I have just completed a workshop series for the Presbytery of San Francisco. This regional body of the Presbyterian Church is developing an education center at the site of a former church in El Cerrito (which happens to be my mom’s hometown – hi Mom!); the exploration of how to use this facility is providing an interesting opportunity to discuss faith-based cooperatives.
In previous weeks of the month-long series we studied Mondragon, the cooperative system in the Basque Country that has transformed the lives of its more than 83,000 co-owners who democratically control one of Spain’s largest enterprises. Mondragon has contributed to a regional economy with less poverty and wealth than people in the U.S. generally take for granted, and with unemployment well under half of the Spanish national average. The co-ops themselves have an amazing record of never laying off a worker-owner, instead relying on shared salary reductions.
Not surprisingly, all sorts of people are interested in learning more about the Mondragon model and trying to reproduce its successes here: So this week we looked at several efforts to bring Mondragon to the United States’ Rust Belt: The Evergreen Cooperative Initiative of Cleveland, the United Steelworkers’ efforts in Pittsburgh and the Cincinnati Union Co-op Initiative.
Libby Sholes of the California Council of Churches shared her knowledge of these initiatives and her thoughts about how California faith communities might take on our own initiative, and become the backbone of “communities of practice” that are prepared to promote employee ownership within the areas in which their congregants live.
This week’s workshop also explored the role of disaster in economic transformation: Just as the near-Jubilee of Nehemiah was sparked by the collective efforts to restore a Jerusalem in ruins, Mondragon rose from the ashes of a Basque community devastated by war and dictatorship. So we asked the question of how bad does it have to get before people are willing to change? And what might we do in the meantime?
As we conclude this workshop series, we also ask: What next?
It’s a perfect question for the Day of Ascension, on which we held the last day of the workshop series, and which marks when Jesus concluded 40 days of appearances to the believers by suddenly rising into the sky and disappearing behind a cloud. His followers might have kept standing there forever awaiting his return. But then, “suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’” (Acts 1:10-11)
Of course, this was not the first time Jesus made this sort of spectacular departure. An earlier ascension took place on Easter in Luke’s account. (Luke 24:48-53) But after that first ascension, Jesus kept appearing. The Ascension we marked on Thursday had a degree of finality. Jesus wasn’t going to come back in his old form. So his followers had to start changing on their own. With Jesus the leader out of the way, they could (and were obliged to) embark on a new way of being in which old power relations were undone.
It is as though Jesus was a sort of firework that had been shot up into the air, at first visible but then fading as its ascent slowed…until…”Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” (Acts 2:2-4)
This miracle is now regarded as the birth of the church, and made the believers part of the mystical Body of Christ. (Eph. 1:19-23)
And right after the Spirit’s arrival came the event that has inspired my work in faith-based cooperatives: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” (Acts 2:44-45)
Pentecost, marked by Christians this coming Sunday, was originally a Jewish festival called Shavuot, celebrating the beginning of the year’s harvest as well as the receipt of Torah. Shavuot is also called the Festival of Weeks, marking the seventh week after Passover as a symbol of the Jubilee. It is an economically juicy day.
And this particular group of Jews – who had gathered for Shavuot after the departure of the man who they identified as Messiah – was no doubt deeply disturbed after the messianic story took a dramatic and unexpected turn; Jesus had gone off to heaven and there they were, all still living under Roman rule.
So when else would the Holy Spirit come upon the community?
They were surely wondering what the heck just happened and waiting for God’s next move to clear things up. It is not hard to imagine how the general stress and transformation of the recent weeks might have put them into a very receptive spiritual state and yielded some mystical fireworks.
Pentecost, after all, was the celebration of first fruits – the day that inspired the followers of the Way to radically change the way they lived together through voluntary redistribution of wealth. There was no poverty among them.
We have somewhat less energy approaching this Pentecost – living in an era of skepticism and discouragement – but there is still have a spark that might be blown into flame. And God knows we need a little bit of economic transformation.