The Family Business of Organizing

Presented at The Episcopal Diocese of Olympia’s Diocesan Convention, Clergy Spouse/Partner Luncheon, November 14, 2015


I want to thank Marti Rickel [Bishop Greg Rickel’s wife] for inviting me to speak to you today, and to thank each of you for coming. My name is Aaron Scott and I work as an organizer with Chaplains on the Harbor in Grays Harbor County, a mission station of this diocese. Before I say more about that, I also want to say that I’m a clergy spouse. And I think the role of spouses and partners is absolutely critical not just in ministry, but also in organizing and building a social movement for a more just world. The people in this room, all of us, have the power to make or break a lot of things if we so choose. If you think that’s an exaggeration just remember Coretta Scott King, first lady of the Civil Rights Movement. There is no Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. without her. She pushed him continually toward deeper commitment and more radical analysis of the problems they faced, particularly in tying the Civil Rights Movement to the anti-war movement. The FBI was terrified of her, writing in their surveillance notes that her “selfless, magnanimous, decorous attitude is belied by…[her] actual shrewd, calculating, businesslike activities.” If that’s not a fitting tribute to the unique ministry of clergy spouses and partners, I don’t know what is.

Organizing, like ministry, is a family affair. Not just for me in my official role at Chaplains on the Harbor but also for all the families with whom we work. We work in a region where between 60-70% of adults are out of the labor force. We work with a lot of young parents in their 20s and 30s who have lost custody of their children due to poverty issues (yes—Child Protective Services can and will tear your newborn out of your arms in the hospital if they don’t like your housing situation, no matter how good of a mother you may be). We work with a huge number of young people who are constantly cycling in and out of jail because they lack access to jobs and legal means of income. We work in a place where Immigration and Customs Enforcement can swoop down on a couple of canneries, round up 50-100 undocumented workers in a day, and ship them to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma. All of those workers have families—nearly all have children and partners left behind.

So we are working in a place where poverty is constantly tearing families apart—through the prison system, the detention system, CPS, the daily stress of just trying to survive when you live in a tent or in some slumlord’s trailer park year round. But we are also working in a place where families fight back. Where poor mothers fight the system tooth and nail for the right to raise their children. Where young men in jail scrimp and sacrifice to send a $5.00 donation to our ministry, or pass letters back and forth (through us) to their sweethearts on the outside, or ask, full of generosity and genuine care, how the pastor is doing at their tent city’s latest church home. We are powerfully blessed to be part of the family that gets knit together everyday on the streets. We are honored to be invited into the radical hospitality that’s born out of the shared struggle to survive—the kind that brings together Pentecostals and punks, queer kids and ex-Mormons, out-of-work loggers and grieving young mothers.

With those powers combined, there’s very little that our street family can’t do for themselves. Our people don’t need rescuing. They have faced situations most parishes rarely even have the courage to discuss, and they have survived. They speak for themselves, think for themselves, fight for themselves, and lead themselves. My job, at Chaplains on the Harbor, is simply to amplify their message and make sure it gets heard by people like you. That message is this: Nobody deserves to be homeless. Nobody deserves to be poor. Nobody should be dying from exposure in the richest country in the world. Nobody should have to self-medicate with heroin or meth because they can’t access the mental health care they need. Nobody should lose their children because they can’t make rent or pay their water bill. We can create a different society and we are doing it right now, under the tutelage of our sisters and brothers who have experienced the depths of this nation’s failures and know better than anybody how radically it must change. We can build a different world, we are doing it right now, and we believe that we will win. We have inherited the legacies of Christ, of King, of Coretta, and we will not squander that inheritance. God has given us everything we need to ensure abundant life for all and we are going to take our lives back from the powers and principalities who would deny us.

If in hearing this message you find yourself drawn to us, we do have some openings available in the family. We always need grandmas knitting warm things for people to wear as they try to survive the winter. We often have need of kind, rich uncles who can post bail and not ask too many questions. We need indulgent aunts to spoil people a little bit on the days when our collective sense of grief is thick, in the wake of so many young deaths. Most of all, we need you as our family in Christ. We need your prayers. We need you standing with us wherever you are, proclaiming good news for the poor and release for the prisoners.  If you and your church family ever want to come out and see us sometime, just let me know. We can make that happen.


About aaron

Catechist at Chaplains on the Harbor.
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