Palm Sunday Rally -- We Are One

"We Thank Our Employees For Being Recognized as One of Chicago's Top 10 Workplaces!" read the sign in front of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Chicago last Saturday. But while the Hyatt was thanking the employees for the award, the small print at the bottom of the sign revealed it wasn't the workers, who had done the voting, but rather the Chicago Tribune and Crain's Business. That point was made even clearer by a thousand people marching in protest around the Park Hyatt that day, hotel workers who have called for a boycott of their own workplace, joined by teachers, state employees, clergy and community.

The last time I had seen that "Top 100 Work Place" sign was last summer, when I was getting arrested for civil disobedience supporting those same Hyatt workers. It's nice that Hyatt keeps a sign around for these kinds of special occasions, since there are sure to be more of them.

This was Chicago's effort in the national "We are one" program, marking the anniversary of Dr Martin Luther King's assassination during a trip to Memphis to support sanitation workers. Given the pummeling public sector workers have taken this year, the anniversary of Dr. King's death has galvanized the labor movement and pulled a strange mix of people together who are now so embattled they are ready to say, "We are one."

Marching around the Hyatt, I heard one teacher ask another, "Why are we protesting the Hyatt?"

"Penny Pritzker owns it," replied her teaching colleague.

"Oh, yeah, I get it," said the first teacher. She knew that the billionaire Pritzkers have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to Stand for Children's Illinois political action committee, which is pushing a "reform package" in Springfield that would weaken teacher tenure and effectively eliminate the ability of teachers to strike.

The hotel workers were there because the Pritzkers' Hyatt hotel company made over $900 million in one day when the company went public in 2009, and hotel business is up. But Hyatt appears to want to make the recession permanent for its workers with proposals that would eliminate family healthcare coverage for thousands of Hyatt workers and freeze wages for years to come.

So teachers and hotel housekeepers marched together that day, on to Daly Plaza where they were joined by teamsters, public sector workers, community folks and clergy, all saying, at least for now, "We are one."

As a pastor, the scene reminded me of the chaos that must have been present when Jesus made his triumphal entry into Jerusalem just days before his death. On Palm Sunday, all kinds of people gathered together, crossing social boundaries of ethnicity, trade, religion and income. They put on their own rally, with palm leaves and shouts of "Hosanna."

That rally more than two thousand years ago was a threat to the wealthy Roman authorities. Back then, only the ruling empire was allowed to have parades. So that rag tag parade was a challenge to the wealthy and the powerful, and it may have played a role in Jesus being captured and crucified.

That crowd didn't stand united for long. Just days later, they were crying out, "Crucify him," and they were divided once again, powerless and no longer a threat to injustice.

It caused me to wonder how long the current movement will be able to claim, "We are one." It takes discipline, faith and commitment to march alongside people who are different from you, and to put one another's interests first. But it's the key to change, and it's also at the heart of Jesus' message. In his own stratified society, Jesus was always reminding us that as children of God we are indeed one.

At the modern day rally, a large bus pulled up by the Hyatt sign, and suddenly an entire high school marching band emerged. Dancing in their black and yellow uniforms, playing tubas, drums and clarinets, they got everyone who walked by them to dance too.

The kids had volunteered to be there, no doubt inspired by a hardworking teacher whose livelihood has been threatened. Those teenagers have seen their own economic future, and they want it to be better. So they took a sunny afternoon to come to a rally and say, "We are one."

At least for now. Here's praying we can last longer than the crowd on Palm Sunday.