Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




Why People Need Power

Sunday, September 3, 2006 – Labor Day



Deuteronomy 24: 14-16
Social Principles: #163 Paragraphs B-C


Rev. Dean Snyder


How many churches could you attend on Labor Day weekend and participate in the blessing of a brand new labor union? What a special Sunday this is for Foundry Church, to have the opportunity to bless a union of day-laborers that was born, in part, in one of our Sunday school rooms on Labor Sunday.


I want to talk this morning about power.


In the early 1990’s I was the pastor of a church in the heart of North Philadelphia, the most economically distressed and forgotten section of the city at the time. There were five pastors – two Baptists, a Roman Catholic priest, a Presbyterian and my Methodist self – who got together and agreed that we needed to do something that would make a long-term difference in the lives of our community. We started researching what we could do together that would make a real difference and discovered the Industrial Areas Foundation.


The Industrial Areas Foundation, IAF, founded by Saul Alinsky, was helping churches and synagogues in the greater New York area, in Baltimore, in Texas, and in California to begin organizations that were effectively bringing resources into their urban communities to make a long-term difference in the lives of the people living there.  


The five of us traveled together to Jersey City, New Jersey, to attend an IAF 10-day training. These 10 days taught me more about how to be the church in community than most of my seminary courses.


One of the things I learned was the definition of power. The word “power” comes from the Latin word poder, meaning “to be able.” Literally, power is to be able to make something happen.


I learned that power is a good thing. It is good to be able to make something happen. In fact, I was taught that power is so good that everybody ought to have some. And power, I was taught, comes from two sources: organized people and organized money.


Power comes from organizing.


We are celebrating this Labor Sunday the beginnings of a new union here in Washington, DC – one that took shape in part in one of our Sunday school rooms, the Union de Trabajadores.


We are also celebrating all the people who have worked and sacrificed throughout the years to organize themselves in order to improve their lives and their communities – labor unions, associations, cooperatives, community organizations, and collectives.


We are celebrating this because organizing is very Methodist. A popular book about the Methodist movement in America was entitled: “Organizing to Beat the Devil.”  Organizing is what Methodists do.  


John Wesley, the Anglican priest, who began the Methodist movement 270 years ago taught that there is no holiness except social holiness…that is, we can not think that we are holy in our personal lives if the society we are part of does not practice justice and mercy.  “All holiness is social holiness,” Wesley taught. You can’t be holy without working for justice in the society.   


We heard some of the United Methodist Social Principles about collective bargaining read this morning.


It will be 100 years ago next year that a group of Methodists got together here in Washington, DC to discuss the need for reform of working conditions in America. They were led by Harry Ward, a Chicago pastor who had conducted too many funerals in Chicago for stockyard workers who had died as a result of accidents due to unsafe working conditions.


This group of Methodists proposed to the Methodist General Conference of 1908 the Methodist Social Creed which called for the abolition of child labor, the end of sweat shops, the conciliation of labor disputes, and a living wage. Our first Methodist social principles were passed in 1908.


Ever since then, the Methodist Church has supported the rights and responsibilities of workers to organize on behalf of their own welfare and the welfare of the community.


Power comes from organized people and organized money. Power is a good thing, so good that everybody ought to have some.


We also celebrate this new union and all people who organize on behalf of their own welfare and the welfare of the community because it is biblical. It predates John Wesley and Methodism.


The Bible has consistently taught that God is offended by the abuse of working people. “You shall not withhold the wages of the poor and needy laborers,” Deuteronomy says. If you do it is the Lord who will be offended. The first great organizer was Moses. The Bible also consistently teaches that we shall not mistreat the immigrant or the stranger in our midst.


A manifestation of the Holy Spirit is power coming upon the people. “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon,” the Book of Acts says. (Acts 1: 8)


Power, the ability to make something happen, is a good thing, so good that everybody ought to have some. Absolute powerlessness is as dangerous as absolute power.


Elie Weisel asks us to make this commitment: to never be the oppressor, to never be the victim, and to never be the bystander. We have a responsibility before the divine who has created us to never willingly choose to be the victim. Power is a good thing. Everybody ought to have some.  


But we know from the biblical story and from our own experience that organizing is not easy. It requires long hard meetings after long days of work. It requires traveling across the city on buses and trains to get to meetings. Jana has told me about people who travel for an hour each way to participate in organizing. It requires saying “no” sometimes when all we want is a day’s work. It requires thinking about tomorrow as well as about today.


We are very proud today of the Union de Trabajadores.


We are a better community because you are exercising the power God has placed within you. We are a better nation and a better world because of you.


Power is a good thing…it is a God-given thing…it is so good that everybody ought to have some.