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Public Theology: Prophetic Disruption
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Prophetic Disruption
A justice ministry for responsible development in Tacoma, Washington, is discussed with a focus on immigant workers at a Point Ruston luxury development.

By Ed Knudson

Tacoma, in the state of Washington in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, is known as the "gritty city" because of its history as an industrial and working class town. It vies with Spokane as the second most populated city in the state, after Seattle, which is just less than an hour north of Tacoma.

Tacoma lies in the shadow of Mount Rainier. The city is named after the Native American name for the mountain, Tahoma. Tacomans see the mountain from the west so they are familiar with what it looks like from that perspective. But if you move around to the other sides of the mountain it looks different. In fact what you see depends on the perspective from which you are looking. Often in the winter the mountain is so clouded over you cannot see it at all.

Until a just a few years ago if you looked at the development of Tacoma's downtown it was a disaster. But after great dislocation in the downtown as businesses fled to new malls, and after mill after mill has closed down and the air no longer is filled so much with the "Tacoma aroma," a remarkable rebirth of the city has taken place in the last few years. Much of this has been generated by very heavy governmental investment in museums and galleries, a major urban university, a civic center and even a short light rail project connecting the Tacoma Dome transit center with the downtown. City government has worked to redevelop the Foss Waterway into a maritime center just off the waters of Commencement Bay of the Puget Sound. Tacoma is actually becoming a tourist destination, people coming, for example, to see glass sculpture being made in the glass museum.

But how development is viewed depends on the perspective from which you are looking. While civic boosters only want to accent the positive, there are questions about who is receiving the benefits from the development and who is paying for it. Despite being a gritty city with a working class population the organized working folks have had to struggle mightily to even begin to get a seat at the table when decisions are made about who gets to work in the new developments and for what wages and benefits. Like so many places around country, even in Tacoma it is the bankers and financial investors who determine what can happen and how it happens. But working class taxpayers have to help pay for the developments which tend to benefit the better off in the community. What's happening in Tacoma depends on whose perspective you take to view the city.

At least that is how it seems to me after a couple years involved in a group of faith leaders who have come together to study the whole issue of what we call "responsible development." The genesis of the group was a series of listening sessions for pastors and members of congregations on affordable housing and family wage jobs organized by an ecumenical agency, Associated Ministries of Pierce County, the Micah Project of a local congregation, and Jobs with Justice, a coalition of labor and community groups to organize for decent wages and job security for workers. The listening sessions resulted in the establishment of a group of faith leaders who began meeting to do research leading to possible actions to promote responsible development.

The first focus had to do with extensive condo development in downtown Tacoma. The state legislature had established a tax abatement program which cities could utilize to promote urban development. The city of Tacoma set up a program by which developers could offer purchasers of condos a ten year reprieve on their property taxes. This was quite a strong incentive and many projects began. But one problem was that the city of Tacoma gave out these tax rewards without any extra conditions on the developers concerning wages to be paid, who would be working on the sites, whether a certain percentage of the new projects would include more affordable housing, and so forth. In similar projects across the country cities have established such conditions so that developments benefit the whole community to a broader degree. But not in Tacoma.

The condo developers hired immigrant workers of unknown documented status, paid the lowest possible wages, had no programs for training new workers from the community, and most of the projects were for quite expensive condominiums meaning that downtown developments would result in displacement of the current less affluent residents.

When I made a presentation at an adult forum in my own congregation I found myself saying that the Tacoma redevelopment process was based on stealing from the poor and giving to the rich. It's an over-generalization, of course, but think about it. The "rich" who can afford one of the new condos would not be paying property taxes for ten years. In the meantime they would be using the services that taxes pay for such as schools and roads and libraries and everything government makes possible. So somebody else would be paying for the services used by the new condo owners, that would be to some perhaps great degree the working class taxpayers of Tacoma. It's taking from the less affluent and giving to the more affluent.

After my presentation a person told me that without these tax subsidies the projects would not "pencil out," would not be profitable for the developers. That got me thinking. We are told that a free market without governmental involvement is efficient in producing the economic goods needed by the population. But in this case the free market cannot even produce housing for its most affluent members without government subsidies. This is quite remarkable. Developers need a handout from government in order to produce high-class housing. That means, of course, that they cannot begin to produce affordable housing without even greater subsidies. But if an economic system cannot produce the housing needed by the citizens should not questions be raised about that system? If government must provide subsidies should not government, which represents all the people, have some greater say in determining the nature of these developments and who is to benefit from them? It is quite remarkable that "free market" has come to mean that business is able to receive taxpayer money with no strings attached, with no public responsibility. So the only way to lure the rich to live in the gritty city of working class folks is to get the latter to pay the way of the former. From this perspective what is happening in Tacoma does not look so good.

