Here I Am

What is it that you need to affirm about yourself to help you move forward in your spiritual journey? What is it that our congregation needs to affirm about ourselves in order to move forward in our ministry to our neighbors?

In 2006, while I was at Union Theological Seminary, I began a ministry to New York City’s restaurant workers. Being the largely self-proclaimed Chaplain to the New York City Restaurant Industry was a ministry, but it wasn’t exactly a job. And so to pay the rent I was also working in the industry myself as a busser at a fine dining restaurant here on the Upper West Side. I met a lot of great people, including one of my fellow bussers, Alberto.

It took a while to get to know him because he was kind of a shy guy – which is actually perfect for us busboys. We hover at the edges of the dining room watching our tables sharply and silently. Ideally, we shouldn’t ever be noticed. Just before a water glass is emptied we swoop in, fill it, and slip away. When a dirty napkin is dropped on a chair because of a trip to the restroom, we glide to it, fold it, and lay it back on the seat with quiet deference. When a course is completed, we make eye contact with one another, nod in coordination, and come to the table from multiple angles, clearing every dish and piece of silver no longer needed in the blink of an eye. With our arms loaded up and our heads down, we rush out through the kitchen doors.

If a busboy does get noticed, it’s almost universally a bad sign – a shattered glass, a splattered sauce, and the dreaded, “I’m not done with that yet!” I once asked a diner if she had finished her amuse bouche, and she threatened to stab me with her oyster fork. I slid back into the corner with a smile neither amused nor offended, like an aproned automaton.

It’s better not to be noticed. And Alberto was good at not being noticed, which made him a good busser. He was introverted. He never raised his voice. He never laughed or fooled around. He never seemed to get bored or tired. He never bickered with the servers or the managers.

After a while, working together night after night for months, when the restaurant was slow, Alberto began to whisper with me in the dark corners of the service area while we watched our tables. He was naturally quiet – even the other Spanish-speakers thought so – but he was also embarrassed by his English. He had a lot of trouble with the pronunciation and enunciation of English words, so we would practice together. He would say an English word he had learned, I’d repeat it back, he’d try to parrot me, I’d repeat it again, slowly articulating each sound.  He’d imitate me again and again, trying to contort his lips and tongue into unnatural poses.

It was the first time I saw flashes of emotion in the man – anger. Alberto was frustrated with the way he sounded. He kept practicing, but mostly he just kept his head down, stayed quiet, and bussed his tables.

Based on our Gospel reading this evening, Jesus doesn’t seem like he’d make it as a busboy. Flipping tables over, yelling, whipping the customers, arguing with the managers, threatening to burn the place down – none of these things for a good busboy makes. It’s easy to assume that Jesus must have just been made this way – born to be the new sheriff in town! – and that this is just the kind of behavior we should expect from the Son of God – outspoken moral indignation from a Messiah who’s fearless or reckless (or both).

But Jesus’ behavior in the Temple, here in the second chapter of John’s gospel, is very different than what we’d expect from this Jesus based upon what comes before it.

John the Baptist shouts out in the wilderness near the beginning of John’s gospel just like we expect. But when Jesus shows up there’s no baptism scene. Jesus doesn’t say or do anything. He just shows up. John sees a dove descend on Jesus and John starts calling Jesus the Lamb of God in front of everyone. Jesus doesn’t even seem to notice.

 The next day Jesus walks away (so far Jesus has shown up and left – that’s it), and two of John’s disciples decide to follow Jesus – not because Jesus calls them to follow, but because of what John is saying about Jesus. That evening, one of these new disciples takes it upon himself to recruit a third person. Jesus doesn’t even go with him.

