A Cause for Jubilee

Matt Wan

Reverend Booker Vance paces before a packed room at the Sixth Grace Presbyterian Church in Bronzeville. He’s short, stocky, and bespectacled, with a mat of salt-and-pepper hair and a red polo shirt in place of the traditional clerical collar.

“How often should I forgive my brother when he keeps doing me wrong? Seven times?” he asks the crowd, paraphrasing Saint Peter. “I wouldn’t say seven times,” he continues, speaking for Jesus now, “but seventy times seven.”

It’s a familiar parable he’s telling, the story of a “big businessman” who forgives the debt of his pleading debtor, only to witness the same man, now free of his own obligations, shaking down another for a comparatively measly fee. It’s also a fitting one, given that the marquee for the morning’s event reads: “Hold Banks Accountable!”

“The funny thing about a parable is that every character represents a figure,” Rev. Vance explains, his hand bobbing up and down as if thumping on a pulpit he doesn’t have. The original arithmetic of the parable (pronounced “para-BOH-la”) is clear enough: the “big businessman” equals God; the little man, choked, beaten, and hauled to prison for his meager $100 debt, equals the oppressed, pious poor. But Rev. Vance has a different symbolism in mind, and it’s something one might expect more from an economist than a preacher.

“You can argue in today’s case that maybe President Obama would be the big businessman. He forgave the debt of the banks, such as Bank of America and others…” The mere mention of the big banks cues a chorus of boos and hisses from the audience. “And they in turn had no mercy on the homeowners who have their homes and had their homes all of their lives.”

Rev. Vance’s message is clear enough: the devil is no fiery denizen of hell–he has a corner office in the Loop. And those “forces of evil” mentioned earlier? They have one face to the people in this room: foreclosure.

Kate thomas/Service Employees International Union

Even as the country begins to crawl out of the crippling 2008 recession, foreclosure and repossession rates from around the nation continue to climb.

Few places have felt it as sharply as Chicago, and few places in Chicago have it as bad as the South Side. According to statistics compiled by the Chicago Sun-Times, every neighborhood on the South Side saw foreclosures jump in 2010. Some, like Oakland and Kenwood, witnessed increases as high as 73.1 percent.

Analysts have linked the trend partly to stagnant unemployment rates, what has been dubbed the so-called “jobless recovery.” Figures from January of this year, published by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, place the unemployment rate in the Chicago-Joliet-Naperville metropolitan area at 9.5 percent, the second-highest in the nation, just behind Detroit. Taken alongside the fact that unemployment statistics tend to skew upwards among African-Americans, these numbers make it easy to imagine why a South Sider might consider dropping to his knees and praying, if not for a job, then for some divine retribution. As Rev. Vance says, “God expects us to hold the banks accountable.”

But the people who have poured into this one little church at the intersection of 35th and Cottage Grove, commuting from the North Side, Northern Indiana, and South Chicago, are not a congregation. Rev. Vance is not their reverend. Sixth Grace Presbyterian is not their church.

Rather, they represent three organizations: the Northwest Indiana Federation, North Side Power (which operates from the North Side of Chicago), and Southsiders Organizing for Unity and Liberation–or, as its members so exuberantly call it, SOUL.

A faith-based community action group, SOUL is affiliated with Baptists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists, and even one African Methodist Episcopal congregation. However, though its organizers repeatedly describe the movement as “interfaith,” it is almost entirely Christian. No synagogues, temples, or mosques are listed as “member” organizations on its website (in order to get on that list, an organization regularly has to send representatives to meetings, take part in events, and contribute money).

Together with its compatriots from Indiana and the North Side, SOUL forms yet another tantalizing acronym opportunity, the Illinois Indiana Regional Organizing Network, or IIRON (pronounced “iron”), and their mission is simple: keep people in their homes.

The idea of fighting foreclosures, evictions, and repossessions is, of course, not a new one. In fact, IIRON organizers look fondly to the example of other community action groups around the country who have had success against big banks, including one operating out of Boston that made local headlines when they ringed an evictee’s house with a literal human shield to prevent local sheriffs from securing repossessed property.

What is striking, however, can be found in the title of IIRON’s newest endeavor. They call it their “Jubilee Campaign.”

It’s not the Roman Catholic “Year of Jubilee” that SOUL and its counterparts are trying evoke, but the jubilee as according to Hebrew lore. Every fifty years, a so-called jubilee would be declared in which, among other things, folks would rest up, slaves would be emancipated, and, most appropriately, debts would be completely recalled.

For anyone residing next to, or formerly inside, one of the many vacant, boarded up houses that now dot the landscape of the South Side in frightening numbers, a true jubilee freeing people from their creditors might seem like a distant fantasy. That doesn’t seem to shake SOUL’s conviction that, while church is a place to gather and pray, it can also provide the tools, organization, and financial literacy that communities need to fight impending foreclosures and the urban blight that often accompanies them.

