FEATURE: Mary, Full of Grace

By on March 28, 2017

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Mary Erickson recalls spring 2011 as a turning point. It marked the time she understood what her role in the community would be.

For about a week, a group of anti-choice protesters from Kansas lined the streets of Jackson. Their signs depicted graphic images of aborted fetuses. In response, the town filed a restraining order against the protesters to keep them away from the tourist hub of Town Square. Then two protesters violated the order, and a Jackson resident drove his car through a sign in retaliation.

The following summer, the group came back, this time with a permit. They would protest on the Town Square during the Boy Scouts’ annual Elk Fest, where hundreds of children and tourists would gather. Exposing Elk Fest attendees to the protesters’ signs was a publicity nightmare for the town. Locals didn’t want to scare kids. Officials didn’t want to scare tourists.

“I could feel the energy getting higher and higher, and more and more negative,” Erickson said. “Everything from throwing urine balloons off roofs to literally bearing arms.”

Such was Jackson’s initial response. But what surprised Erickson was how many people in the community spoke up against the anti-choice outsiders. Even conservative Christian churches in town had asked the group not to return in 2012. Erickson realized that it was not a debate of anti-choice versus pro-choice. Jackson was not rallying behind an issue, but rather against a group of people.

As a priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Erickson saw her opportunity to step up as a faith leader. She understood that the anti-choice protesters had a right to share their message. But so, too, did the community have a right to respond.

Violent retaliation was not going to accomplish anything, she realized. And while people might not agree on the issue, they could perhaps agree, “as a community there is a certain standard that we want to hold for how we treat each other and how we have public dialogue.”

Thus Jackson Hole United was born, bearing the slogan “Civility, Compassion, Love.” It was a message that resonated with the community, Erickson said. “It just sort of took off. I think people embraced the spirit of those words. They empowered us in a way that was not confrontational and violent, and it totally disarmed [the protesters].”

By the end of the week that second summer, rather than bearing weapons and threats, Jackson community members were bringing the protesters bottles of water. Elk Fest day arrived, and the protesters had left their big graphic signs behind. “We had moved past civility and to compassion,” Erickson said.

Six years later, Erickson sees polarization in the current political climate. Now she’s ushering “Civility, Compassion, Love” back to the forefront of community conversation. She always knew her work with JH United wasn’t over, but she did not quite know how it could serve the community again. Then Donald Trump was elected president, and the environment around her shifted.

One of JH United’s first orders of business was a follow-up meeting to the Jackson Hole Women’s March on a recent Tuesday in February. The meeting encapsulated Erickson’s engagement and advocacy style, people discussed why they were there and engaged in group exercises to spark new ideas about activism.

“Right now for me, the public dialogue in this country has gotten so ugly and divisive,” Erickson said. People across the political and ideological spectrum are afraid, and people in fear often lash out. But Erickson wants Jacksonites to remember the message they all once agreed on. “Six years ago, the community made a commitment to behave a certain way,” she said. “Let’s hold true to that.”

Advocacy in her blood

Erickson was not raised religious, but faith and advocacy run in her family. When asked what sparked her interest in activism, she laughed. “I grew up in Berkeley, it’s kind of in my genes.”

She describes her religious upbringing as “C&E”—Christmas and Easter. But she comes “from a long line of ministers,” and learned about activism from her mother, who dedicated her life to activism and education in Berkeley’s African American community. For Erickson, faith and advocacy are inseparable. “The Gospel is a social justice gospel,” she said. “That’s why it speaks to me. I don’t believe it’s about personal salvation. It’s about universal and communal salvation. We’re in this together.”

Erickson went to seminary at Harvard Divinity School, among the most progressive seminaries in the country. And while she knew advocacy was her calling, she was not always certain how to live the life she imagined for herself. Before moving to Jackson, Erickson worked in public relations for a software company in rural South Dakota, where she lived with her husband Bruce. “It wasn’t what I was meant to do,” she said. Still, her time in South Dakota offered important perspective.

“I think everyone from the city should live in a rural part of the country, and vice-versa.”

