Starting The Center for the Working Poor: Don’t Mess With God’s Crazy Plan
By Paul Engler
I still run the Center for the Working Poor, delivering food to impoverished workers, writing, speaking at churches, and supporting living wage boycotts. While doing this, the House of Representatives passed a law designed to crack down on immigrants, which would happen to make my work illegal. The draconian legislation sparked a new social movement for immigrant rights. Protesting with this movement landed me in jail, along with a rock star and hundreds of others, all of us demanding a living wage for the impoverished largely immigrant workers that the Center serves. Although a much greater sense of peace now pervades my life, at times the old Paul emerges, the old self with all his anxiety and insecurity. When this happens, I find myself asking, “what the hell is my plan?”
I make meticulous plans for almost everything—and of course many pertain to the Center for the Working Poor. Recently I found that when I prayed every day, when I listened in silence to the “still small voice,” it would offer a different type of plan than what I was inclined to make on my own. Some call this voice God, some call it the conscience, some call it the internalized mother, and still others call it schizophrenia. The guidance it offered always seemed right, but it would frustrate me. I realized that even in my material renunciation and voluntary poverty came another form of attachment. Although I gave up all my money, my job, and many future girlfriends to start this—I still wanted so much the security of a good plan that would assure a functioning website, a large publication, lots of families to feed, and a big home to house the poor and the Center’s volunteers. With this master plan somewhere in the back of my mind, I sometimes caught myself judging my performance, giving myself a grade for how successful I was at carrying out this carefully designed plan.
I learned in my prayer that the real plan has little to do with the schemes and ambitions I hatched on a daily basis. The faith of Jesus, of the prophets, of all the great saints is a radical faith—one of discipleship. Jesus clearly declared that we should not ask God to fulfill our plans, but rather pray to know and help fulfill God’s plan. When we lose our will, our plans, we gain God’s plan, God’s wisdom, and God’s will in our life. And God has got to have really good plan or we are in trouble.
For me, there is no better example of the craziness, and the greatness, of God’s plans than the last eight months of my life…
Struggling to Maintain the Center
When I started the Center for the Working Poor, I did not plan on receiving so many letters and emails of support. Many of these have bought tears to my eyes. One letter, from someone I had never met, an old friend of my deceased father, read: “your father and my late husband were such good friends and I know they are together, talking about you, smiling so proud of you up there in heaven.” Another letter, attached to a sizable donation, came from one of my most valued high school teachers; it read, “it is our honor to be supporting you.” A stranger from Florida, who had seen one of my earlier dispatches, interviewed me about my lifestyle for his local public radio station. There were a few people who even came with us to visit the Center for the Working Poor and to come with us on our visits to workers. They were amazed at how volunteers and workers were able to make strong personal connections while sitting in conversation in the workers’ living rooms; sometimes the conversations would last for hours. Call me a crybaby, but getting such genuine and heartfelt support for my very personal dream of living in service has been moving, to say the least. It is through these sincere expressions of support that I feel God is speaking directly to me.
However, my plans for raising money did not seem to work. I did not get enough donations to rent a small house that could accommodate the poor and the volunteers who are interested in joining me. This disappointed me and created some anxiety. “Will this life work?” I questioned myself. I continued my service, but I got a part-time job. I was inspired by my uncle, a priest in Taiwan, who advised me that even Saint Paul had a part time job as a tent maker in the early days of starting the Christian Church.
The services of the Center, however, do seem to work. We have been able to get ample food donations to deliver to families who are deeply appreciative. I’ve become a successful preaching man. At first I was scared that my radical talk of giving away all your stuff and living like a hippie (or Jesus) would putt off the more conservative congregations. But you would be surprised how I can get old ladies going with the spirit. The pastors seem to like it all right, too. At the beginning of this year, a large hotel located in the Inglewood area was closed and torn down for renovations, foiling my plans to serve only a few families. All the workers were laid off. For two solid days these workers came dozens at a time, to our makeshift distribution center, to pick up their bag and a half worth of food.
To continue the Center for the Working Poor, I need some real monetary support from the many who read this. If you are interested in supporting a family that works hard but lives in poverty in the richest country in the world—a mother who was fired because she stood up for dignity in her workplace, a single mom who supports her 18 -year-old daughter and much of their extended family on her low wage job—then please make a donation. Your contribution will not just be to them, but also to our way of life and our nonviolent campaign to win a living wage for impoverished workers.