Specifically, IIRON’s “Jubilee” revolves around roping as many churches as possible into organizing against Chicago’s big banks, relying on individual word-of-mouth to spark interest among the clergy and hopefully turn congregations into protective support networks for community members in dire economic straits. At the heart of this movement are efforts to prod more pastors and reverends into starting the conversation about foreclosure with their congregants and to include bits like Rev. Vance’s into their sermons. At the Sixth Grace meeting, some within SOUL even suggested incorporating into church services the latest statistics on foreclosure and unemployment in order to galvanize people to action.

There are, of course, limitations to relying on clergy. There’s a definite code of conduct that must be adhered to when dealing with politicians, and a pastor cannot simply tell his congregants to go out and vote for a particular ordinance or alderman. There are even concerns circulating about how to deal with politically powerful reverends with pro-bank leanings.

Still, SOUL has had little difficulty stirring up trouble where it needs to, and the group demonstrated in front of Chase’s downtown office on behalf of one member who had been battling with the bank for the past year, prompting that branch’s vice president to come down and talk face to face, according to organizer and University of Chicago grad student Toby Chow.

In particular, SOUL stands shoulder to shoulder with other activist groups like National People’s Action in making a piñata out of Bank of America (or “Bad for America” as one SOUL organizer called it), which by certain counts files more foreclosures than any other bank in the city. One bitter pill to swallow has been the bank’s acceptance of federal bailout money, which is what Rev. Vance was talking about when he mentioned “mercy.” The fact that Bank of America paid back $45 billion of its accepted TARP funds in 2009 hasn’t shaken the impression that this is a David vs. Goliath fight between the South Side’s clergy-led legions of foreclosed homeowners and the bank that, according to National People’s Action figures, has repossessed some 2,550 homes in Chicago since the beginning of 2008.

“Our gospel speaks to us in terms of confronting powers and principalities, and that’s what we’re dealing with,” said Michael Russell. Russell, a pastor with a hearty baritone, tangled head of graying dreadlocks, and the build of an aging athlete, has been with SOUL since before its founding about three-and-a-half years ago, when it still called itself the Metropolitan Alliance of Congregations. Besides leading his own small church on 175th Street, he helped organize the event at Sixth Grace. To him, SOUL is following in the footsteps of mass, grassroots movements in American history that aimed to effect not just social, but economic change. “Just before King died, his platform was about economic development. That’s why it firmly shifted to a poor people’s movement.”

But the Jubilee Campaign is not just a “poor people’s movement.” Fighting on behalf of the destitute and the working class has been a cause championed by organized religions since about as a long they have existed, and even Rev. Vance’s strikingly political exhortations of, “They got bailed out, we got sold out,” are less remarkable when taken in historical context.

As Russell says, “We stand on shoulders of other giants.” Is there, really, anything new about it? In certain respects, the answer is no–it is closely tied with a tradition of activism in South Side churches. However, Russell says that the movement is unique now, insofar as it challenges facing the Jubilee today stand apart from precedent simply because they are greater and graver than ever before.

If it can be argued otherwise–that SOUL’s Jubilee is, in fact, a different breed of faith movement altogether–the most compelling evidence is the campaign’s borderline-secular drive to educate South Siders in responsible finance and, if need be, economic action.

Take, for example, the meeting which opened with Rev. Vance’s sermon. Following his act was a screening of “Inside Job,” Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary that details the creation of the housing bubble that collapsed so calamitously three years ago, as well as a presentation by Chow on the inner workings of investment banking and the recent soaring trend of corporate profits.

“The Bible is, in itself, filled with discussion, commentary, talk about the economic ramifications of the way in which we live our lives,” said Reverend Patrick Daymond. Rev. Daymond is youngish, a father of twins, and the only preacher of those who spoke at the IIRON meeting who has truly jet black hair. He is also the relative newcomer who has been leading the Sixth Grace congregation for the past three or so years.

In his eyes, it’s about time that the spiritual aspect of church, at least for now, took a back seat to addressing the real problems congregants may feel embarrassed to share. “It’s difficult to talk about spirituality when people’s real needs are not being met,” he said, “when people are coming into congregation and they’re hungry because they haven’t eaten, or they live in constant fear of their homes being foreclosed.” Suspending the loftiness of the church sermon in favor of nitty-gritty number crunching might seem an unexpected tactic for a organization trying to motivate large masses of people. On the South Side, however, it appears that there are only so many times one can turn the other cheek (it’s probably a lot fewer than “seventy times seven”) before the potentiality of homelessness becomes a grim reality.

At Sixth Grace, Rev. Daymond organizes workshops where his roughly 250 congregants come in and discuss how they’re spending their money. He hopes to “inject responsibility” into their lives and get people comfortable with airing their financial troubles in the open. It’s an infinitesimally small gesture, barely a footnote in a national balance sheet that seems to deal only in billions. Still, against all odds, being small might have its advantages. “This religion is grounded on vulnerability,” Rev. Daymond said.  “If we can’t be vulnerable in this space and talk about our real issues, what we’re going through, then that’s a real problem.”

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