A couple weeks ago, I met up with my parents for lunch when they were driving through Philly on their way back home to West Virginia. If what you have is an hour in a weird chain restaurant near the highway in King of Prussia, you’ll move through conversation topics at a breakneck pace. But in between catching up on my cousin’s wedding plans and my sister’s moving plans, we had to make space to talk about the teacher’s strike in West Virginia.
My parents have lived most of their lives in the plains of the US and Canada, places without a strong union tradition. When folks from our part of the world hear “strike,” we think of baseball, or bowling, or maybe something that people in other places used to do but no one does now. So when 34,000 West Virginia teachers announced that they were going on strike until they got better pay and benefits for themselves and all public sector workers (and much more), my parents (recent transplants to the state) weren’t sure what to expect.
Here’s what happened:
In the days leading up, teachers worked evenings putting backpacks and boxes of food together for their students who relied on school lunches to reduce hunger. School staff offered parents ideas for where students could take days off, and where people could drop off food, cash, and other donations for families in need. Every single county school board in the state agreed to support the strike. Administrators stopped working. This wasn’t a strike against the bosses, it was the every school district stopping work until the state government did their jobs (but I’ll keep calling it a strike here for simplicity’s sake).
The Sunday after the strike started, my parent’s church, Morgantown Church of the Brethren (and Sistren), sang Solidarity Forever. When my parents went out to the picket line, expecting a small showing of support from the state that went overwhelmingly for Trump, nearly every car driving by honked in support of the teachers. Youth from the church called in to radio shows to explain they were okay with classes going into the summer if that’s what it took. When my mother met with families at her psychiatry practice, most of whom are low-income and can’t afford to pay for childcare when school is out, families expressed total support for teachers: “They have to stay out there. They have to win.”
When the state offered a 5% wage increase for teachers and cops but not other public sector employees, the teachers stayed out. They stayed out until the governor signed the bill, then sang songs of victory in the hallways of the state capitol. They risked a lot for each other, for their kids, and for their communities.
The West Virginia teacher strike is just one facet of this big conversation this country has been having recently about schools. Whether the conversation is focused on guns, funding, restorative justice, or (here in Philly) regaining local control, all of these struggles boil down to these questions: Do we value all students? Do we value teachers? And does the context of learning matter?
Jesus, in the early part of Holy Week, recognizes the importance of teaching, learning, and naming the context. He’d built the God Movement with massive popular education seminars (like the Sermon on the Mount) and experiential service-learning courses (like sending out disciples to heal). And here, in the culminating week of the campaign, Jesus takes time to continue educating and bringing people in. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus takes over the temple to hand out free health care and educate people about the Kingdom of God. In John’s Gospel, right after the March On Jerusalem (Palm Sunday), Jesus meets some Greek Jews who have not taken the introductory course on the God Movement and tells them,
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the God will honor.” (John 12:24-26)
Yikes. Like so many of Jesus’ lectures, we wonder if he could’ve said it a bit gentler. But in a moment of escalation, that is the Gospel message in a nutshell: You’ve got to follow Jesus, especially when it costs you.
Most of us are no strangers to sacrifice. Many in our church know what it is like to put friendships, jobs, and well-being on the line for sake of living the life God called them to live. Most of us know, in some way, that anxious moment of decision.
What feels different to me, right now, is that that question is collective. It’s not about what we might sacrifice on our own, but about what we might offer up together. When we see thousands and thousands of young people leaving school because their lives are on the line, when we see thousands of teachers putting their family’s livelihoods on the line by going on strike, we see the power of collective action. We see the power of a field of wheat as compared to a single grain.
Today (Tuesday), I will risk arrest with Earth Quaker Action Team. As part of a sustained campaign for good-paying green jobs in our city, I think the time has come to collectively disrupt the normal operation of the system. I believe that PECO, our local utility, has been too slow and too timid in creating a market for solar jobs in our city.
Today’s action at PECO headquarters is about mourning what is broken and wrong with our world. In taking action today, I hold in my heart loved ones back home on the plains who live with monthly earthquakes, a new byproduct of fracking. I think of friends who spent too long in jail because their families didn’t have the money to pay bail. And I carry with me all our teachers and social workers and nurses and everyone else struggling to heal people in a city that needs better-paying jobs and greater opportunities. There is so much to mourn.
But that’s today. Tomorrow (Wednesday) is about vision. In an action co-designed by youth from our church, we will demonstrate the world we need in the face of the system’s inaction. While our young people won’t be risking arrest, they will be just as powerfully demonstrating their willingness to act together, to risk together, and to build a community that supports everyone. And I know they will do this in part because of what they have learned from watching adults in the church.
And, just as they have learned from all of us, they will also pose a question to us: What are we willing to risk, together, today, for the sake of our faith?
Words by John Bergen.