The Silence of Solidarity
Bill Mefford

Bill Mefford

Executive Director

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I am grateful for Cole Arthur Riley, the writer of Black Liturgies, for reminding me of the fact that during the Advent story in the gospels (looking specifically at Luke), the central characters and speakers are women. Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, and Mary, the mother of Jesus, are both given significant and powerful speeches to make or songs to sing. At the same time, Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, is rendered mute, and Joseph, who is betrothed to Mary, doesn’t really speak though he responds faithfully to an appearing angel.

That women take center stage during one of the most transformative events in all of history reminds me of what we at the Festival Center were blessed to be a part of this year. On Tuesday the DC Council is set to approve the DC Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, which will give domestic workers in Washington DC what they have never had: basic human and labor rights protections.

Domestic workers have never had these protections because in the 1930s when Congress passed several pieces of legislation protecting the rights of workers they carved out of those protections farm workers and domestic workers. This is because southern, White, Democratic, racist lawmakers did not want their Black field hands or Black nannies to have any rights or protections whatsoever. What is perhaps even worse, this injustice has remained codified for decades. Well, for domestic workers in Washington DC, this will change on Tuesday when the DC Council votes to pass the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Starting Tuesday, domestic workers will at long last have the same worker protections that all other workers have. It only took 90 years.

The legislation is set to pass due to the leadership of domestic workers themselves in this multi-year campaign. I first got involved a year and a half ago when I heard about the generational injustice and realized that the faith community in DC was not fully engaged. In the last year and a half we at the Festival Center have made passing this legislation our priority and our role has been to mobilize faith leaders. To do this we did a number of things:

  • Organized several zoom conversations between faith leaders and domestic workers,
  • Recruited 45 faith leaders in DC to sign a letter of support for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights that we then used to advocate Councilmembers to urge their support,
  • Enlisted faith leaders to attend and speak at rallies and vigils led by domestic workers,
  • And mobilized 15 faith leaders to testify in front of the DC Council in support of the legislation.

Yes, we showed up. But more than that, it was the way we showed up. We didn’t follow the example of what church leaders have historically done in the past; we didn’t show up and assume control. Intentionally, we showed up like Zechariah and Joseph. Domestic workers are primarily (though not entirely) women of color. Women of color have been ignored and marginalized in the current and historical political and economic status quo (which is one major reason why such injustices continue for generations). It would be tempting to believe that in order to achieve a certain political outcome we might want to reflect what the current political order values, which is typically white-led leadership.

But the struggle for justice should reflect what we hope to see when justice is made real. The domestic workers I met in this fight for their human and civil rights are truly amazing people. The women who led this campaign are among the most intelligent, passionate, and fun people I have ever worked with and working alongside them has been a blessing I will never forget. Listening to their voices and following their leadership was not a struggle. It is pure liberating joy.

We celebrate Advent for so many reasons and one is this was a time when the world was turned upside down; when God became incarnate through a defenseless, vulnerable baby. It is a time, then and now, when the voices of those most often marginalized are centered and heard, and when those of us who are most often centered are invited to a “silence of solidarity,” as Cole Arthur Riley puts it. Our silence of solidarity is not inactivity, for just as with our campaign alongside Domestic Workers – there was much work to do! Rather, our silence of solidarity is the liberating invitation to be transformed as we hear the words of Elizabeth and the song of Mary as she sings,

God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things; and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1: 52-53)

This is good news indeed.

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