The Underground Economy

At Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, where I am the Senior Minister, we held an experimental underground economy on the night of the full moon this November. We will hold a second on December 12—the next full lunacy—starting at 8 in the Judson Gym. Around 60 people gathered for the first event to eat food, drink wine, sell some stuff—and be their own poster.

Individuals gathered into groups seeking Justice, Systemic Change in the so-called real economy, Mercy, Encouragement, model development—there was even a group seeking ways to help others get through the current financial crisis. The group divided almost evenly, with 10 or so in each. Whatever we do in the Underground Economy Café—besides eating and drinking and “flea marketing”—will be grounded in encouragement, mercy making, and justice seeking. If you think this sounds vague, it is. The only things more vague are Washington’s “solutions to the economic situation”: We don’t really know what will come next. We do know that we will have to re-learn to rely on each other—for both the short-term and the long.

Renewed interest in local self-reliance is both a prod and a promise. The prod is the good company we keep: It does not appear that the government, Wall Street, or even Paul Krugman knows what to do, only repeating the word “unprecedented.” If they don’t know what to do, how could ordinary people possibly know what to do? Many of us don’t even have stocks or mortgages: We just have meltdowns and the freezing up of our credit line. Self-reliance is viewed through the lens of community: We may not be the cause of the recession, but our lives are daily affected by its consequences.

At Judson Church, we already have 10 percent new unemployment out of a congregation of 300 and we’re pretty sure more is coming. Those who are not in danger of losing their jobs are losing the value of their pensions; and we are all losing confidence.

The prod is a return to one’s roots, self, and local community with the promise that something good can happen here. When we speak of underground economy, we are talking of something that is larger than the “economy” described in vague generalities by pundits.

The Greek word oikonomeia—from which our word economy is derived—was the marketplace where goods and services were exchanged with joy and justice. Still today, economy is the need for people to eat and the need for people to enjoy: Think bread and roses. We often buy and sell our way to bread and roses. At our Lunacy Café Underground Economy experiment, we plan on buying and selling. Flea market is the metaphor. We will have a place where people can bring things they want to sell for money. We will have food, most of it potluck, but some donated by those who are able. Beyond that, we don’t know: When we come into self-reliance, many things are unknown. Then again, the “economy” of the pundits and the front page today is equally a realm of the unknown.

In an underground economy, we pay attention to the inner dimensions of these matters as well as the outer numbers at many fueling stations of life. People may need a hug as much as a cookie; they may need a place to vent as much as the escape of a movie; they may need some homemade music as much as a new CD; or they may need a night eating some good homemade food at a potluck as much as they used to need a night on the town or at a restaurant. Some will need job resources and education in food stamps and how to use them. Where does someone find the place where they can get over having to get on food stamps? Judson hopes that our underground café will have resources that are material and spiritual. It will have free counseling for people who wonder how they are going to keep on keeping on. Stress management joins resource management to make a locally run and owned self-reliant underground economy.

The purpose of our new project in the Underground Economy is to ferment hope. You might say hope is not very big. Surely, as Scott Nearing, author of The Good Life, says, “Hope butters no parsnips.” Perhaps our goal is to figure out how to not feel so bad in the midst of unprecedented difficulty.

But beyond this is the hope that eventually people will get fed up enough to say “no more” and mean it. Oikonomeia means household management—a plan for the fullness of time. There is hope that many underground experiments will blossom into a full-fledged alternative economy. It is not a stingy hope.

If we were in a football game, you would call this a Hail Mary pass. A Hail Mary is when you throw a long one and hope someone is down field to catch it. We are tossing this ball to the community because we are already too fed up not to begin imagining a different kind of economy. Watching Wall Street get bailed out by the government is like reading George Orwell’s 1984, where lies are truth and good is bad. Our members lose their jobs and those in desperate need increase. Judson believes we cannot just occupy our heritage or our prime real estate and whine. Instead, we intend to create some tables where people can help each other.

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