North Carolinians stand up for the poor, vulnerable on Moral Mondays

By Sharon Sheridan
Posted Jul 30, 2013
Phil Rees of Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, holds the church’s campus ministry flag during a Moral Monday rally in Raleigh. Photo/Lisa Fischbeck

Phil Rees of Chapel of the Cross Episcopal Church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, holds the church’s campus ministry flag during a Moral Monday rally in Raleigh. Photo/Lisa Fischbeck

[Episcopal News Service] It’s not every day a bishop receives a courtesy call from one of his priests letting him know he plans to get arrested.

Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina Bishop Michael Curry received just such a call from the Rev. Randall Keeney, vicar of St. Barnabas Episcopal Church in Greensboro, before Keeney’s May 6 arrest for civil disobedience during the second “Moral Monday” protest against actions of the state legislature in Raleigh. On July 29, the movement marked its 13th week with a march to the state capitol and an interfaith social-justice rally. The weekly rallies – although not the push for change – may now take a hiatus until lawmakers return from their summer break, participants say.

“We are in the middle of a movement that is only just beginning, and it’s a church movement,” said Curry. The North Carolina NAACP launched the rallies, led by the Rev. William Barber, its president and a United Church of Christ minister. The interfaith protests, which draw believers and nonbelievers alike, are “revival-like,” Curry said. “There’s singing and there’s praying and there’s preaching, and Jesus gets talked about a lot. … The Hebrew prophets are quoted regularly.”

The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a regular participant in the Moral Monday protests in the state capital.

The Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, is a regular participant in the Moral Monday protests in the state capital.

The number of protesters – including Episcopalians from across the state – has grown weekly, reaching 2,000 on July 15, said the Rev. Lisa Fischbeck, vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate in Chapel Hill, who has been participating since June 3. “Every time I’ve gone, there’s been at least 1,000, and slowly edging up.”

“You begin to realize that numbers do make a difference,” she said. “As numbers increase, that makes a statement. That’s been part of my motivation, is just to go and take a stand, because I don’t know what else I can do at this point.”

The impetus for Moral Monday rallies was a series of legislative actions that protesters believe hurt the state’s neediest and most vulnerable citizens.

“There was a legislative agenda that was being enacted in the General Assembly that was disproportionately impacting the poor, the elderly, the vulnerable, and potentially disenfranchising even some voters,” Curry said. “So what could have been seen as simply politics as usual became much more a matter of public morality.”

The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina’s bishops and some of its clergy and laity participate in a Moral Monday rally. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina’s bishops and some of its clergy and laity participate in a Moral Monday rally. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

Curry, Assisting Bishop Alfred “Chip” Marble, then-Bishop Suffragan-elect Anne Hodges-Copple and other religious leaders signed a letter supporting the movement June 8, and Curry has participated in two rallies.

From Jesus’ teachings, he said, “It is abundantly clear that a Christian moral witness must always focus on how to help and support the vulnerable, the weak and the poor. It’s the classic biblical language of the widows and the orphans, and the action of our legislature was going to harm the widows and orphans.

“It was going to harm them by taking public money away from the public schools and redirecting some of that money to vouchers … It was going to harm them by ending the Racial Justice Act, which allowed decisions that could lead to capital punishment for people to be revisited for racial bias. … They’ve now done this by disenfranchising many voters by one of the most stringent voter ID laws in the country.”

They’re also refusing to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and have cut unemployment insurance, he said.

And, Fischbeck said, they’ve “drastically reduced the number of teacher’s aides in public classrooms” while increasing the number of students per teacher.

“This is cruel. This is inhumane,” Curry said. “This is not a liberal thing or even a conservative thing. This is a human thing. The state of North Carolina is harming and hurting its citizens by law, and that’s wrong, and the church cannot sit idly by, and people of good will and decency cannot sit by and be silent. And that is the root of Moral Monday.”

“What’s even more problematic,” he said, “aside from the specifics of the legislation, the people who have been leading these legislative changes have for the most part refused to even be in conversation about them. … There’s been no room for debate or thoughtful discussion, which is key to an effective democracy.”

Beginning earlier in July, clergy and others began having weekly meetings with a bipartisan group of legislators about the reasons for the recent legislation and how it might change to reduce the burden on lower- and middle-class people, said the Rev. Lawrence Womack, rector of St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Winston-Salem. The conversations have been “a mixed bag,” starting well but then moving “back a few steps,” he said. “We’ll see.

“It’s definitely going to be very important to stay vigilant and to continue to work on keeping the pressure up in terms of the public piece, but also to really push to have these conversations and to build some relationships,” he said.

Womack has participated in three rallies and been arrested for civil disobedience once, along with 150 other people that day. At last count, more than 500 people had been arrested during Moral Mondays, he said.