Of course, all of this must undergo statistical analysis in our culture to demonstrate "truth." But in this article I am interested in the basic concepts involved, how we "think" about these matters, the perspective from which we see things. Experts do not always decide to include all the important factors in their statistics. Let me mention a development proposal in Cleveland that is a rather famous case in the planning field. In the 1970s there was a proposal from civic and business leaders for a new transit project linking the airport with the downtown. The proposal used flowery language about how this would help Cleveland, how fast people would be able to move back and forth to and from the airport. Then a couple guys in the planning department did a study of who was to pay for this project and who would benefit. It was the people of Cleveland who would pay for the project. It was the poorer and the elderly left behind in the city after wealthier folks had moved out including many of those who worked downtown. But who would benefit? It would be the business folks traveling to Cleveland and the downtown businesses.

So in this case it was clear that the rich were asking the poor to pay for that which would benefit the rich. Those city planners were courageous, they were actually counting up things that demonstrated realities which those in power did not want to consider. Civic boosters were furious that somebody told the truth about the project. Statistical truth goes only as far as the decision on what to count. It is the "thinking" that goes into the counting that makes the biggest difference. Groups representing the least affluent often do not have the resources to put together the kinds of statistical analysis which includes concerns for the justice of development. Too much money is at stake. The ideological claims about a free market have often been used to avoid serious thinking about the justice involved in government supported development. It all depends on the perspective from which you are viewing the world.

Our faith leaders group continues to be concerned with the justice of development projects in Tacoma, but with the crash of the financial market last fall and continuing economic uncertainty, the condo developments have stalled. And in the meantime another very specific issue has emerged in a major billion dollar development at Point Ruston, a former industrial and superfund site with beautiful views of the waters of Puget Sound. People in this area will pay very substantial premiums for housing with such views.

Even after years of effort to clean up the site, the soil is still polluted enough to require special conditions for those working at the site. The developer through his subcontractors hired immigrant workers to dig around in this soil. These workers began to come down with health problems which they attributed to their work in the polluted soil with inadequate training and safety equipment. Our group began to meet with some of these workers and heard their stories. We decided to ask the developer to meet with us to find out what he knows about these conditions of the workers. The developer agreed to meet with us and fifteen of us did so. At the meeting he denied all allegations that work on his site had anything to do with the health condition of the workers. He said it was "beyond ridiculous" that the workers had been poisoned.

Before I describe what happened next, let me present some further concepts by which to interpret and understand this action I have just described. The faith group had basically declared itself to be in "solidarity" with these immigrant workers by hearing their stories and deciding to act as "advocates" on their behalf. These workers are in a very vulnerable position in relation to the legal structure and public opinion in society. Unable to act on their own behalf, our group decided to take an "action" on their behalf by meeting with the developer. These are not just simple meetings, they are highly "symbolic actions". That is, the actions have meanings beyond the appearances of the meetings. In this case, the developer was confronted with the fact that fifteen religious leaders were aware of what was going on at his worksite. In the meeting with him we were most polite and cordial. We listened as he described his project and its benefits, from his perspective, for Tacoma. But, of course, we were looking at things from the perspective of the workers. And thus the meeting had the status of "confrontation" simply by the fact of the meeting itself. We did let him know that we would be meeting to decide what we would do in relation to what he had said. So the meeting ended with a certain tension about the future.

What happened next was a tremendous achievement. A few days later the developerís main subcontractor entered into a labor agreement with a union representing these laborers. This means better pay, health benefits and pensions. This includes medical examinations for workers over which they have control so they can determine their health status in an on-going manner. There are still details about this and other matters on the site that our group will have to examine. But this action at this developerís site after one simple meeting is an example of what can happen when religious leaders are able to come together and act on a matter of serious moral concern.

What happened inside our group, however, was also interesting. There was concern that maybe we had acted in a too confrontational a manner. There was concern about the source of moral authority the group was claiming for itself by such an action. There was concern about the continuing vulnerability of immigrant workers who could experience retaliation from various quarters if they are too exposed to publicity. There was concern that our group had not prepared adequately and did not have clear, objective documentation of all the facts before the meeting with the developer. All of these are certainly important concerns. Our group represents several faith traditions so each of us comes to the table with different perspectives on what constitutes justification of moral behavior, a major issue within the field of moral philosophy itself, of course. We have different perspectives on what or who constitutes moral authority, and what defines appropriate behavior for religious leaders. Taking a serious action in relation to a key power figure in the community raised the consciousness of all of us that this is serious business, indeed.

