View from the Pew
Speakers invoke God for wage justice
"All religions believe in justice for working people," the Rev. Paul Sherry told the audience at a recent Honolulu church service.
The nationally prominent Protestant minister quoted from the Quran, the Torah and Buddhist texts as well as the New Testament to underscore his theme that God is on the side of the worker.
"Let us be the justice-making people God wants us to be. We seek a just and living wage for all people without exceptions," said the United Church of Christ minister who is coordinator of the National Council of Churches anti-poverty program. He is a leader of the "Let Justice Roll" campaign by 70 national faith-based, community and labor organizations pushing for raises in the minimum wage laws at the federal and state levels. "Our God will guide our steps ... will walk the walk with us," he said.
For the 150-plus people at the Nuuanu Congregational Church on July 13, "walk the walk" is familiar language. The majority were members of Local 5 of UNITE-HERE, the hotel and restaurant workers union that represents 11,000 Hawaii residents in service jobs. Others there were members of Faith Action for Community Equity, better known as FACE, advocates for grassroots social and justice issues who have walked on informational picket lines in support of Local 5.
Sherry was surrounded by local clergymen who quoted from Catholic, Orthodox Christian, Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, Metropolitan Community Church, Jewish and Unitarian texts that affirm the righteousness about a fair and just relationship between employers and workers.
"You are critical to the sustainability of the economy in Hawaii," the Rev. Thomas Van Culin told the Waikiki workers. The rector of St. Matthew's Episcopal Church told them, "You are entitled to the benefits of your labor."
The Rev. Sam Domingo, pastor of Keolumanu United Methodist Church, said his father came from the Philippines, like many Local 5 members, believing Hawaii offered the opportunity to better his living condition. "In some ways, there really isn't" that opportunity for new immigrants. He said the Hawaiian word "pono" in the state motto describes "a right relationship that needs to be happening."
Monsignor Terrence Watanabe, pastor of St. Philomena Church, said, "Workers are an indispensable element of society" and quoted from the encyclical "Rerum Novarum" which asserted workers have a right to form unions.
CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Rev. Paul Sherry was last in the procession for services addressing hotel union workers and fellow clergy at the Nuuanu Congregational Church. Also pictured are the Rev. Bob Nakata, the Rev. Mike Young and the Rev. Neal MacPherson.
The talk of justice and rights is one thing when it's a high-in-the-sky principle. But isn't it getting a little heretically specific to say God's with a particular union? What about the bosses -- who are also to be found in churches and temples?
The Rev. Neal MacPherson, pastor of Church of the Crossroads, said the FACE link with Local 5 evolved from their campaign to get the state and city to require a living wage be paid by contractors doing government jobs here. That "hit a brick wall."
"We began to see where we needed to focus," said MacPherson. "The hotels are the new plantations. If the wages of hotel workers are raised, it will have a ripple effect on wages throughout the islands."
The Rev. Bob Nakata, pastor of Kahaluu United Methodist Church, said: "We're dealing with global companies. To have someone of Paul's status here gives labor support beyond the grassroots level." He referred to the national or international companies that own many of the Waikiki hotels now engaged in contract negotiations covering 6,500 Local 5 members.
Nakata pointed out that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. went to Memphis, Tenn., in April 1968 to support garbage workers who were protesting low wages and bad working conditions. King was killed there in a shooting unrelated to the labor strife.
Sherry said it's not unique to Hawaii or to these times for religious organizations to back particular workers. On his lecture circuit among several states to back minimum wage legislation, he said he finds "the faith-based community in unequivocal support of labor unions."
FACE members are "responding to the reality of the current economic situation," said the Rev. Mike Young, pastor of First Unitarian Church of Honolulu, and it has historic precedent. In the early 1900s, Christian theologians described churches' support of the poorest and lowest paid members of society as "the social gospel," he said.
"Wage is a basic issue, the ideal is a just wage. All churches take a stand on it," Sherry said. "At this point, no other action has a better chance of addressing poverty. The ratio in the United States today is 400 to 1, a CEO gets 400 times what a minimum wage worker gets."
"If you were to take all the Biblical passages about economic justice away, you would have very little of the Scriptures left," he said.
Sherry was the president of the national United Church of Christ denomination in 1993. He came to Hawaii for the anniversary of the overthrow of Queen Liliuokalani to express the church's apology to Hawaiians for the role church members had in the overthrow.
When faith-based organizations want to pursue justice, he said, "The ideal not just an articulation of belief, it's a commitment to seeing it through."
Or to translate: Don't just talk the talk, you need to walk the walk.