By REBECCA JACOBSON
On a September afternoon in 2006, a couple thousand people took to the west end of Los Angeles’s Century Boulevard. Blocking rush-hour traffic on one of the city’s major thoroughfares, they marched toward the passenger terminals at Los Angeles International Airport. Many carried signs or wore t-shirts reading “I Am a Human” in English and Spanish, a reference to the 1968 sanitation workers’ strike in Memphis.
The marchers were there to support low-wage workers at the many nearby hotels, and to put pressure on hotel management to respect their employees’ rights to organize. Outside the Hilton, more than 300 of the demonstrators sat down in the middle of the boulevard. When police showed up with plastic handcuffs, they offered no resistance to arrest. It was one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in LA history.
Reverend Dr. David Wheeler, then pastor of the First Baptist Church in Los Angeles, was there. But he wasn’t among those cuffed.
“My wife said, ‘Please don’t get arrested,’” Wheeler recounts, laughing. “So my job was to bail out all the people who got arrested. I spent all night at the nearest police precinct bailing people out.”
Wheeler had been involved for years with a Los Angeles group called Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, or CLUE, first as a volunteer and later as a paid organizer. But the march outside LAX—CLUE was among its organizers—acted as a turning point in his involvement with the labor rights movement. The next year, Wheeler left LA to serve as senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in Portland, and in the last 15 years he’s been involved in countless actions in support of groups ranging from the Oregon Nurses Association to the American Postal Workers Union to the Burgerville Workers Union. The work, much of it through the Faith-Labor Committee of Portland Jobs with Justice, takes a number of forms: It could mean recruiting community allies to attend a picket, giving a blessing or a speech, or, if requested, providing spiritual counsel. (“We don’t go in and say, ‘We have a word from God for you,’ or anything like that,” Wheeler says. “It’s their struggle, not mine.”) Sometimes, he’s simply a man in the crowd, holding a sign.
Wheeler, who grew up in Louisville, Kentucky, and still has the twang to show for it, sees a clear connection between his religious convictions and his efforts for economic justice. Wheeler believes in what he calls the “reign of God,” a new world order guided by peace, justice, community care, and equality. He cites the prophets Micah (“they shall beat their swords into plowshares”) and Isaiah (“they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain”) as well as the New Testament’s portrayal of mutual care among early Christian communities and their neighbors.
“If my guiding vision is this reign of God where everybody cooperates and everybody is equal before God, before the divine, one practical result of that is folks organizing so that they will have some semblance of equality or self-determination in the workplace,” Wheeler says. “If the reign of God is the image, then the union struggle is living out that equality in a broken economy, in a broken society.”
From early in his career, Wheeler has been committed to social ministry. After earning his Doctor of Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, he became a seminary professor in Kansas City, where he worked to start a new Habitat for Humanity chapter. In Los Angeles, in addition to his labor rights efforts, he was part of an interfaith organization that formed in the wake of September 11 in an attempt to create a culture of peace. After moving to Portland to serve as senior pastor of downtown’s First Baptist Church, Wheeler helped organize free clinics, first at the Memorial Coliseum and later at the church itself—events he says drew upwards of 500 people.
Wheeler situates himself in a long line of progressive, socially engaged Baptists. He calls himself a “good trouble Baptist,” in a nod to the late civil rights activist and ordained Baptist minister John Lewis. Like Lewis as well as Martin Luther King, Jr., Wheeler has drawn inspiration from Walter Rauschenbusch, a Baptist pastor and theologian who was key to the social gospel movement at the turn of the 20th century. As a pastor in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood, Rauschenbusch understood that religious piety had no place unless accompanied by a commitment to improve social conditions, from child labor to chronic poverty.
Four and a half years ago, Wheeler left his post at First Baptist. He now works remotely as a professor at Palmer Theological Seminary, a professional shift that’s granted him more time to devote to Portland Jobs with Justice. Last month, for instance, he gave a short speech at a postal workers rally, expounding on the moral dimension of the labor struggle. For Wheeler, it’s not about disregarding self-interest—wages, benefits, working conditions, and respect all matter—but about recognizing and serving the common good.
“There is a moral structure to our reality that results in the long run in what we call the common good,” Wheeler said at the rally, dressed in a black leather jacket and newsboy cap. “There is a common good that embraces all of us. If one [of us is] not well-fed, none of us are well-fed. If one of us is disrespected, none of us is respected. If one of us has no place to lay their head that is safe and secure and their own, none of us have a place finally to lay our head.”
It’s also, Wheeler says, about not sitting idly by.
“If one does believe in the moral nature of the universe, that goal is not just passively out ahead of us,” he says. “That goal, that divine reality, is pressing in on us, so do it now. Do it now. [The universe] is on your side.”