And one of the reasons for hesitancy is that the overwhelming opinion of other community leaders such as the city council, business leaders, and the local newspaper, the Tacoma News Tribune, is extremely supportive of the Point Ruston project. In the meeting with faith leaders the developer said that Tacoma will be able to take great pride in building this grand project of luxury high rise condominiums and retail office space reclaiming a superfund site on the shores of the Puget Sound. He has spent considerable amounts in marketing the new development. And he has hired public relations experts to try to silence or counter anyone who would raise questions about the project.

In this context, it is taking quite some courage for these faith leaders to step forward to ask for justice in this project. The success in getting this developer to recognize the laborer's union was not just the work of these faith leaders but also the Jobs with Justice coalition of labor unions and community groups. It was this coalition which decided to question the way development was happening in Tacoma, bringing together many different interests who have a stake in the development, from those concerned with environmental and shoreline issues to those living in the community whose homes are impacted by the development and workers in the various unions involved in the construction trades and those unions who would represent workers in hotels and maintenance of the completed project. Jobs with Justice put together a Community Benefits Agreement addressing these many interests which it sought to negotiate with the developer but such negotiations did not proceed very far at all.

So the coalition has used a variety of tactics to hold the developer accountable and publicize its alternative perspective on the project. These tactics include disruptive demonstrations at the worksite as well as free speech educational activities during times when the developer was holding events for potential condo buyers and realtors. An ally of the coalition but not a member, the Carpenters union, would hold up a large banner reading "Point Ruston - Poisonous Urban Village?" The coalition worked to make sure the Environmental Protection Agency and state regulatory agencies were aware of what the developer was doing. The State Department of Labor and Industry even fined a subcontractor over thirty thousand dollars for violations concerning training for the workers. This constitutes an official finding of problems at the site.

So the pressure on the developer has been increasing substantially. Our religious leaders group is separate from Jobs with Justice but was organized to address similar concerns. Its meeting with the developer was one in a whole variety of actions which was confronting this developer. And he finally decided it would be best to recognize the union and provide "jobs with justice" to these workers on his site.

During the meeting with the developer he made an important statement which needs to be highlighted. He said that any earlier problems in the working conditions of workers had been corrected. He did not go into details but I interpreted this to mean that he recognized the violations found by the Department of Labor and Industry. He also had to be aware that some untrained workers were given badges of previous workers who had been trained and told they had to use a badge with a name other than their own, a badge which indicated they had received the training when they had not. He had to recognize, even if he had not said so directly, that the workers had been seriously exposed to the hazardous material on the site in a variety of ways, according to the testimony of the workers. There are eighty workers who have worked on the site over the past months, many of whom are no longer working there, some of whom have been physically intimidated if they speak out about the conditions of their employment. When the developer was asked if he accepted responsibility for the conditions of his workers he said absolutely yes, he was responsible. However, he rejected any allegations that workers had actually gotten sick on his site.

So, what we have here is this situation: the developer recognizes there were earlier problems. But he does not accept that any health problems resulting from those problems. This is quite a contradiction which will need to be addressed by the faith leaders group.

Just recently another significant event occurred. One of the workers, thirty years old, became seriously ill. He was taken to the hospital bleeding from the mouth and died. For unknown reasons the Pierce County Medical Examiner did not do an autopsy and through the family sent the body back to Mexico. Many in the immigrant worker community believe this man died as a result of his work on the Point Ruston site. Exactly what are the details of this event are at this time uncertain. The vulnerability of immigrant workers means there is understandable hesitancy to trust public institutions in this country. The faith leaders group is beginning to look into this whole episode.

There is no question that this developer has moral responsibility for those workers previously working on his site. He has now entered into an agreement which will protect current and future workers. But his responsibility for previous workers is a major question before the faith leaders group. And part of this will require further documentation of the actual degree to which these workers are ill due to their work on the site. But there is no question that the health of these workers was unnecessarily put at risk by the patterns of behavior of this developer and his subcontractors, as he himself admitted at the meeting with faith leaders.

