Subversive singers use hymns as protest

Californians harmonize to confront injustice

Jan 22, 2018 by and

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After weeks of planning and selecting their targets, members of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco entered the bank and handed staff a note with their demands. What happened wasn’t a heist but a hymn sing.

Wearing signs critical of laws facilitating skyrocketing rents and corporations not paying their fair share of taxes, about two dozen adults and children broke into four-part harmony Jan. 13 at downtown banks. Modifying the lyrics to songs, the protestors sought to disrupt business as usual and “Come let us all unite to vote to make it fair.”

Attenders of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco sing at a bank branch of JP Morgan Chase in San Francisco to ask banks to support affordable housing and public services. — Stefan Baumgartener

Attenders of First Mennonite Church of San Francisco sing at a bank branch of JP Morgan Chase in San Francisco to ask banks to support affordable housing and public services. — Stefan Baumgartener

“We had probably eight songs, and at Chase Bank we weren’t able to stay to get through them all,” said action organizer Rosanna Kauffman. “. . . We stayed until the police came and asked us to leave, and that was probably about 15 minutes.”

The group was able to complete its entire set at Wells Fargo, where high ornate ceilings offered fabulous acoustics.

Kauffman said the congregation has been having conversations for a couple of years about how to be more involved in movements for justice, following Jesus’ call to stand with poor and marginalized people.

“Early Anabaptists were big disruptors who would joyfully shake things up and make a commotion and sing in public,” she said. “That was a way the early church lived out Jesus’ teaching. So we were inspired from that — getting in touch with that part of our identity.”

As Pastor Sheri Hostetler sang with the group in Wells Fargo’s temple to modern finance, she couldn’t help being reminded of Jesus chasing out money lenders.

“It didn’t feel like we were chasing them out, but bringing the light of Christ,” she said. “. . . There are things that the bank is engaged in — many things — that are antithetical to the values of Jesus and us, and it felt like we were witnessing to that.”

Skyrocketing rent

The choir participants — several of whom work in social services — sang critiques of two California state measures. Kauffman said the “Costa Hawkins” law protects corporate landlords, facilitating fast-accelerating rent hikes, and Proposition 13 contains a loophole that has kept property taxes from being raised on some corporations and banks since the 1970s.

“It also kind of feels like a scary time for our country, and with the congressional tax bill that was just passed that is just so devastating to the poor while giving cuts to corporations, we felt we could try to make a difference with locals at least,” Kauffman said.

To put the region’s skyrocketing housing prices into context, Hostetler described a retired friend who is a single mother of a single mother. She pays roughly $1,700 a month for an apartment, well below market value of closer to $3,000 for people moving into the building, because increases are capped.

“Every year when the rent goes up, she asks if this is the year she has to move from the place where she raised her daughter,” Hostetler said. “If she had to leave, I don’t know where she’d go. . . . People are getting literally driven out of the Bay Area unless they are very highly paid workers.”

Subversive songs

Subversive creativity can be potent. Innocuous in worship on Sunday morning, voices raised in song prompt police involvement at a bank. It doesn’t take a foreign authoritarian regime to make worship an act of protest.

When President Trump was inaugurated, Hostetler and some other people from First Mennonite were arrested for participating in a symbolic blockade, singing “The Peace of the Earth Be With You” to police wearing riot gear.

“I think the kingdom of God is political. I say that with caution, because I am aware of how things get politicized,” she said.

“ . . . There are structures within our economy and politics that harm people, and I think we as Christians are called upon to speak to those and speak truth to those powers.”

Kauffman agreed that living out peace and caring for others shouldn’t make Anabaptists the literal “quiet in the land.”

“We need big change, and I want to do more than pray about it. I want to do everything I possibly can to create it,” she said. “. . . Jesus wasn’t quiet. He was standing up to empire and was so threatening, and that is why he was killed.”

More hymn sings may come. Hostetler anticipates First Mennonite will discuss how it might get involved with the Poor People’s Campaign, a national movement led by William Barber to “challenge evils of systemic racism, poverty, the war economy, ecological devastation and the nation’s distorted morality.”

The congregation has made its hymn lyrics available online to other harmonious disruptors.

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