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Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Power of Music and the Power of Connections #2

This story also begins with the ring of a telephone:

I am on tour in Berkeley, California in May of this year and my phone rings.  My colleague, folk-singer John McCutcheon, is on the end of the line.

He asks if I remember the Woody Guthrie song, "Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)" about the immigrant farm laborers who were being deported from the US when their airplane crashed.  Radio reports named the crew and white immigration workers who were killed, but only said the rest were, "deportees."

I said of course I know that song.

He said, "If these people were being deported, then the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) had to have had their names written down somewhere.  Some younger people, who were not alive when the crash happened, who only knew of the story from Woody's song, had determined to find out the names of all of these victims and were seeking to create a memorial and funds were needed."

"They found their names, and now they are raising funds to create the memorial in Fresno at the cemetary where the mass grave is.  I think we, as folksingers, should support this project."

Because of John's instigation, members of my union, Local 1000 AFM (American Federation of Musicians), became the largest single financial supporters of this project, which was unveiled earlier this month on Labor Day.

John reflected, "It is the power of a folk song that kept this tragedy of this incident alive, long after all the participants and witnesses have died."

The Fresno Bee has this article about the unveiling.

Almost everyday since Labor Day I have been singing Woody's song, this time ending,

"Now we know your names when you rode the big airplane, 
Now we won't call you "deportee."

The Power of Music and the Power of Connections #1

The phone rang in my Kansas City Office.

When I answered, the voice on the end of the line was that of a pastor of a partner church in Oberlin, Kansas.  The pastor had remembered me saying at a church meeting, "those of us in the inner city and the rural areas had a lot more in common with each other than either of us had with those in wealthier, suburban settings."

"We need your help,"  he said.

"The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Energy Department of the United States want to put a nuclear waste dump on land in our area."

"You have more experience with organizing than we do, but we want to know if you and your congregation can write letters urging them NOT to put the waste from nuclear reactors from around the country in our back yard, just because we don't have a lot of people to resist them."

The congregation I served as pastor and I had some experience with church-based community organizing (gathering neighbors together to discern and act upon their shared understanding of values and self-interest in order to have the power to impact our own lives and the environment in which we live.)  From our work we came to understand our deeper connections with each other in our neighborhood and across many miles.

So I agreed.  And I shared the concern of this pastor with our congregation.  We prayed for their situation in our gatherings and in worship.  And we wrote letters.

And we continued to communicate with each other.

On one occasion, he told me how he had observed a local musician learning a new song over the telephone, listening to a musician from another rural community in Nebraska which had gathered together to resist this effort to dump nuclear waste in their neighborhood.  That song was then taught to the crowd and sung in the public meeting in Oberlin.

In the end, thousands attended the public meeting with the officials, who gulped as they entered and saw the resistance in the faces of those gathered.  One commented to my colleague, "I hope these people are Christians."

Today, as I embarked on my Fall Kansas Tour, I took a different route through eastern Colorado, southwestern Nebraska and western Kansas to my Belleville destination.

This route took me directly through Oberlin, and I remembered again the power of this story, and of the role that music played in gathering and coalescing a group of people to express their power, united against the outside decisions that would negatively affect their quality of life.

And I gave thanks for relationships, for music, for connections and these memories.  And this thanks makes me sing!