Two days later Jesus and his new friends go to a local wedding in Cana. Jesus’ mother famously complains to him about the party running out of wine, and he says to her, “What does that have to do with you and me? My hour has not yet come.” But she manipulates the situation as only a mother knows how and Jesus turns some water into wine. But it’s not like he makes it a big production, waving his hands around and saying “abracadabra.” He doesn’t even get out of his seat. He just says, “Fill those jugs up with water and then drink out of them.” He’s like a busboy slipping in to magically refill a wineglass without the guests even noticing – inconspicuous. When people start freaking out about how good the wine is, Jesus doesn’t even take credit.

Then Jesus leaves for Passover in Jerusalem, he takes one look at the marketplace that had always been in the Temple, and the next thing you know he’s crafting a whip. How does something like that happen? How do you go from being quiet and unassuming to a full-blown rabble-rouser with the turn of a page?

These questions make me think back to something I learned from a great mentor. When I was at Union Theological Seminary I got involved with the Poverty Initiative. The mission of the Poverty Initiative is to raise up generations of religious and community leaders committed to build a social movement to end poverty, led by the poor. And one of our leaders was Willie Baptist who came up out of the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia and who organized as a poor and homeless person among poor and homeless folks.

About six months after I started my restaurant worker ministry I interviewed Willie for the Union student newspaper. And in that interview he said something to me that forever changed the way I thought about organizing, movement building, and who Jesus was and is. Let me read to you from that conversation:

“What is the Spirit? Usually it’s construed as just emotionalism. You know, you go to church, the Reverend gives a nice speech, and you feel good. And really a lot of that is just entertainment! Because it come and go, it come and go! But Spirit doesn’t come and go.

“Yeah, it expresses itself in emotion – those things that you feel deeply about, you’re very emotional about – but what you feel deeply about has more to do with certain values; values that you are committed to over time – that is the Spirit. Often in organizing, you separate your Spirit from your Activity and that is where you lose because Spirit is part of commitment.

“Spirit can also help the movement because it has something to do with your relationship to death. I think, if you’re not afraid of death, [LAUGHING] you’re not afraid of nothin’! If what you’re doing is something you’re not prepared to die for, it’s very difficult to live for it – consistently, to sustain it. This question of life and death is directly related to Spirit in terms of Spirit being about how you see yourself, your deep beliefs, your commitment, and what you are prepared to die for. 

 “I bet you that part of what contributes to us separating Spirit from the struggle for justice is this problem of death – We put it off [LAUGHS]! Death is such a horrifying thing and everything associated with it is just doom and gloom, so you put it aside. But I think that is the death of the movement! Because if what you’re fighting for, you’re not prepared to die for, then you are subject to the maneuvers of those forces of death that are up against you that threaten you with despair, threaten you with hardship, threaten you with jail, threaten you with loss, threaten you to get you to back down and quit and to not stick-n-stay the course!”

Amen, Willie Baptist.

The other three gospels in the Bible – Mark, Matthew, and Luke – place this story of Jesus attacking the Temple marketplace near the end of Jesus’s story – right before the crucifixion. In fact, Mark makes it clear how dangerous this action was – Mark makes it the inciting incident of the crucifixion: After witnessing this action the Temple authorities decide they have to destroy Jesus. But John makes this public protest the inciting incident not of the crucifixion, but of Jesus’ whole ministry. This is Jesus’ coming out, his bursting with passion onto the stage of history shouting, “Here I am!”

It’s not that it’s not about death and crucifixion anymore – it’s still deeply tied to Jesus’ ultimate end with Jesus making a veiled prediction about his death and resurrection, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up,” talking about his body. The disciples would only understand it in retrospect, but Jesus needed to say it anyway not for anybody else, but for himself.

According to John, Jesus, right from the very beginning, needed to face down the anxiety of his own death, on his own terms. But it must have been more than just death, right? As Willie Baptist said, death is the ultimate place of our fear. Facing it down and dealing with it isn’t about getting yourself killed – it’s about finding the freedom to really live for something.

When the gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke tell this story of Jesus in the marketplace they make it very clear that Jesus’ action is a form of public protest. Jesus is mad as heck about the corruption in the marketplace and the way the system of money changing and having to purchase pure animals enriched the Temple and the powerful at the expense of the poor.