The greatest support that our readers can provide, aside from joining us in a life of voluntary poverty, is to donate 20 dollars a month to our sustainer program. Giving a small amount consistently over time helps us maintain stability. In addition, it enables us to make a greater effort to send you letters of appreciation from the workers. You can sign up for the sustainer program on the Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice website https://secure.groundspring.org/dn/index.php?aid=2975. You can also always read more about us on our website http://www.centerfortheworkingpoor.org, e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org, or call me at 714-231-9013 or send letters to 820 Laveta Ter, Los Angeles CA, 90026.
I hope to raise enough money soon to rent a bigger apartment and accept a few more volunteers. If you are sick of your cushy job and your life of lolly-gaggin’ around with your fancy latte, if you’re excited to explore the amazing culinary possibilities of eating rice and beans everyday, if you are willing to take a relaxing vacation to jail for a good cause instead of to the Bahamas, if you are willing trade your new Sony home entertainment system with HD TV for a Friday night hootenanny and some books about Gandhi, if spending an evening around a kitchen table with a poor single mom and her kids is more appealing then hitting up the club with your latest date you found on Myspace—drop out and join us. We pay almost nothing, but you will be well nourished in both body and soul.
The Birth of a New Immigrants Rights Movement
In February Clayton and I started our unique diet of rice and beans and commenced our weekly schedule of writing articles, delivering food to needy families, and volunteering to assist a living wage boycott against exploitative corporations. I was totally caught off guard when, in the midst of this, the House of Representatives passed HR 4437, the Sensenbrenner Act. Had it passed through the Senate and been signed into law, the Act would have made it a serious crime to knowingly administer social services to undocumented immigrants. Therefore, our service to undocumented immigrants (a sizable percentage of the many impoverished families we serve) would have become criminal. Even worse this proposal created immense fear and pain in immigrant communities. Some people feel so unwelcome that they are afraid to even go out of their houses. In wealthier communities, such legislation emboldens people’s feelings of racism toward the very immigrants who prepare their food, baby-sit, and clean up their houses.
I felt proud of my Catholic upbringing when the famous Cardinal Mahoney of Los Angeles made a very powerful denunciation of the Sensenbrenner Act, which would have made many of the services of the Catholic Church illegal. He ordered his priests to break the law if the act passed and continue their services to the poor. His statement was reported all over the world. In thousands of local churches, priests preached against this proposed law. The Church’s support helped propel a rising wave of action, the likes of which I could have never imagined. An immense storm of public opposition formed in Los Angeles as many in the Spanish-language press joined unions, immigrants, and political leaders in denouncing the law.
An immigrant rights march endorsed by the hotel workers union, C.L.U.E. (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice—my sponsoring organization), and a large coalition of immigrant groups was called for Saturday, March 25, 2006. Clayton and I went, expecting to join a couple thousand people and see familiar faces from the regular bi-monthly immigrant rights protests in Los Angeles. But this protest was different. It seemed like less of a protest than a mass exodus of the entire city into the streets. There were so many people it was hard sometimes to tell where the protest began. Subways, busses, and streets miles away from the convergence were filled with hundreds of people—like streams that led into an ocean of people, overflowing city blocks for miles and miles with no end in sight. Nearly a million people showed up that day, the largest protest in the history of Los Angeles. It reverberated throughout the country, as hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their allies took to the streets in Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, New York, and almost everywhere in between. In many cities, these were the largest protests in their history. Two days after the historic march tens of thousands of students protested by walking out of school in protest. On May first, international labor day, even more people marched in Los Angeles, over a million–and again millions more in cities across the country joined. Tens of thousands of protesters in Los Angeles did not show up to work or school that day in acts of solidarity joining what was called a “day without a immigrant.”
I stayed up nights, like a child too excited about going to summer camp. Oh God, I thought, God’s plan is soooo BIG, and I am just a little itty-bitty boy caught up in the middle of it. I had to think of a way for the Center for the Working Poor to be part of this new movement.
The Birth of an Idea
I have to admit that since I was a kid I’ve had a passion for creative planning inspired by Hannibal from the prominent TV show “the A team” who always seemed to figure out a way to construct a homemade tank to blow up the bad guys— leaving him to end the episode with his famous line “I love it when a plan comes together.” Though I have since renounced the use of homemade tanks in favor of Gandhian nonviolence, I have to confess that I am guilty of making many creative plans to convert the bad guys by getting lots of people arrested for social justice. But my dream has always been to go bigger. This has obviously gotten me in trouble with authorities, including some union leaders, among whom I earned a kind of “Craaaazy Paul, Mr. Let’s Go to Jail!!” reputation. But after the incredible immigrant rights marches opened many minds to new possibilities, some began to think that maybe they were crazy, too.