As these matters occupy the attention of the faith leaders group in the future, there continues to be questions among us of proper behavior and tactics for our own group as well as Jobs with Justice. Since we are separate groups, each may deliberate and choose the best approach for how they conceive of their work. I would like to suggest here that we think in terms of what it means to engage in "justice ministry." It is quite different from service ministries of the church.

Service ministry addresses the direct needs of a client population, such as the homeless. Justice ministry addresses the structure of power in a community which is causing an unjust condition. The purpose of justice ministry is to change the behavior of persons in the system of power which is causing injustice. That is what happened when the developer in this case decided to recognize the union. Once the change in behavior is accomplished and justice established, a justice ministry moves on to whatever other issue of injustice in the community it feels it can address effectively. Various congregations and denominational groupings today promote diverse types of justice ministries. Our own faith leaders group for responsible development is one such effort.

Sometimes there is tension between service ministry and justice ministry within the same community. Justice ministry challenges a power structure and power figures in that structure. These may be the same power figures, and/or their friends and associates, who make financial contributions to service ministries and otherwise occupy positions of respect within the community. This can make it difficult for representatives of service ministries to support the work of justice ministries, at least publicly and openly. The same can be true for local congregations who have members who are themselves or know others who are key power figures or associate with same. It is possible to create means of understanding within such congregations where members mutually accept the legitimacy of various forms of ministry.

In terms of the current case, for example, the Point Ruston developer hired consultants and/or arranged for telephone calls and other communications with some service agency leaders and pastors warning them about the tactics of the Jobs with Justice coalition. In one case he utilized a person associated with a well known political figure. This has been an explicit effort to discredit Jobs with Justice and its work on behalf of working people in Tacoma. The developer, of course, has an explicit interest to pay the least amount to his workers as he can get by with. He has up to this time chosen to hire highly paid consultants to oppose efforts to pay workers a fair and decent wage or treat them with the respect expected in this community. He chose to employ vulnerable immigrant workers through subcontractors so as to obtain absolute minimum labor costs. The fact that he has endangered the health of these workers is just another gross moral violation on top of his unjust labor practices. It is this entire framework of injustice that concerns the faith leaders group.

The question of power itself is sometimes difficult for those in the church to clearly discuss. At one time in some places the moral authority of the church was esteemed and respected. Pastors could speak on public and moral issues and be heard with respect. With the growth of the modern industrial era and the claim that the economy functions autonomously separate from outside influences of government or church, the role of the church or other religious institutions in relation to the economy has been seriously reduced. For religious leaders to speak about an economic activity has not been taken seriously. But given the response of this developer to the recent faith leaders meeting perhaps it is possible for faith leaders to realize that they have more power than they may otherwise believe. But it is necessary for them to act together, to be in touch with those who are the real victims of injustice, and to carefully think through what they can accomplish through what methods, realizing their actions are "symbolic actions" having meanings and consequences beyond the details of a specific meeting or event. The goal is not to make friends with power figures but to change their behavior. That is exactly what happened in this case of the Point Ruston developer.

When taking the side of under-represented or powerless groups within society, the question of the form of "power" to utilize is crucial. Most such groups, and our own faith leader group, has very limited access to resources. The overwhelming power seems to be on the other side. We don't have the money, we don't have massive numbers, we don't represent a popular position, often, yet an injustice is being done and there is a need for action. The power of such groups may be simply the power to disrupt the normal state of affairs. But it takes courage to act to disrupt. And it doesn't work unless there is real pain among those against whom a real injustice is being done systematically.

The Christian ethicist Laura Stivers has written an article where she presents the concept of "prophetic disruption." The article appeared in the October 14, 2008, issue of the Journal of Christian Ethics entitled: "Making a Home for All in God's Compassionate Community: A Feminist Liberation Assessment of Christian Responses to Homelessness and Housing". Stivers utilizes the work of Traci West in two books, Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics and Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women's Lives Matter. Stivers says that:
West assesses ethical issues by first listening to the stories of "everyday people" who are from "areas commonly identified as problem communities." She focuses specifically on the marginalized voices of black women, and she always pays attention to the interconnections of various forms of oppression in the lives of these women and other marginalized persons. She claims that we cannot be in solidarity with people who are marginalized or oppressed unless we recognize their reality as occupying the moral center; that is, we must start with their reality in analyzing ethical issues. Thus, in examining the issue of homelessness, the moral center would not be the middle-class homeowners but the numerous poor who are without homes. West recognizes that subjugated voices can be distorted by the imposition of internalized oppression; nevertheless, she claims that these voices provide crucial insight on social problems. Without marginalized voices at the moral center, ethical assessments are likely to be based on stereotypes and likely to further the status quo.
What this means has been summarized in the phrase "seeing from below," seeing the world from the perspective not of the people at the top of the social system, but from those at the bottom. The view will be quite different based on the place from which we see the world. From above the poor hardly exist, even the interests and needs of the working class are not taken seriously. Look at how over the past decades the power of working people through union organizing has been systematically decimated. This perspective from below does not now include only poor and minority women, the focus group of the Stivers article, but very large numbers of the working an so-called middle classes, in other words most of the people living in Tacoma, Washington.

