On September 19, I prayed for our city. I often pray for Memphis, but on this particular day, I did so in public:
Be it hereby known that the Reverend Sandy Webb in recognition of a life of exemplary qualities, outstanding service to the city, meritorious involvement in humanitarian affairs and demonstrated concern for governmental processes has been appointed Chaplain of the Day of the Memphis City Council and is hereby entitled to all of the honors, rights, privileges and prerogatives appertaining to the office…
The official privileges of this office are mainly the use of a temporary parking space in the City Hall garage and the opportunity to pray in a way that reminds the Council of God’s abiding presence in their work. My personal privilege was having a front-row seat for the democratic process.
The first hour of the City Council’s meeting was mainly characterized by a long bout of parliamentary wrangling and procedural business, along with some zoning requests that went through on the nod. Then, a 60-year-old woman in a blue uniform shirt from the University of Memphis broke the monotony by seeking recognition. We’ll call her Danielle.
Danielle came to support a resolution encouraging the state university in Memphis to opt out of a program that would privatize its custodial services. The private company would not provide Danielle with any assurance that her position would be continued, or that her health and pension benefits would be protected.
Danielle spoke of how much she loved her job. “Pride is the benefit of being employed by an institution that matters,” she said. “I want to retire from the University of Memphis.” She went on to make the case that losing her job would destroy her livelihood.
What a country we have. Despite all of the polarization and political maneuvering that characterizes public discourse in the United States, an average person still has the right to stand up and tell her elected leaders what she thinks. What started in Nashville as a way to reduce public expenditure was brought home in Memphis by a woman who just wanted to keep her job.
Danielle was not the only person in the auditorium. There were men in suits sitting on the side aisle, seeming to have a financial interest in some of the Council’s business. There were hipsters in T-shirts wanting to weigh in on Beale Street security. And, there were two older women, who came to oppose the use of smart meters by our local utility company. Everyone came to say their piece, and the Council gave them time to do it. What a country.
Our faith teaches us that every person is made in the image of God, and that every person deserves a full measure of human dignity. Today, I saw the image of God in a custodian, some businessmen, two old ladies, a cadre of hipsters and a ragtag group of Councilmen and Councilwomen who gave them all time to speak. I did not have to bring God into the City Council Chambers today; he was already there.
Hard decisions should be hard to make. Responsible governments should seek to minimize their costs, and they should admit that every reduction comes at someone’s expense. Finding the right balance is the hard work that we elect our leaders to do, with God’s help. Yet, too often, we let them choose an easier path. We let our leaders objectify people rather than insisting that they listen to them.
At least at the local level, at least in Memphis, at least today, our leaders chose the better path. Thanks be to God for that.