I will never forget the thick summer heat that filled the sanctuary of my rural Southern Baptist church when revival week came around. Once a year, we would host a traveling firebrand of a preacher to come and reignite the spark of our faith. The press of the bodies together in long wooden pews was in stark contrast to the normally cool, even austere atmosphere that usually occupied the space between the four walls we all held as holy. The world, even then, could often feel hopeless and cruel, but within that heat we felt transformed, energized, empowered by a truth we held together, by a faith in something greater than each of us that bound us together in a common cause.
These revivals spanned several days and by the last few days, the size of the crowds held within that small space swelled to the point of spilling out of the several doors that offered entry not only to a place, but also to a process of rebirth. New faces popped up in the crowd. When our passions reached a fever pitch, many were brought to their knees, weeping and reaching out to grab hold of others; for support, for comfort, for connection.
I couldn’t help but contrast these memories against my first union meeting with my UFCW local. It was held in a big hotel conference room in Irving, TX, difficult to reach with a car and impossible without one. I didn’t expect the same passion as those evening revivals; more like a healthy Sunday congregation. To my shock, I realized I was only one of three workers at our union meeting, as opposed to five times that number of staffers sitting in the back! The meeting was never formally called to order and the President spoke informally, attempting to answer the acute frustrations workers had trying to navigate the crushing bureaucracy of our health insurance program. I was told our local had no buttons, shirts, hats, masks, or anything else to provide us that we could wear at work to show our union pride.
But if a union meeting is closer to a routine Sunday at church, could that mean the upcoming national convention will be our revival? Delegates from across the country will converge in late April as the highest constitutional authority of UFCW. Will those delegates feel the same living heat that I felt so many years ago, each knowing deep in their hearts that the sum of each person bound together in a righteous cause is far greater than each individual part? It will be impossible for me to know; the leadership of my Local 1000 chose to reject the opportunity to send 14 delegates to the convention. Instead, they chose only to send two delegates, the President and the Secretary-Treasurer. Not one single rank and file worker will be in attendance in April. No one will return to the shop floor to testify to their convention experience. If there is any heat, apparently it is only for the officers to know. We must defer to our High Priest of Labor.
Perhaps I am simply naive. It is easy (and not without reason) to look back on these raucous summer revivals through those cynical eyes, to reduce them to nothing more than the orchestrations of self-serving demagogues preying on the emotions and insecurities of faithful country folks. Or to see ourselves in the crowd, tears streaming down our faces and our hands held towards heaven, as knowing but unadmitted participants in our own manipulation. Across all sectors of society - church, school, unions, government - the refrain has become: “Only suckers have hope. Only fools have faith. It is not God that is dead, but ourselves. Only those who believe in nothing know the truth. Embrace the liberation of low expectations and you will never know the crushing disappointment that has defined our last half century.”
I have long since left behind the revival days of my childhood church. I understand the cynicism; I even share it for the most part. We have all seen the stream of news reporting the corruption of many of our pastors and our union leaders. Are we to simply bury our heads in the sand, a nation of pollyannas who know better than to rock the boat? And even though such disappointments hold true, can we say they are the whole truth? It is just as true that in the holy place of my childhood sanctuary, we felt alive together, bound together, energized to fight together. The truth is that we shared a truth together and it gave us life, hot as fire and electric arcing across the hands stretching towards the ceiling.
I refuse to lose faith that such an ember exists within our labor movement; a burning truth that binds us together. I have a defiant faith that the world we deserve can only be built with working hands. Against the sea of despair we have been blessed with the duty to protect this ember and with our labor, we must wage a struggle to turn back that rising tide so the fire of revival can catch and spread across our nation.
The barn-burning sermons came to an end and the tear-streaked faces always left that sanctuary. We were convinced we were prepared to fight for our families, for our values, for our communities. Yet despite our deepest convictions, we watched our families broken and buried under financial stress and instability. Our values were warped in service to a real and dangerous demagoguery lurking behind the scenes, one that whipped our passions to set us against people we saw as different from us. Our schools were looted of resources and left to rot, transformed into sites of culture wars and shooting wars.
Those hot nights were not enough to save us and it broke my heart. I have only felt it a few times since then: pressed into a crowd of hundreds screaming through chain link fencing at the Klansmen arrayed across the lawn of our county courthouse or circling a picket line as summer heat beat down on smiling, chanting faces. Similar experiences have been few and far between.
For decades now, working people have been hammered by big money. It has destroyed many things, our wages and living standards, our lifespans, the safety of our communities, our hope for the future. But most devastatingly, it has destroyed our faith in ourselves and each other. It has destroyed any respect working people have for ourselves, pressing our heads beneath the biting waters of despair and self-loathing. Big money and its payroll of political goons have killed the spirits of working-class people all across this country, regardless of color, or faith, or sex, or sexuality, or anything else. It has been both indiscriminate and comprehensive in the spiritual violence it has inflicted upon every single person who works for a living.
It is against this backdrop of spiritual death that those summer nights have been calling to me. What can be the only response to such a comprehensive death but rebirth? How else can we answer death but with new life; with a revival?
This revival is not a dream; it is already unfolding all around us. It has caught the spirit of baristas, teachers, autoworkers, and those risking injuries across the countless warehouses that dot the country. It is the engine that drives reform within the UAW and the Teamsters today, and my union, UFCW, tomorrow.
Only a labor revival, across all faiths, all races, all working people, can we regain the fighting spirit that has been crushed out of us. Revival alone, bound together in the heat of a common purpose and guided by a common truth, can give force to the fight to save our families and our communities. Only a revival of the fighting working-class spirit can save our nation from the forces of financial greed.
This article was republished from Kroger-Workers' Voice.