This post first appeared in The Nation.Yesterday in the Canon House Office Building rotunda on Capitol Hill, Rabbi David Shneyer led an interfaith group of approximately 150 clergy leaders, locked out workers and people of faith, in song.
“Of love and justice I will sing,” sang the rabbi, playing a guitar and riffing off of Psalm 101.
As the others joined in, their voices rang out powerfully and could be heard clearly a floor below.
The group had gathered to participate in an action organized by Faith in Public Life. Christians, Jews, Muslims, Unitarians and others marched on the offices of key Republican Members — including GOP Leadership — and urged a vote to immediately end the shutdown and to raise the debt ceiling without preconditions. Petitions with over 32,000 signatures were simultaneously delivered to Members’ home district offices around the country.
When the song ended, Sister Simone Campbell, executive director of NETWORK, offered a prayer: “It is the common good that is the way forward for our nation… And so let us pray for their courage that they can act on behalf of all of our people. And may our walking these halls, and praying with Congress, be the bridge that You need for healing and for some sanity in caring for all.”
The group then began its procession while singing “Amazing Grace” and other hymns. Police officers quickly told them to keep their volume low and stay to the sides of the corridors, or risk arrest. The group complied. It wasn’t that they feared arrest — many of these faith leaders have engaged in civil disobedience in the past — but that wasn’t their mission on Tuesday.
“The softer tone actually made it feel like a pilgrimage,” said Rabbi Shneyer, director of the Am Kolel Jewish Renewal Community. “Like a witnessing.”
The group divided in half so there would be sufficient time to visit Congressional offices in the Cannon, Rayburn, and Longworth buildings. When Sr. Simone arrived with her delegation at Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan’s office door they were greeted by staffer Joyce Meyer.
“Good to see you again,” said Meyer to Sr. Simone.
Sr. Simone told Meyer that they had come to pray that Rep. Ryan “has the courage and insight to do the work that needs to be done to care for the common good.”
“We have furloughed workers who are with us,” she said. “This is not just about numbers, this is about people. Congressman Ryan I know understands that. We pray that his heart is broken by it so that he will act courageously.”
One of the participating workers was Alex Vasquez, a food worker at the Smithsonian, who said in a released statement, “Before the shutdown I was struggling to support my unemployed father and little sister. Now I’ve gone from low wages to no wages. Tea PartyRepublicans need to stop these political games.”
While Meyer was polite and told the marchers that she appreciated what they had to say, other staffers indicated that their bosses share the marchers’ urgency to end the shutdown.
According to one clergy member invited into the office of Congressman Dave Joyce of Ohio, a staffer said that the Representative had a “strong desire to end the shutdown [and] knows that people are hurting.” A staffer for Virginia Congressman Frank Wolf distributed copies of a recent floor statement in which the Congressman said, “For those of us who thinkObamacare is a disaster… its future will not be decided by shutting or opening the government.”
As the meetings drew to an end, Sr. Simone shared that she “had been feeling a little discouraged, but coming together in faith makes me think, ‘Yes, there is a way forward in this desert time.’”
The group closed by singing “We Are Marching,” and as they did, a minister from theUnitarian Universalist Association offered these impromptu remarks: “We are the changemakers. It is us, and those we are connected to in our congregations and communities, and we need to keep coming back and forth and back and forth. This is the way that we walk in the light of God, in the light of life, in the light of love. So let us keep marching together.”
So what is next for these faith leaders and the marchers? What about the fact that so many of the Republicans who have shutdown the government and are willing to default already consider themselves people of deep faith?
“It is true that some think they are people of faith but it seems to me that they don’t know the struggle of the working poor people,” Sr. Simone told me. “They have a head for figures but not a heart for the people. Maybe faith for them is more research and theory and less the story of people.”
“Perhaps the faith community needs to engage with Congress more often and have serious discussions [about] morality and ethics,” said Rabbi Shneyer. “Maybe that would help Congress people and staffers open their hearts to surveying the people in a more just and compassionate way.”