A Communal Confession at Howard S Wright

by Marilee Jolin, Columnist (Featured Photo: Alex Garland)

An excited foreboding takes hold of me as we cross John St, the Key Arena pavilion in our sights.  The sun is busting through the clouds with gusto, I’ve got my comfy shoes on and my stomach is in knots.  It is Monday of Holy Week 2015 and I am on way to a “Table Turning” action organized by faith groups in the Seattle area.  I am excited.  I am confident in the merits of the cause.  And yet I am nervous; not fully certain I want to be a part of the protest about to occur.  

Over the last few months, I’d been on the fringes of a growing movement to stop the construction of a new youth jail in Seattle.  I attended an informational meeting, did some reading and attended a couple protests.  At each of these events I was struck by the commitment and clarity of those who stand in opposition to this expansion of the prison industrial complex.  I felt compelled to be more involved, more vocal and more assertive in my opposition to this jail.

But something about this Holy Week action makes me apprehensive.  At this action we wouldn’t be standing up in front of King County officials but going to the private company – Howard S Wright – slotted to build the jail.  And we’d be demanding…what, exactly?  That they not build the jail?  And we’d be going…where, exactly?  Their lobby?  Won’t they just throw us out immediately or call the cops? Did this have any chance of actually accomplishing anything?

Still, I trust the friends I know will be there.  And I trust the groups involved in organizing it: European Dissent (along with EPIC and YUIR), Plymouth UCC and Valley & Mountain.  And what’s the worst that could happen?  Get arrested?  Unlikely; and maybe about time I did that, anyway.

Photo Credit: Alex Garland
Photo Credit: Alex Garland

From the moment we arrive, however, I am put at ease.  Multiple friends step out of the crowd for hugs.  I am pleasantly surprised to realize what a broad community of people of faith I’ve begun to inhabit and how good it is to claim that title together in response to such gross injustice.   We are not a huge group – maybe 60 people – but sizable enough to draw attention as we gather closer to hear Rev. John Helmiere speak about the roots of Table-Turning Monday.  He calls Jesus a radical performance artist and reminds us about the many ways Jesus turned things upside down and stood against the powers that be during the last week of his life.

We then walk, en masse, across the street and up into the offices of Howard S Wright.  It is a very quiet and calm setting.  Low-lighting, muted colors and modern furnishing contrast sharply with our brightly colored, hand-lettered protest signs and the air of excited sunshine we carried in: the whiff of a spring breeze following us up to the 7th floor.  A silence descends on the small lobby as we gather in a semi-circle around the card table our leaders set up in front of the elevators.  Ringing the circle, our signs proclaim “Build Schools, Not Jails”, “Bidding on a Contract is a Moral Choice!”, “Don’t Profit off Black and Brown Bodies” and other, similarly powerful, messages.

Then our local clergy begin to speak, framing our action in our faith expression.  These leaders call out the injustice of youth incarceration in this city; they call on those at Howard S Wright to stop their plans to build this facility; they reflect on the connection between Jesus’ righteous anger and the anger we feel.  Mostly, though, they challenge us to identify and confess the complicity with injustice in our own lives.  Repeatedly, they reference the table-turning as an act of confession.  Noting that, as we turn the table, we are acknowledging how deeply we are invested in this rotten system, how much we benefit from it and how often we choose to look only at our busy daily lives and not see the suffering of those in our community.

I feel this truth deep in myself and the others gathered that day in the cool, clean Howard S. Wright lobby.  I feel a kinship and an understanding with the employees of Howard S Wright – from the receptionist gently watching us, to the PR guy sent to assess the situation, to the fancy men in suits popping around the corner to see what’s going on.  I could just as easily be one of them.  We are not so different.  We are all guilty of putting our heads down and going about our busy lives, choosing ignorance and inaction.  We are all in need of confession.

As we gather more closely around the card table, now filled with nickels and slips of paper bearing messages of hope, conviction and confession, joy and peace surge within me.  This is not the aggressive confrontation I had originally feared.  This is no “results-driven” political move or publicity stunt or opportunity to make trouble.  This is a communal, public confession the likes of which I’d never before experienced.

As a teenager, I attended Mass with my Italian Catholic grandmother a few times.  Every time I went, I was struck by the confession parts: how a hundred people would all kneel, cross themselves and murmur the words of confession in one fluid motion, one low voice. Questions of theology and doctrine aside, there was something compelling for me in that unified voice, public acknowledgment, communal action.  I longed to have such companions in faith: one body rising up in humble truth; strong while bowed down.

And that it precisely what I experienced at Table-Turning Monday.  A powerful communal confession, not so much for a personal “sin” but for the ancient and ongoing harm of racism, injustice, poverty and inequality so deeply rooted in our systems of government, education and business.  We confessed, together, to our daily submission to those systems; how we validate their authority as we look away and mind our own business.

But on Monday of Holy Week we did not look away.  No.  We literally flipped the table – as Jesus did – spilling hundreds of coins across the Howard S Wright lobby, their shiny, clanging bodies rolling off the carpet and onto the concrete floor. We stood together in faith, in humility, in confession; in sadness, in anger, in desperation; in a powerful collective witnessing to the truth and offering a path to justice for anyone who is willing to join.

Howard S Wright included.


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