She and Bruce moved to Jackson because it offered compromise to their conflicting lifestyles: Erickson needed to live somewhere a little more urban, but her husband wanted a small town. She found more than just a semi-urban lifestyle. She found a community in the Episcopal Church, where she was ordained, and channeled her faith into priesthood.

Erickson entered priesthood in part, she said, to reclaim the Gospel from a dominantly conservative following. “Sometimes I feel like we’re reading a different Bible,” she said. She pointed out that Jesus did not preach about homosexuality or abortion. “That’s not what Jesus’s message was.” In fact, Jesus was pretty radical, she said. And his message “was about caring for our neighbor and loving one another—caring for the least of us.”

Caring for the least of us

Erickson’s advocacy work in Jackson primarily focuses on immigrant populations. Right away, she identified immigrants as among the most vulnerable people in the community. “They’re not treated well, not given the respect and opportunities that we enjoy,” she said. “And yet, they’re a huge, critical part of our economy. We’re completely dependent on them.”

Erickson initially immersed herself in the immigrant community as director of the Community Resource Center, now One22. After two years, she recently realized she needed a platform for more in-depth advocacy, and in fact one such platform already existed: JH United. Today, that is where she is focusing her energy. One of her primary objectives with JH United, she said, is to provide advocacy to Jackson’s immigrant community. That was Jesus’s message—he encouraged his followers to welcome outsiders as neighbors and family, she said.

But Erickson has noticed reluctance from people in Jackson and across the country to welcome outsiders on U.S. soil. Especially in light of President Trump’s recent immigration and travel ban and executive order. “People are terrified,” Erickson said.

Rather than criminalizing immigrants by focusing on legal status, Erickson wants concerned citizens to see the humanity in their immigrant neighbors. “These are good people who you like and interact with,” she said. Since the election, Erickson has seen an increase in immigrant families seeking out legal advice to determine what will happen to their children if they are deported. “No one should have to make that decision,” she said. “That’s where the compassion part comes in.”

And then, of course, there are the facts. Erickson hears the phrase “get in line” from a lot of people who want to address immigrant legality. But for most of Jackson’s immigrant population, “there is no line,” she said. Most people Erickson knows who live here illegally do so on an expired visa. They came here five, 10, even 20 years ago with a legal visa, but “the opportunity for that visa disappeared. They established themselves here, had children, started families, and now have no choice but to stay and live in the shadows.”

“Overstaying your visa is a misdemeanor,” Erickson continued. “But people don’t see it that way because it’s been so politicized.” Erickson shies away from using language like “illegal immigrant” or “alien.” People break the law all the time, she said—people constantly break the speed limit, and doing so is actually a higher offense than overstaying a visa. But no one labels traffic violators “illegal.” Such dehumanizing language is reserved for immigrants. In fact, overstaying a nonimmigrant visa is not even a criminal offense, it’s a civil one. Calling someone “illegal,” then, is not only dehumanizing, it’s inaccurate.

In Jackson, housing is a social justice issue

Issues of immigration are also tied up in Jackson’s housing crisis. Housing, Erickson believes, is a justice issue. “People in poverty don’t have secure housing. They’re the people least able to live here.” It’s also a public health issue. Teton County Public Health identified a lack of secure housing as one of the most critical community needs in 2015. That was the same year rent at Blair Place Apartments increased by almost 40 percent, and construction of the Marriott hotel displaced an entire neighborhood of people who lived in trailer homes on the property. Jorge Moreno was living in Blair Place Apartments at the time, and Erickson was the first person he turned to for help.

“She always had an answer, and not only an answer but a way to do things that were working,” Moreno said. He and Erickson decided to take community-wide action. Moreno wanted to talk to his neighbors at Blair Place Apartments and be an advocate for them. Erickson said, “go ahead and do it.”

“She’s the one that made it happen … that encouraged me to do things,” Moreno said.

Moreno and Erickson took the momentum they gained talking to tenants at Blair Place and formed their own advocacy organization. Shelter JH was born to provide a third-party advocacy group that focuses specifically on housing.

“We really wanted to push the envelope a little bit and take more risks,” Erickson said. “There was some advocacy going on, but it was all very cautious.”