John again shifts the focus slightly from anger to passion, and from public protest to public self-affirmation, or, as Willie Baptist said, from the struggle for justice to the Spirit of the Movement. It’s not one or the other. Both anger and passion, protest and affirmation, Spirit and Activity are a part of this story, and the different storytellers bring them out in different ways.

One version of the Jesus story, in Mark, Matthew, and Luke, says that Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the Temple near the end of his life in angry protest of corruption. In John’s version of the story, Jesus drove the moneychangers out of the Temple at the very beginning of his ministry in a passionate, self-affirmation meant to help him stick-and-stay the course, to stand up for what he believes in, to live for the good news even when threatened by death.

Restaurant workers move around a lot, and Alberto and I lost touch. Eventually, I got a job as a workplace justice organizer with the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York. ROC-NY, as it’s called, was formed in 2001 to help restaurant workers displaced by the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and has grown to become a national organization in ten urban centers that organizes workers to fight against illegal practices and bad policies in the restaurant industry. 

As workplace organizers it was the job of our team to start a justice campaign in a fine-dining restaurant group that was treating its workers illegally – discrimination, sexual harassment, stealing tips and wages, etc. Celebrity chef Mario Batali and his numerous NYC restaurants had a bad reputation in the industry for all of these things. Batali’s reputation hasn’t gotten any better recently. He was forced to step away from his businesses after the Me Too movement caught up with him. But we were hearing stories of his sexual harassment way back in 2009. And management was stealing tips, creating a hostile environment for workers of color and immigrant workers, and they were discriminating based on race in their hiring and promotions policy. We met with a lot of angry workers.

One of the reasons our campaign succeeded was because I found my old coworker Alberto working as a busser in one of Batali’s restaurants. You can imagine that at first he did not want to get involved – he was shy. But he was also angry. His managers had insulted him, called him racist names, and even put their hands on him threateningly and demeaningly.

The launch of the campaign was especially stressful for the workers. We told them we couldn’t just file the paperwork in court, but that they needed to present their demand letter to their manager at the restaurant in person. And that it would be a big, public event. All the workers would be there. We’d have a big group of allies and supporters. We’d have news  reporters and filmmakers. More than 100 of us would march together to the restaurant during dinner service, go inside, ask to see the manager, and one of the workers would hand the demand letter to their manager and in the biggest, loudest voice they could muster, so that everyone could hear, they would summarize the list of complaints and demands to their manager.

Obviously, no one really wanted to be the spokesperson of the campaign. No one wants to single themselves out as a leader, or a rabble-rouser, because they were afraid of retaliation, of losing their jobs, of the police, and of immigration troubles. In the end, there were a lot of workers who talked a lot in meetings who passed on this opportunity.

But it didn’t take long for Alberto, who was always quiet, and who never wanted trouble, and who struggled with pronunciation, and who was embarrassed by his English, to raise his hand and volunteer. It wasn’t just that he was angry. Anger got him involved, but to put himself out front, out in front of all his fears, that took a deep desire to stand up for himself and people like him, to affirm himself in the face of disrespect, in spite of all his fears and the very real risks of leadership.

And, beloved, when the moment came, Alberto was great. He lifted his head up and squared his shoulders. Flashing cameras popped around him. He looked his manager in the eye. The crowd hushed. He spoke slowly, loudly, clearly about the abuses the workers had suffered and what their demands were. And everyone heard him. Right from the launch of this years-long campaign, Alberto looked his fear right in the eye and said as loud as anyone ever has, “Here I am.”

What is it that’s holding you back from saying, “Here I am!”? What’s holding you back from affirming yourself and moving forward in your spiritual journey? What is it that our congregation needs to affirm about ourselves in order to be able to say, “Here we are!” to our neighbors and the world? Where do you imagine we can find that kind of courage?