“People who are going to be arrested have to go through an information session ahead of time,” said Fischbeck. Each week, protesters gather at a mall adjacent to the legislative building for a rally from 5-6 p.m. focused on a particular theme, such as women or voting rights, she explained. Then those who volunteered to be arrested enter the building and are arrested after they refuse to leave.

Womack said he entered the statehouse rotunda with an ecumenical group who sang, prayed and shared stories about how the legislation would affect them. Then the capitol police arrived and gave them 10 minutes to leave or be arrested for trespassing, disobeying a police officer and, in some cases, for carrying placards into the building. Refusing to leave, they were handcuffed, processed in the statehouse basement, then transported via corrections department buses to the county detention center. He was assigned a September court date and released at 4 a.m.

Protesters who volunteered to be arrested for civil disobedience as part of Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, North Carolina, wait inside the statehouse. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

Protesters who volunteered to be arrested for civil disobedience as part of Moral Monday protests in Raleigh, North Carolina, wait inside the statehouse. Photo/Summerlee Walter/Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina

“There were so many of us that we wouldn’t fit in a holding cell,” he said. “We were just all basically in the general room there. We sat next to each other and talked, and people swapped stories.” There were “some really wonderful theological discussions about what this would mean.”

Clergy talked about how they would preach the next Sunday, and some wondered how their congregations would react to news of their arrest, he said. His congregation, he noted, “has been very, very much on the cutting edge from its founding with issues of social justice and activism.

“The leadership to a person and the vast majority of the congregation were very supportive of my actions,” he said. “It was a sort of outward and visible sign of what we claim as being members of our particular church.”

During rallies, people have approached Womack and thanked him for participating, saying, “We need clergy to be here.”

Such public witness for social-justice issues is important, he said. “For many in our society today, there is this perception that the church just does church stuff at church. … For some, I think it’s been an eye-opener across the board that maybe there’s a little bit more to this religion, this church thing … that there really is a deeper call that pushes us, pulls us, compels us … into the world.”

Fischbeck agreed. During a recent rally, at least 80 percent of the crowd cheered when asked to identify themselves if they were not in any faith group but were participating because it was the right thing to do, she said.

“One could argue that this is an evangelical moment,” she said. “The church is showing Christianity is not about all the negative things that the media sometimes portrays, but that Christianity also cares for the poor and is in the public square.”

Whether protestors end up coming to church or not, it’s important for them to see the church’s witness, she said. “Here is something very positive that is being done in the name of Jesus, in the name of God, in the name of faith.”

The Rev. Jane Holmes, a deacon in Charlotte, was arrested the same week as Womack, Curry said. “I talked to her the next day, and she said that it was the right thing to do, and she said she did it ‘because I’m a 72-year-old woman, and there are younger people who have children at home. They can’t get arrested, but I can. So I did.’ I said, ‘Now that’s a profile in courage.’”

The Charlotte Observer reported that Mecklenburg County subsequently withdrew Holmes’ privileges to serve as a jail chaplain because of her arrest. “Now that’s just ridiculous,” Curry said.

Those who have arrested protesters, he added, have “done their jobs, but they’ve been very respectful of the protestors … more than one whispering to the people they are arresting, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing.’ Moral Monday may be bringing out the best of us even in the midst of what could be the worst. There is a large reservoir of good will and human decency.”

But not all exchanges have been positive.

“The legislature has clearly taken notice, and usually the Democratic legislators are out there,” Fischbeck said. But one Republican legislator dubbed the rallies “Moron Mondays,” she said, and “the governor has gotten a lot of grief for saying it was clearly outside agitators. That made a lot of people carry signs saying things like, ‘I’m a sixth-generation North Carolina schoolteacher.’”

Said Curry, “This is a movement, it really is. It’s not just a fad.”

The gatherings have gained momentum, and the crowds are multiracial, multiethnic, interreligious and intergenerational, he said. “I haven’t seen anything quite like this.”

“The people who are coming out for Moral Monday are not really coming out for their own self-interest,” he added. “By and large, these are pretty much middle-class people, professionals who would get a deal from the tax breaks. They’re not personally themselves, for the most part, losing unemployment benefits or eligible for Medicaid. … They’re standing and speaking for those who don’t have lobbyists in this legislature and who don’t have another voice to speak for them, and that’s a religious and faith witness at its best. Because we’re not protecting our turf; we’re protecting common ground for us all.”

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori noted the movement’s efforts during a sermon at St. James Episcopal Church in Roanoke, Virginia, on July 21.

“God gives us abundance, but we’re only going to know the sweetness of that basket of fruit if it’s shared,” she said. “Anybody who tries to hoard it might be able to enjoy one piece, but not the whole pile. That person is going to spend his energy protecting what he has from somebody who might come and ask for a piece.

