How my rural community’s fight for fair wages has deepened my calling as a pastor.

 

Unless fog has rolled into the lower Columbia basin, you can usually see the great funnels of smoke rising from the industrial plants that power Longview, Washington. In fact, you can usually see smoke before you can glimpse the town itself.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. The plant is the heart of this blue-collar manufacturing town. The manufacturing sector—the lumber, paper, and pulp mill in particular—defines the town’s identity. Longview is a mere 45-minute drive on I-5 north of Portland, Oregon, but culturally speaking, it’s worlds away.

I love Portland. I would fly into the city as a child to visit my grandfather who lived out on the Oregon coast. The city was my home while I earned my bachelor’s degree at Lewis & Clark College, and my wife currently works there as an attending anesthesiologist for the Oregon Anesthesiology Group.

But pastoring a lovely, historic congregation in Longview for the past four-plus years has shown me that there is so much happening in Cascadia beyond the metropolises of Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver, B.C.

It’s far less crowded, much less gentrified, and good luck trying to find organically grown bean curd-and-tofu porridge at any of the restaurants that line Longview’s downtown area.

Life here isn’t quite like life in the City of Roses. It’s far less crowded, much less gentrified, and good luck trying to find organically grown bean curd-and-tofu porridge at any of the restaurants that line Longview’s downtown area.

There are similarities, though: a love for the same Pacific Northwest sports teams and a profound appreciation for the outdoors. Plus the Paul Bunyan-esque beard I grow every winter is equally at home in Longview as it would be in a Portland hipster bar.

Standing together

Another important similarity, I believe, is a commitment by the people living here to just and fair wages. This commitment was put to the test this fall. After more than a year of fruitless negotiations with the owners of KapStone, the largest paper and pulp mill in town, workers went on strike. Around the same time, teachers in the nearby Kelso School District went on strike as a part of a larger wave of teacher strikes across the state of Washington.

Several of my parishioners were directly affected by those strikes, so I got to experience my congregants’ commitment to fair wages on the ground level. I considered it part of my mission as their pastor to join them: writing letters to the editor, speaking at a rally, and using my office to lend support however else I could.

And from that experience, I can absolutely say that their efforts for fair compensation—efforts that, in the case of the mill workers, is ongoing—are absolutely rooted in their strong Christian faith.

And from that experience, I can absolutely say that their efforts for fair compensation—efforts that, in the case of the mill workers, is ongoing—are absolutely rooted in their strong Christian faith.

The members of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers Local 153 have been engaged in contract negotiations with KapStone since before their previous contract expired on May 31, 2014. That means for nearly 21 months the workers have labored without a contract. For them, the patience this process has required comes directly from their faith.

“With the help of the Lord, I am learning patience,” explains Jim Brooks, one of the workers represented by Local 153, and a congregant of our church. “Since this is my first experience with union (contract) negotiations, I have a lot of uncertainties. But with patience, I learned to trust that God would guide me through this journey.”

Usually, when we hear talk of God “guiding me through this journey,” it’s in reference to individual faith, not a communal or collective faith effort. But the entire concept of collective bargaining rests on the reality that the work being done is not done simply for oneself, or even for one’s fellow workers. It is also undertaken for the benefit of the people who will come after you. And this has been reflected in the language of the strikers.

Don Powell is another worker represented by Local 153. He’s also leads the worship band of our congregation.

“I am not doing it for myself,” Don says. “I am retiring next month. (But) if we take a concessionary contract, that is what will be offered next time as well.”

Making prophets

What sort of church are we creating, not just for our current members, but our future members as well? Who is not yet a part of our congregation, but who one day might be? How can we serve them now?

I think many churches could use an infusion of this mentality. It would lead us to ask some excellent long-range questions. What sort of church are we creating, not just for our current members, but our future members as well? Who is not yet a part of our congregation, but who one day might be? How can we serve them now?

When churches operate from a mentality of scarcity, care for the future can take a backseat to simply trying to survive the present. And that’s not a kingdom-building mentality.

My community deeply believes in its future. And it leads them to make sacrifices in the present. Local 153 went on strike for 12 days in 2015 over the latest contract offer being imposed on them by KapStone. As of this writing, there is still no end in sight to negotiations.

When speaking out on behalf of my congregants and their coworkers, I have often cited verses such as Malachi 3:5, which condemns “those who cheat the day laborers out of their wages.” Attempts by the powerful to shortchange laborers are nothing new. It was enough of a problem in ancient Israel to cause the Hebrew prophets to cry out against it.

Those prophets were likewise concerned for the future. They feared a future in which justice might be further twisted, either by unrighteous kings of Israel or Judah, or by wicked foreign empires like Babylon. The prophets did not simply think about the present they were living in—they cared for the future as well.

In this way, they aren’t so unlike my parishioners, my neighbors, and all those who have fought for the workers who power this town. They are voices crying out for economic security in an era that glorifies prosperity and glamorous wealth and doesn’t think twice about the value of honest work and community.

Their voices may sound strange in our time, but to my ears they echo the cries of Malachi or Jeremiah. And they couldn’t sound any sweeter to this Christian still striving to live out his own strange calling.