What is the craziest thing your faith inspired you to do?
On, April 11, 2017, the Tuesday of Holy Week, I was cited and booked with trespassing as 12 of us gathered to sing spiritual songs on the floor of the governor’s office.
A week prior, I, along with other faith leaders in the greater Nashville area, attended a Moral Political Organizing Leadership Institute and Summit led by Rev. William Barber, through Repairers of the Breach. The workshop’s focus organized by local activist, Justin Jones, was to equip faith leaders to bring social justice ministry into the public square. Rev. William Barber, the figure behind North Carolina’s Moral Monday movement, had been calling people of moral courage to move “Forward Together”, a rallying call for those who have been gathering at the North Carolina Legislative Plaza since 2013, to signal the people’s call to push back against an extreme agenda that had cut at the state’s most vulnerable.
Before registering for the event, I followed Rev. Barber’s work. What drew me to the Moral Monday movement was a resonance with the call to a moral revival. As a West Coast transplant from Seattle, Washington, living in the South had been eye opening. The issues that we would all eventually see play out on a national scale, I was observing at a regional level: voter suppression, slashes to education budgets, anti-LGBTQ legislation, further restrictions on reproductive rights and justice, and other attempts to legislate access for the state’s most vulnerable, including access to healthcare, immigration rights, and the prison industrial complex.
After getting settled at my table, I learned that the person who was slated to report about what was happening in Tennessee around immigration policy had been called away to address some concerns that were developing in a different part of the state, and could I step in to offer those remarks.
Taking a step in faith
I agreed and immediately called the executive director of the Tennessee Justice for Our Neighbors--an organization working for immigrant rights that grew out of the United Methodist Committee on Relief’s long commitment to refugees and immigrants--to make sure I didn't leave anything out when it was my turn to step up to the podium. In between policy updates for public education and healthcare was immigration. I spoke to the ways local law enforcement collaborated with the police. I shared about how Davidson County, the county in which I live, was the fourth county in Tennessee to implement Secure Communities in 2010--an immigration sharing and enforcement program operated by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that allows ICE to identify, investigate and initiate deportation proceedings for non-citizens who encounter law enforcement. As of January 10, 2012 all 95 counties in Tennessee activated the Secure Communities program. I spoke about how, as of 2011, ICE reported that 60% of the persons deported under Secure Communities were either persons without a criminal conviction or were convicted of low-level offenses. About how Secure Communities undermines our values of due process and equal protection and encourages racial profiling. I spoke about senate bills intent on further marginalizing immigrants and refugees and prohibiting any adopting or enacting of sanctuary policies.
The day-long training was filled with lots of nods in agreement, singing, Amen-ing. We were fired up. And as we began to wrap up the day, the question loomed: What’s next?
We broke up into working groups to decide just that. As we contemplated the long list of concerns that were harming our most vulnerable, and with Holy Week before us, we asked ourselves: what were those pressing issues that we could no longer ignore? With the Tennessee General Assembly’s legislative session ending in late April, just weeks away, could we organize a direct action that called our elected officials to task?
The answer was “yes.”
Moved by the testimonies of those who presented earlier that day, the issue of Medicaid expansion came up for discussion. This provision of the Affordable Care Act had failed repeatedly, and to this day 280,000 uninsured working Tennesseans could benefit from this coverage.
Rev. Barber called us to a moral revival--a uniting of those across the country to challenge the systemic injustices woven together in our unchallenged structures. Even before the Poor People’s Campaign officially launched a year later through Repairers of the Breach, I was energized that we were invited to continue the movement building work of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
And so we gathered on a Tuesday afternoon at McKendree United Methodist church, where we practiced songs led by a musician and organizer, conducted direct action training so participants understood what cues would signal the opportunities to leave, should they not want to get arrested. We prayed.
And then we walked and sang our way to the Governor’s office to request an audience with him and deliver our letter calling for the expansion of medicaid in addition to a call to moral leadership as reflected in the policies of our elected officials.
The governor was not in. But we continued to sing, and share stories, and wait anyway, occupying the governor’s office until eventually, there were 12 of us left and we were removed, cuffed, and cited for trespassing.
The intent that Tuesday afternoon was not to be arrested, though those who gathered were willing.
Out of my comfort zone
I moved to Tennessee from Seattle in 2012, thinking I would give it a few years and return to Seattle. I never fully felt invested--it was a place I lived and worked. But this event marked a turning point for me. I saw Nashville not just as a place to work, but as a place where I live and contribute to the making of the people we want to be. And it is through that engagement of faith in the public square that I believe our faith is lived out.
I think about that day as I read about the actions happening in the streets today. As I hear people shouting, “Black lives matter!” As I live in a state that has continued to deny the expansion of Medicaid even with a new governor and a list of now 36 states who have expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. As I hear about the brutalization of Black bodies. As I see individuals choosing not to care for one another by refusing to wear masks or practice safe distancing.
I also think about that day as I see companies making public commitments to diversity and equity. As I watch confederate monuments across the country being toppled. As I see the years of organizing and nonviolent direct action come to fruition.
We are witnessing a great awakening that I believe is helping us to catch glimpses of the kin-dom of God among us. The question is: will we be able to recognize the invitation to join in that work?
Sophia Agtarap is a deaconess in The United Methodist Church–a lay order whose call is to engage the world through a full-time vocation in ministries of love, justice, and service. She also serves as the Director of Communications at Vanderbilt Divinity School and loves exploring the inter-connectedness of food and community, and the ways that we can love and serve neighbor through those intersections.