“Our neighbors in North Carolina are wrestling with that reality right now. The legislature is passing bill after bill trying to turn back the clock on the fruit of several decades of justice-making that had helped to create a more enlightened society – education for as many as possible, just working conditions, care for those who can’t care for themselves. At the moment the folks in the statehouse are undoing piece after piece of that just community. The fruit is being squashed and thrown in the rubbish bin, in a fit of pique. The most surprising element is that most of the legislature is unwilling to engage in dialogue.

“Some of our fellow Episcopalians, together with other people of faith, are doing something about that famine of hearing the word of the Lord. They’re going up to the statehouse on Mondays to preach about God’s basket of summer fruit and the justice of the Lord. Some people are hearing that the word of the Lord is about justice, not hoarding.”

Now that the legislative session has ended, some of the legislation that was passed faces legal challenges, according to an editorial in the News and Observer.

Moving forward, Fischbeck said, she believes the movement will move toward voter registrations, “really empowering people to get more involved, hoping that the attention that’s been given now to the concern will translate into changes in legislation and policy.”

Said Curry, “We’re going to stay involved. We just don’t know what form it’s all going to take yet.

“I am committed to being a part of any effort that will seek a better North Carolina, where all children have access to good, quality education, where the poor are cared for, where all have equal access to the right and privilege to vote, where our laws are humane and decent and serve the common good,” he said. “The common good must become our rallying cry again, and not just individual self-interest.”

“This is just the beginning, and I’m committed to that, and I think a whole lot of other people are, too,” he concluded. “And we’re going to join hands ecumenically, interfaith, Democrats and Republicans and Independents and anybody who wants to seek the common good for real. We’re going to work together.”

— Sharon Sheridan is an ENS correspondent.


Comments (18)

  1. The Rev Deb Blackwood, PhD says:

    Having participated in Moral Mondays through June and July [arrested June 3 with The Rev Jane Holmes], I have found that the coalition of “believers and non-believers” , clergy, lay people and long-time social justice activists has toughed a nerve in this state which had been considered a “moderate Southern state”. Yesterday saw the largest crowd by far – especially teachers, parents and students from across the state – to came supporting those teachers, teaching assistants and administrators who will take the brunt of not only the extreme cut in the Educational Budget – but the double jeopardy of the increasing dollars available to parents who feel “the local schools are not meeting the needs of their student[s]” and will be able to get PUBLIC funds to use for private and/or charter educational institutions.

    As one young teacher put in a posting I read early yesterday morning – I can no longer afford to teach when my children are on medicaid for health care. Her biggest sense of loss was for the 10-15 years of students who would not have a proven, dedicated educator. She can no longer afford to teach in a state which has frozen teacher salaries for years, taken away incentive pay for advanced degrees, and is giving away public funding for private/charter education. As a retired educator/administrator/special education supervisor for 45 years – I understand her painful exit from a job she loves!

  2. Go North Carolina Episcopalians. I rejoice that you are concerned about the sin of injustice. And you are witnessing for a more just society. I seem to remember something in the Bible and in the Baptismal Covenant about striving for justice. Would that we biblical Christians could be literalists about the things that matter most to God. Thanks be to God for your faithfulness.

  3. The Rev. Daniel Velez Rivera says:

    Bravo for Christians practicing true evangelical witness by proclaiming the Good News of Christian social justice. I’m proud of my Episcopal sisters and brothers and of all people showing up for Moral Mondays! Jesus taught us to stand up for just practices, especially on behalf of disenfranchised people. His examples are political and faith-ful. Justice is political and it is a matter of faith. Justice implies total equality for ALL of God’s children. In the end, practicing justice is about doing what is right in the eyes of the Lord.

  4. Joseph F Foster says:

    How horrible!? They ” ’ve “drastically reduced the number of teacher’s aides in public classrooms” while increasing the number of students per teacher.”

    From what to what did they raise the number per teacher? And how in the world did we get along in the 1950s in schools where “teachers’ aides” were unheard of? And yet we seemed to learn quite a bit more than most of em are learning now.

    1. Nancy Mott says:

      This is where the Church should be! I’m sickened when we fail to take a stand on what should be clear gospel imperatives.

      1. David Yarbrough says:

        I am disappointed with the attitudes expressed in this thread. The presence of the Diocesan Bishops at these media events in downtown Raleigh does NOT reflect the opinions of the entirety of the laity.
        The stand the Church should be taking involves investment of blood, toil, tears, sweat, and tithes into ministry to people. This takes many forms ranging from providing supplemental instruction to minority children to meeting family material needs to providing job seeking assistance to parents, and assistance in getting photo ID cards.
        Government social programs, with all the collateral damage they generate, arose when the Church fell down on the job of feeding Christ’s sheep. It’s time for the Church to focus on meeting Her Biblically-assigned responsibilities rather than trying to push a liberal Big Government social agenda. (Sorry, Deb Blackwood, North Carolina government was NOT “moderate”).

