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Faith leaders call for living wage, honor King

The Rev. Bryan Field McFarland leads singing at an interfaith "living wages" event
at Centenary United Methodist Church in Memphis, Tenn.
UMNS photos by the Rev. Rebekah Jordan.

By the Rev. Rebekah Jordan*
March 18, 2008 | MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS)

Forty years after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers making poverty wages, faith leaders say King would be shocked to see millions of Americans continuing to be paid poverty wages.

About 150 leaders from across the United States gathered March 13 in Memphis for an interfaith celebration to continue King's work for living wages.

The event was held at historic Centenary United Methodist Church, where the Rev. James Lawson was pastor in 1968 and organized major religious support for striking sanitation workers living with poverty wages, racial discrimination and dangerous working conditions.

The Rev. Jennifer Kottler (from left), the Rev. Willa Ross, Johanna Chao Kreilick, Dr. Melissa Snarr, the Rev. Steve Copley and the Rev. Daisy Diaz attend the gathering.


In large part because of faith and community support, workers won a union contract after being on strike for 65 days, a few days after King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

"We got tired," sanitation striker Taylor Rogers told the gathering. "And so we stood up and said 'I am a man.' Without Dr. King and the ministers who helped us, we never would have won that strike."

The interfaith worship service was cosponsored by the Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign and the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice. The event kicked off a 24-hour fast for Memphis workers who do not earn a living wage, and pressed the Memphis City Council to expand its living wage ordinance to include more workers.

Speakers also urged national leaders to make the minimum wage a living wage, so that all workers can earn enough to meet their families' basic needs.

Faith groups represented at the event included Baptist, United Methodist, Christian Methodist Episcopal, African Methodist Episcopal, Episcopalian, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian U.S.A., Disciples of Christ, Reform Jewish, Conservative Jewish, Roman Catholic, Quaker and Unitarian churches.

Losing ground

The Rev. Jennifer Kottler, director of Let Justice Roll, preached on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. "All God’s children have worth, Jesus would say. All work is valued. All work is important. All work is worthy of fair compensation," said Kottler.

Kottler said the minimum wage, when adjusted for inflation, has actually lost significant ground during the last 40 years.

In 1968, sanitation workers were making just above the federal minimum wage of $1.60, which is worth $9.70 today when adjusted for inflation. Today’s minimum wage is $5.85 after Congress voted to increase it by 70 cents an hour last summer.

"Workers should not have to choose between paying the rent and buying food for their children," Kottler said. "A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it."

“A job should keep you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”
–The Rev. Jennifer Kottler
Memphians at the worship service celebrated their city council's passage of a living wage ordinance in 2006 which requires most workers performing work for the city to be paid $10-$12 an hour. But in undertaking a 24-hour period of fasting, prayer and action, they vowed to press the council to include workers at the city’s public utility in the ordinance.

Speakers included Simon Greer, president of the Jewish Funds for Justice; Adam Taylor, director of policy and organizing for Sojourners; and Joyce Miller, assistant general secretary for justice and human rights at the American Friends Service Committee.

Taylor hailed the action of Congress last year to raise the minimum wage for the first time in 10 years. "It was a bleak year on Capitol Hill for those who care about the poor, but this was one bright spot," he said.

He went on to urge worshippers to breathe life into the "dry bones" of the United States by continuing King’s work in pressing Congress to make the minimum wage a living wage.

The service closed with the congregation repeating the words of King to the sanitation workers in 1968: "Now is the time to make an adequate income a reality for all of God’s children. … Now is the time for justice to roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. Now is the time."

*Jordan is a United Methodist deacon and director of the Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.  

Related Article

Op-Ed: Minimum wage up a little but still not a living


Let Justice Roll Living Wage Campaign

Mid-South Interfaith Network for Economic Justice

Centenary United Methodist Church

U.S. Department of Labor

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