Stivers in her article focuses mostly on an analysis of how two church-based responses to homelessness are based on the prevalent cultural ideology that poor people are the cause of their own problems, that it is their deviancy that is the problem. Rescue mission programs try to lift homeless individuals out of their deviancy and Habitat for Humanity provides homes for people who can still afford them. Though such programs may be necessary and helpful to some people, they are not based on an institutional and power analysis of what is causing the problems in the first place. Churches may engage in such programs and believe they are doing something serious, but they are not being honest with themselves if they avoid asking basic questions of justice in how business and financial systems function in the first place.

Stivers ends her article by saying that: "Making a place for all in God's compassionate community entails prophetically disrupting policies and practices that physically exploit and exclude particular people as well as the ideologies that justify such exploitation and exclusion." If churches are not willing to engage in prophetic disruption, says Stivers, Christians may "end up participating in oppressive relations, practices, and ideologies." Prophetic disruption, causing trouble within systems of power which are propagating unjust practices and results, is a power which is available to Christians who have both "courage and vigilance" says Stivers.

Prophetic disruption is a method available for what we here want to call "justice ministry." It is difficult work since it is willing to go against what have become regularized patterns of injustice in contemporary urban America. Now with the nearly complete breakdown of the whole financial system for housing in this country many, many people have become personally aware that there is something seriously wrong with what has been happening in this country, not only for poor minority women, but for most of the population. Incredible amounts of money have been made by the few at the expense of the many. People have become aware that it is not just a matter of an ideology of the "free market" but also a matter of how particular banks and financial institutions work in specific communities such as Tacoma. The decisions made by persons in these systems have dramatic effects in the specific lives of individuals and families in the city now and into the future. The moral context for the making of these decisions can be significantly influenced by groups willing to engage in prophetic disruption.

The group of religious leaders for responsible development in Tacoma is now at a turning point as it tries to decide how to respond in the specific issue of workers whose bodies may have been poisoned at the Point Ruston development and how to address other development issues in Tacoma, such as the stalled condominium projects. The mentality that supports the idea that it is perfectly fine for a developer to pay the least possible wages by hiring vulnerable workers will not go away by itself. It will take repeated acts of prophetic disruption, such as walking into a developer's office, to begin to change this mentality and declare within the moral atmosphere of Tacoma that such a mentality is immoral, wrong, and no longer to be tolerated.

Such acts require a certain courage. And the courage can be found in creating more understanding of how development in Tacoma has been happening and for whose benefit. The county government, for example, has just completed a large project which created a major championship golf course called Chambers Creek on valuable reclaimed property on another shoreline of Puget Sound. This golf course is designed for the wealthy to fly in for big golf tournaments. No analysis has been done that I know of on who is paying for it and who will benefit from it such as was done in the Cleveland project.

And the city government of Tacoma has put together a major proposal of taxes and subsidies to try to keep a large financial firm from moving its headquarters out of the city. So the working people of Tacoma, the gritty city, are here being asked to subsidize the costs of a private company. It used to be that business was expected to contribute to the community. Now the power of business has become so great that it can require the community to subsidize its operations. And few people seem to be able to stand up to question the justice of it all. Now that the whole financial system of the country has crashed it is a moment to begin asking some very hard and real questions about development, who profits from it and who loses. Now is a time for city leaders to begin asking serious questions about how to finance development and open themselves to new possibilities, such as a city owned development bank.

It is possible for a group of faith leaders who know what they are talking about, who look at the full facts of how development has occurred and to whose benefit, who are committed to seeing the world from below, who want to see actually affordable housing for all the people of Tacoma, who are committed to justice for all which is a value shared not only among people of faith but the vast majority of the people in the city, to make a difference in how the city develops. But to seriously move in that direction will require the courage to engage in acts of prophetic disruption.

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Date Added: 4/2/2009 Date Revised: 4/2/2009 1:17:52 PM

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