Monday, December 21, 2015

The Social Justice (of) Movement

Rev. Andy DeBraber
CEO, Heartside Ministry
December 19, 2015
Preached at Worship Focused on Justice
at LifeQuest

The Social Justice (of) Movement

Acts 2:44-47a
All who believed were together and held all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.

            The believers in Acts held all things in common. So do we, in our better moments, for "The earth is the Lord's and all that is in it and all the people therein" (Psalm 24:1).

            But sometimes we forget.

            Like in 1888, when a streetcar riot took place in Grand Rapids. It's probably not what you think. Let me back up a moment. At the time, Grand Rapids was a leader in public transportation, with street cars running from downtown to popular destinations at John Ball Park, North Park, and Ramona Park. As Toni Bal writes in review of historian Carl Bajema's work:

The first streetcar from downtown to Ramona Park at Reed’s Lake [ran] in July of 1875. A huge social innovation for the time, only the wealthier families could afford the time consuming and costly transportation through dense forest and undeveloped land on the outskirts of the city to the resorts. With a five-cent fare on the streetcar line, however, the working class could now join the wealthy class for an afternoon at the lake or hillside park or river. Each of the resorts offered free as well as paid entertainment in order to include anyone attending. Grand Rapids Railway Company actually subsidized bands to provide free music at John Ball Park in order to keep people paying the five-cent fare back and forth (The Rapidian, May 6, 2015).

            The route to Ramona Park was so popular that another route there was being laid in 1888. And it went right alongside Eastern Avenue Christian Reformed Church. "What they considered a symbol of encroaching secularism would endanger their children, rattle their windows, and disrupt their Sunday services. Worse, it would transport sinners to Ramona Park, [the devil's playground,] for revelry, dancing, and gambling, all verboten" (Local Legends of Grand Rapids, Norma Lewis & Jay de Vries).

            After legal attempts failed to stop the new route, 20 church members took to the street to pull up the rails as they were being laid. Police dispersed the crowd and workers labored through the night to finish that section of the track. The next day, however, the church bells called the faithful back, this time 1,000 strong, tearing up the rails again and throwing them into the nearby Frog Pond. As quickly as police could pile people in the paddy wagons, their friends pulled them out.

            I tell you this because it's a fun story.
            I tell you this because it happened just down the street here.
            I tell you this because it is symbolic of how public transportation can divide us.
            And I tell you this because it is a cautionary tale of how we continue to use public transportation to divide us day after day in much more subtle ways.

            We forget that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

            Do you know how many places in greater Grand Rapids the bus does not go? We don't need to rip up streetcar lines anymore, we just don't allow bus service there - where doctors and lawyers and government offices and public parks remain free from "those people." This is publicly funded segregation, or as Congressman John Lewis puts it, "Our struggle is not over. The physical signs are gone, but the legacy of 'Jim Crow' transportation is still with us" (Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and New Routes to Equity, ed. Robert Bullard, Glenn Johnson, Angel Torres).

            Do you know how much it costs to own and maintain a car? On average, nearly $8,000 per year, second only to housing in most household budgets - more than on food or education or health care.

            Do you know how many households have no car? Eight percent of all American homes, but 22 percent of African American homes and 16 percent of Latino homes. American transportation policies disenfranchise the poor with strong racial overtones.

            As Gerard Wellman states in his article “The Social Justice (of) Movement,” from which the name of this talk is taken:

By denying subgroups of American population the right to use public buses, obtain drivers' licenses, or even through a “roads-only” transportation system which necessitates the expensive purchase of a private automobile, dominant segments of society can restrict undesired groups' social mobility."

Throughout the United States' troubled history of race and gender relations, the simple ability to travel from one location to another has been a crucial element of social justice. Keeping African-Americans, women, and other minority groups "in their place" frequently became a preoccupation of dominant groups to limit other groups' physical and social mobility.

            We forget that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

            Two examples of how this forgetfulness plays out practically here in Grand Rapids today:

·         Rapid bus fares recently rose from $3 to $3.50 for a one-way trip, a 16.7% increase, while monthly passes went from $41 to $47, a 14.6% increase. So the larger increase went to those least able to pay, a regressive fee increase disproportionately affecting the poor.

·         While at the same time, we continue to pour resources into both the Silver Line and now the Laker Line. One can reasonably argue that these lines most serve the wealthy in Grand Rapids (real estate developers and college students) while not improving service to the poorest in the city who use the bus the most, and not more fully developing the routes that head to the major job centers on the outskirts of the city.

            We forget that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, and that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

            As much as any issue discussed in this forum, public transportation or the lack thereof fits most concretely the working definition of social justice: organizing structures so that everyone can reach their potential. We can reach our potential when we can get to doctors and parks and jobs and pharmacies and friends and grocery stories and families and concerts and church.

            Whether we don't drive due to disability or limited finances, potential is out of reach without public transit. And better yet, may it be that more and more of us are taking the bus not out of necessity, but by choice. It's safer, it's better for the environment, and it builds community in ways that driving a car can never do.

            As my good friend and mentor Dave Bulkowski says, "While public transportation is nobody's number one issue, it's everybody's number two." Just ask Homer Plessy or Rosa Parks or the Freedom Riders. Social justice in the United States has a long history of being intertwined with public transit. I would also commend anyone working on any social issue to study the long-term impact of Dave's work on public transportation over the last 20 years. While we may not be where we want to be, the steady drumbeat of justice has us a whole lot better off than we were two decades ago. Next on the horizon is a county-wide transit system that works for all of us.

            Then may we be known as the people of faith who laid down the new tracks that connected us all rather than tearing them up. Then we will have finally started remembering that we hold all things in common, that breaking bread together is at the core of living fully human lives in community, and that the earth is the Lord's and all the people therein.

1 comment:

  1. Good points on transit and justice. It is worth noting that many of our job centers are in townships that don't participate in the funding and operation of The Rapid. Only Grand Rapids, East Grand Rapids, Walker, Wyoming, Grandville, and Kentwood participate. And I'm not sure I'd criticize the Silver Line as benefiting elites. Its riders get a faster ride and they certainly aren't the wealthiest folks in the region.