I knew that if the Sensenbrenner Act passed I would be a criminal and the services of the Center illegal. To be honest, I was not afraid. If anything I was proud to be a just criminal and excited by the prospects of resisting this ridiculous law. I thought about the image of police arresting me for serving food to the poor: it could be great publicity for the cause. So I started to ask people to agree that if the Sensenbrenner Bill passed, they would get arrested with me by serving food to immigrants in need.
This idea for this action was modeled off of the Archbishop’s statement and similar ideas from movements in the 1980s. It was a pledge of resistance for immigrants’ rights. I got 20 of my friends to make the pledge, including the very prominent labor leader and friend, Maria Elena Durazo. I planned to recruit many more. I wondered, if the politicians knew hundreds of people would go to jail to protect the most impoverished among us, would they pass this law?
After long meetings with union, religious, and immigrant rights leaders interested in the pledge, new ideas developed. What if we modeled our actions on the civil rights movement? That movement had hundreds of people risk being arrested in acts of civil disobedience against the corporations that exploited Black Americans, supported segregation, and funded racist politicians. In a parallel movement today, we could organize hundreds to risk arrest against corporations that exploit immigrants and fund anti-immigrant politicians. If we could create the largest civil disobedience in the history of Los Angeles, we could spark another wave of protest for immigrant rights throughout the country. The civil disobedience could paralyze the hotel and restaurant industry, which depends on immigrants not only as workers but also as consumers. We would demand a living wage that could lift workers out of poverty. We envisioned 1,000 people sitting on Century Boulevard, outside a prominent row of hotels that exploit immigrant workers, with signs reading “I am a human being” and a demand for living wages.
I decided that the Center for the Working Poor could both continue to deliver food to the poor and play an important role in taking this historic new social movement to a new stage of mass civil disobedience to fight poverty. I have been to jail about a half-dozen times in my life and have never regretted the experience. The first time really changed my life. It was a baptism of sorts. So it was with great joy that I accepted my new assignment from our immigrant rights coalition to be in charge of organizing students to get arrested. I was soon joined in this task by a good friend of mine, Kai Newkirk, after he was fired from a hotel on Century Blvd for fighting for a living wage. The action we had envisioned was becoming a reality, and it was scheduled to take place September 28.
Why go to jail?
There are few more powerful ways to say an issue is important to you than to go to jail for it. Going to jail is a secret strategy for getting mothers involved. Once you go to jail, your mother is now probably going to scold the police chief in order to get you out (and afterwards will probably scold you, too). When I went to jail seven years ago in global justice movement protests against the World Bank and IMF, my college president, became fearful that I and dozen other Hampshire College students would be suspended for missing so many classes. He never supported what he saw as radical protest, and always seemed desperate trying to raise money for our poor college, but he made sure that we had a chartered bus waiting outside the jail to rush us back to school on time. Meanwhile, freeing us from jail became a popular campus cause. Hundreds of people from all over the world—mobilized through networks of friends and family–called the police chief to ask for our release.
Gandhi said that what makes nonviolent protest work is when people make real personal sacrifices. The greater the sacrifice, the more people take notice. The more people notice, the more power the action has to thaw the hearts of our opponents, turn the heads of the public, make our issue a popular moral cause, and get mothers behind you. Going to jail, fasting, and undertaking long marches are all forms of deep personal sacrifice, all within the philosophy of nonviolence.
While there is a deep philosophy behind civil disobedience, there can also be some primal pleasure in letting out one’s inner child, taking over a street, stopping traffic, and letting that child say, “No! I am not going to move until you stop exploiting people at your fancy pants hotel, you poop head.” (Ok, the poop-head-comment is not really in the spirit of non-violence, but still.) Add to this dozens of big TV cameras, photographers, and news media helicopters (that’s right, helicopters!) all taking pictures of your protest and your fancy signs: you got yourself a fun time. Fun, that is, until you are handcuffed so tight that for hours you can’t feel your hands. You are packed into a cell with no place to lie down or sometimes even sit down. You wait for hours, sometimes days, to get out, never knowing when you will. That sucks, sure. Still, I have met few people who have not been transformed in the process.