    2. Linda Hansen says:

      Joseph: I went to grade school in the 1950s. The schools were nothing to brag about. You wouldn’t want your children in them today. My “school” was the top floor of the local fire station. We had 50 students in our class and one teacher. No library. No contact with the outside world. No recess. Our books were maybe 25 years old and we had to share them 2 or 3 to a book because we didn’t have enough. No music class. No art. A lot of my classmates never made it TO high school, much less graduate from it. Russia had the best math classes in the world. I want better for our children and grandchildren, not less.

  5. Maureen Shea says:

    Hooray for the laity, priests and bishops of North Carolina – truly, we will know them by their love.

  6. Surya-Patricia Lane Hood says:

    As a cradle Episcopalian and one who is fortunate to be in a congregation that opens its arms, heart and soul to anyone who comes into our doors, it touches me deeply in my Tar Heel heart (Dunn is my home town) to hear what is happening in my beloved home State. I wish I could stand physically with you. God Bless your endeavors.

  7. Ann Magill says:

    This is good news! Here in Oregon, I was amazed how quickly North Carolina and Texas jumped on the voting discrimination bandwagon once the Supreme Court made it possible. This is clearly an issue of injustice. May No. Carolinians of conscience prevail and bring light where there is darkness! In Oregon, we vote by mail–all of us do–and it’s a practice I recommend.

  8. The Rev. W. Gaye Brown says:

    Galloway Memorial Episcopal Church, in Elkin, NC, is a small congregation located almost three hours west of Raleigh. We wanted to be part of Moral Monday but found it difficult to make the weekly trips and organized our own Moral Monday event in Elkin. We’ve been standing on the corner in downtown Elkin in solidarity with the folks in Raleigh every Monday afternoon from 5 – 6 p.m. for ten or so weeks now. We’ve been joined by members of Elkin Presbyterian church and others in the community; a few of us have had the opportunity to join the group in Raleigh once and one of our number was arrested there. We are now looking at and beginning to plan for the future, including a town hall meeting to which we will invite the community, our legislators, folks who are being impacted adversely by some of the bills that have been passed, social service providers, teachers, etc., for dialogue, conversation, education and action. We are excited to be working together ecumenically to address issues created by the passage of very hurtful legislation.

  9. Howard Shute says:

    I would like to hear the rational for the legislation. Is there a finance issue? Are there other programs that are over funded? Pork? I am proud of the campaign. Michael Curry is a long ago acquaintance.

  10. Bonnie Leazer says:

    I am proud of my former diocese, the Diocese of North Carolina. Keep the pressure on. It is not enough to talk the talk, true Christians must walk the walk.

  11. Danny L Anderson Jr says:

    As one who lives in North Carolina I am proud of my sister and brother Episcopal Christians. When Jesus said what you do unto the least of these you do unto me, he meant more than sitting in church on Sunday. As to mr Yarbrough the church can only do so much with what it has and as taxpayers we should get services and goods from the government . When the church takes a stand it shows young people that we are a place that is relevant to them and cares more about people and not about just holding up in pretty buildings on Sunday morning . As a 29 year old I hear this from my friends all the time . Way to go Episcopalians in North Carolina and hear in my town of Wilmington N.C. .

    1. David Yarbrough says:

      “…as taxpayers we should get services and goods from the government.”

      My brother, the citizens are confronted with ever increasing taxes to pay for “the government”. The bill for Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” is coming due with a vengeance. The State is taking an approach to stay solvent – as opposed to the Federal approach, which will ultimately result in a level of hyperinflation which will be far more devastating at every level of society.

      The Church’s caring can and must be demonstrated in tangible ways. “…the church can only do so much with what it has” denies the Gospel, where five barley loaves and two fishes fed five thousand men and their associated women and children. It’s time for the Church to quit making excuses, get off its fat Frances, and get to work doing God’s work in the world.

      1. Danny Anderson says:

        Yet again I say you are wrong sir . Great thing about being under the umbrella of the Episcopal Church . Agree to disagree.

  12. The Rev. Tally Bandy says:

    As an 80 year old protester I could not be arrested because I had a 90 year old husband to get home to. This has been the most embarrassing General Assembly. They are a disgrace to the human spirit. I am not proud of this state but very proud and thankful for our bishops and clergy that have been so evident at the Moral Mondays. Thank you Bishop Michael, Bishop Chip and Bishop Anne.

  13. Virginia G Gambill says:

    Commenting from Henderson County which is a stronghold of Republican residents and voters, it is interesting that our brother and sister Episcopalians in this County choose to remain silent on these important social/moral justice issues.

Comments are closed.