Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Jubilee at Walmart

Had one of my most exciting days thus far in Kansas. We raised up some holy rabble at the Walmart!

I alluded to a "liturgical project" in a previous post. Let me fill you in:

I get updates all the time from Interfaith Worker Justice. Well, IWJ called for prayer vigils this week at Walmart stores across the U.S. It's the 50th anniversary of Walmart, so in the spirit of the biblical jubilee, religious groups have been calling for a "Jubilee at Walmart," with living wages and better treatment of the company's 1.4 million workers.

The Capuchin postulants do most of their shopping at the Walmart in Hays, next door to us in Victoria. We really have no other option. Many of our groceries come from Walmart, too. As regular customers, we have a stake in Walmart, and we must accept responsibility for tacitly approving, with our dollars, the business practices of the company. (For a "people's perspective" on the impact of Walmart on workers, women, the environment, and small businesses, among other issues, click here.)

My conscience would not let me rest. So, I organized a prayer vigil for Jubilee at Walmart with my postulant brothers.

I was a little nervous about doing this. First of all, a prayer vigil for economic justice in a red state? Nuts, right? Most of the people here in Hays like -- no, love -- Walmart, which has been in business here for almost 30 years and employs about 700 people just at this one store. And although public prayer is a part of the Kansas culture, I don't think they've seen anything like this kind of a prayer before!

Second, most of the postulants never did anything like this before. I know the risks involved in prayer actions, and I know how stressful it can be confronting the almighty dollar with the almighty God for the first time. Nevertheless, seven Capuchin postulants formed our group. Bless them for their courage, doing something they never did before.

Here is a summary of the event:

We came with leaflets and an open letter for the store manager, signed by many of the postulants. Though we alerted no one ahead of time, management was ready for us, with police cars outside and employees inside watching us. (Walmart must have known about the IWJ-sponsored prayer vigils and sent memos to all the store managers.) We went inside the vestibule, formed a ring, and began singing "They'll Know We Are Christians By Our Love" while handing out leaflets. Instantly the store manager swooped in and got on his walkie-talkie, presumably with upper management or legal counsel. We finished our song, and I went to the store manager to introduce ourselves. He explained that we could not do flyering because it was solicitation. I explained who we were and that we were there just to pray for him and the workers, and I invited him to join us. He declined.

We all waited while the store manager was receiving instructions from his higher-ups. He told us that if we leafleted outside on the public sidewalk (about 100 yards away), we could pray inside. I asked him to please take our letter and pass it along to the Walmart CEO and the Walmart board of directors. He declined.

While he and his assistant managers and other employees looked on, we continued our prayer indoors with full voice. All the while, the store manager ushered customers in and out of the store, keeping them at some distance away from us, and the employees who push the carts were bringing in rows and rows of them, kind of barricading us from the customers. We read a reflection on jubilee; we said our petitions for the Walmart workers, the CEO and the board of directors, the Walton family, the store managers, and the public; we sang a Magnificat, and we left. In all, we were there for about 20 minutes.

I wonder what the customers thought. I wonder if they really believed we were being Christian, acting the way we did. I wonder if they believed we were being Catholic, praying the way we did. I wonder if they believed we were being Franciscan, pulverizing any preconception they might have of friars as only meek and mild lovers of Jesus, Mary, and nature who stay out of the way of the idols who stand astride the rough-and-tumble world of consumer capitalism.

I wonder what the store manager thought. He would not be drawn into conversation with us. This was a missed opportunity. What would he say, if he were at liberty to do so? I invite him to think about our words and our gestures and why our action had religious motivation. If he is feeling disturbed by what we did, then I invite him to speak to his pastor and to fellow believers about the meaning of jubilee.

Like I said, I am so proud of my Capuchin postulant brothers, because this was the first time many of them ever did such a faith-based action like this in public. There was tension and worried nerves, but in the end everybody felt fired up and glad they went. And the thing we wanted most -- to be seen and heard by Walmart management and by the customers -- we got. We were visible. We were audible. We were brothers to the workers. We were witnesses to jubilee!

You shall treat this fiftieth year as sacred. You shall proclaim liberty in the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to your own property, each of you to your own family.

Leviticus 25:10

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