We only had one month to organize while colleges were in session, but we spread the word far and wide. Luckily, we had a little help from a famous civil rights leader: Dolores Huerta. I went to five college campuses to do non-violence trainings with a combined total of over two hundred students. We ended the trainings with group hugs and formed circles that allowed participants to share their thoughts. Many students were on the verge of tears explaining all their fear, all the fights they were having with their parents to do what they felt was right. I was moved by their courage. I thought, “This has got to be part of God’s plan.”
Going to jail with a rock star
When September 28th came, we had over 300 people ready to be arrested. They included workers from the hotels, members of the immigrant rights coalition, local politicians, prominent clergy members, and many students. The action wasn’t as big as I had hoped, but it would still be what we had claimed from the beginning. . . “The largest act of civil disobedience in the history of Los Angeles.”
By coincidence, I was arrested and paired up on the police bus with a real life rock star–Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave fame. Although I feel uncomfortable about star admiration and am consciously oblivious to pop culture, I was sincerely impressed with Morello. He shared powerful personal stories about the struggles with his family that had turned him into activist and about the admiration of his single mother, all of which I could personally relate to. I really feel that God has given him a great gift–and by extension, fame–for a reason. More than almost anyone I know, he really thinks long and hard about how to use his fame and power to change the world for the better. That said, when put in prison and stripped of his fancy-dancy metal guitar, he seemed a bit too bummed to lead the hootenanny. He let others like myself take center stage to lead the civil rights spirituals with handclaps and humble voices.
We were moved around from one crowded cell to another all night long. At about five in the morning we were moved again, into a cell with working telephones. We only had about an hour before they moved us again, but in the meantime could make lots of phone calls. I was bored and tired, and I started thinking about whom could I call from jail. It would be great joke to wake up one of my friends with a call from jail. I could claim it was my only phone call… “You better get me out and have a donut waiting!” Then I thought some more and it dawned on me.
What if a rock star were to call a radio station from jail with his only phone call and request to play his own song? I thought it was funny enough that maybe we could get some free airtime. We went to it. Although it was a challenge, we finally got a hold of the union’s press person. She called the most popular Los Angeles rock radio station to warn them that they were going to get a phone call from jail from Tom Morello. They hung up, thinking it was a prank. Nevertheless, Tom was a good sport and called the radio station. His stardom came through when they put him on the air for a long exclusive interview. It was a very funny interview and everyone in the cell was laughing. On the radio, you could hear in the background that the jailers were trying to get Tom to put down the phone and get his fingers printed. I got my five seconds of fame when Tom handed the phone off to me as he went to convince the jailers to momentarily leave him alone. I could not believe how much free advertising we were getting with tens of thousands of listeners driving to work who would normally hear nothing but rock and roll.
I got out of jail at about 12 noon the next day. TV cameras filmed the release of all the protestors, and very tired supporters clapped as I walked out. I walked around the city a bit before going to bed. It was incredibly encouraging: everyone I bumped into had heard about the protest.
The hotel and restaurant workers union (the biggest sponsor of the action) was thrilled at the publicity. Our protest was a leading story in LA for two days; we got hundreds of newspaper articles written about the cause, including a story in the New York Times and some international papers. There was also a good story on MTV about Tom Morello’s arrest. The protest helped put the issue of poverty for immigrant hotel workers in LA on the map. What next? A couple weeks later our coalition proposed historic city legislation that would mandate a living wage for workers on Century Boulevard.
For a short window of time, crazy Paul was not seen as so crazy within the union. That is, until I pitched my next idea. Since we had pulled off a major protest, my dream of a much bigger action about poverty in America seemed ever more possible to realize. The unions and coalition knew they could get at least 500 arrested in LA next time. What if we did this in ten cities? If we had 500 people arrested in acts of civil disobedience in ten different cities across the country at the same time, it would be one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in the history of the country. We would make a simple demand: Corporations that depend on immigrant workers should pay them a living wage and stop funding anti-immigrant politicians.
I am currently working on promoting this next phase in the movement’s struggle. Whether it becomes a reality is really up to God. It is technically a crime (conspiracy to break the law) to write about mass civil disobedience so publicly. But, to be honest, I’m not sure there really is a conspiracy. If I were put up on the stand to testify on my own behalf, to a jury of my peers— I would have to say with all sincerity that, as much as it scares me sometimes and makes me wish otherwise, I do not have a plan. I am however, seeking each day to be in a conspiracy with the most mysterious planner of all, God. And he is very mischievous sometimes.
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