis Halperin’s) more people, and yet his jury did not see fit to execute him.

Halperin also told the story of Gary Ridgway, who is safely behind bars never to threaten society again. Over the span of several decades, Ridgway brutally murdered over 40 woman in the hills between Seattle and Tacoma (he confessed to killing 71). Known as The Green River Killer, he is clearly someone we need to be protected from as ‘the worst of the worst.’ So why wasn’t he executed? Because the families of the murdered woman decided to seek life in prison without the possibility of parole. The serial killer promised to lead prosecutors to the bodies, but demanded the death penalty be taken off the table in return. The famlies wanted the bodies, and knew Ridgway would never hurt again.

These stories solidify the system for its capricious and arbitray inequality, rather than any sort of ‘blind and equal justice’ that death penalty advocates suggest. Some die, some are spared; even innocence can’t stop justice.

Halperin had me in his sights when he invited citizens to see abolition not as “an human rights issue but as the human rights issue around which all others revolve.” Those who stand against the death penalty, are standing on the right side of history. For the death penalty will undoubtedly be abolished in the US as it has been in 170 countries worldwide. On this, another beautiful day when the sun came up, I’m wholeheartedlystanding with the World Against the Death Penalty. Will you?

As the longest war in US history enters its 11th year on October 6, it’s time to say “Enough!” War, as Martin Luther King Jr said, is “an enemy of the poor” and has brought us to the worst economic decline in nearly 100 years. As I’ve said earlier, “We’re scheduled to spend $113 Billion in Afghanistan in 2011 alone, good money we don’t have that could easily be used for good causes here at home. We’ve also lost over 1500 service men and women, with 10,000 wounded.”  Military Spending in Context pointed out that “the United States will spend more on the war in Afghanistan this year, adjusting for inflation, than we spent on the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War and the Spanish-American War combined.” When it comes to war I say: Enough!

But the war, the deaths, the occupation and exploitation, all come marching home again. Martin Luther King Jr. went out of his way to connect poverty with war. On April 4, 1967 he said in his speech From Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence :

There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam and I watched the program broken and eviscerated as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

War is not just an enemy of the poor, but a catalyst of poverty, both at home and abroad. Republican President Eisenhower famously said, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.” By those standards, there is an ever-growing number of folks we’re stealing from every day. The corporate greed which has seen skyrocketing salaries for the uber-rich while resources are cut from our most vulnerable is a catastrophic moral failure. The outrageous waste of money, resources, fuel and human work hours on the arms race is an industrial and creative crisis. And the channeling of poor families into the military to fight wars they do not support and did not have a say in is wrong. When it comes to neglect, demonization, and creation of the poor I say: Enough!

In his article about the World Council of Church’s efforts to wage a just peace in place of the obsolete Just War theory, Andre Gingerich Stoner urges “Christians to stop building, training with or paying for these weapons.” Sunday was “World Communion Sunday,” a day Christians orient ourselves to the global body of Christ which demands a higher allegiance than we give to any nation state. Christ’s church has no walls, no borders, and no military. And her members live radically different lives than those whose concepts of “sovereignty” are limited to governments. As one Protestant Reformer said, ““The Prince of Peace is Jesus Christ. We who were formerly no people at all, and who knew of no peace, are now called to be a church of peace. True Christians do not know vengeance. They are the children of peace. Their hearts overflow with peace. Their mouths speak peace, and they walk in the way of peace.” When it comes to Christian support of Obama’s “Good War,” I say: Enough!

Enough of war; enough of poverty; enough militaristic christianity.

This is not the only possible way to live. It’s how we’re choosing to live today. Will we choose it for another 10 years?

We certainly don’t have to. Join me in waging peace, not war, and share in following:

  • We will repent for ways we have contributed to this war
  • We will pray for peace, justice and reconciliation
  • We will renew our commitment to teach peace to every generation and to provide youth with meaningful alternatives to military service
  • We will encourage and call people from our congregations to serve on Christian Peacemaker Team delegations around the world
  • We will offer our support to local military personnel and their families as they deal with the trauma of this war
  • We will reach out in friendship to local Muslims
  • We will join our voices with many other people of faith who are calling for our national leaders to end the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, recognizing that such visibility is fueling a growing insurgency movement and adding to the daily suffering of ordinary Afghani’s.

Enough of war! It’s time to wage peace.