Shelter JH’s inaugural historic event was a housing rally that drew more than 100 people to a town council meeting where commercial development in the downtown core was on the agenda. “Some people thought it was threatening,” Erickson said, “but from my perspective, to have over 100 people engaged in local politics was amazing. That, to me, is the ideal of democracy.”

Now, Shelter JH is a 501c4 nonprofit, which “enables us to keep that level of lobbying and be a little more political than with a 501c3,” Erickson said. Most of their work simply involves going door-to-door and talking to community members about their housing needs, and then communicating those needs to town and county electeds.

“It’s really about the people,” Erickson said. Erickson admitted that she doesn’t even consider herself a housing advocate, “but it’s the area I’ve been most active in because in this community, that’s a justice issue.”

Immigration and housing issues often intersect in discussions about an “essential” workforce. Conversations in the valley tend to focus on how the housing crisis impacts “essential workers,” Erickson said. But there’s a tension in that definition. “By that same token,” she said, “our economy is driven by service workers. That’s a demographic that nobody was talking about. There’s a lot of conversation about housing essential workers, but there’s another community of people that really was not even on the table.” Much of Erickson’s time at the Community Resource Center involved showing up at meetings to make sure that conversations about housing included immigrants.

As with the issue of abortion, Erickson believes that discussions about immigration have to focus on finding a common ground. She recalls conversations with another founding member of JH United who happens to be a Trump supporter. “You’d probably be surprised,” she wrote her friend, “to know that I agree with about 90 percent of what you’re saying.” Those similarities, Erickson says, are what people need to dwell on. “When we’re able to strip away Republican and Democrat, liberal and conservative, there’s a lot we can agree on,” she said.

Communication is a two-way street. Erickson recognizes that if she expects people to listen to her message, she has to be willing to do the same. “I have to understand and be able to test my own faith and my own beliefs,” she said.

Once, in seminary, a black man from a “very conservative” Southern Baptist church approached her. “You liberals talk a lot about tolerance,” he said, “but you’re tolerant towards everyone but conservatives.”

Perhaps if people can forgo tolerance and strive for compassion, Erickson says, hard conversations will gain traction.

Starting at home

Erickson has two children, Adele, 16, and Oscar, 12. As a mother, she says part of her mission with JH United is a personal one. It’s about the message she is communicating with her kids. “We’re letting our kids down,” she said. “We need to show them a different model of behavior, a standard for how to treat each other.” In addition to engaging with the community, Erickson has tried to instill “Civility, Compassion, Love” as the core values her kids use to interact with each other, which not surprisingly, has proven challenging. Still, Erickson recognizes the example she must set for her kids in how they engage with the world around them.

Adele and Oscar are budding activists. When Erickson arrived at the meeting point for the Jackson Hole Women’s March on January 21, she expected a small crowd of people. She remembers rounding the corner with a handful of JH Activate shirts to hand out, and walking into a sea of pink. “I called my daughter and said, ‘You need to get up right now.’” The teen was reluctant until Erickson explained how many people were waiting to march.

“I’ll be right there,” Adele replied.

Erickson’s son Oscar, meanwhile, recently created a presentation for his middle school class about the country’s wage gap. He illuminated the wage disparity as it existed 20 years ago, and compared it to what it is now ($.20 to the dollar higher, for white women). We’ve come a long way, Oscar said, but look how long it’s taken us, and look how far we have to go.

Erickson thinks that is an apt lesson to take away from all social justice-related conversations. “My general feeling is that in history, the arc bends towards justice,” she said, borrowing language from Martin Luther King, Jr. After the election, she worried that she might be wrong. What she realized, however, is that “history is a long, long, long, long time.” Progress in any arena, she said, is not reason to stop fighting for justice and equity.

She sees that complacency often in conversations about race and racism. Racism is harder to recognize these days, she says. “We’re not all wearing white coats.” But she recalls another conversation with the same conservative Baptist in seminary: “I’d rather be in the South where I know what I’m dealing with, than be in the North where everyone says all the right things but [racism] is still there.”

How to unite the valley

The bulk of Erickson’s work now is in moving forward with JH United. First, she has to figure out exactly what role the organization will play. Its mission, she said, is to provide a hyper-local focus on advocacy while maintaining the original values of civility, compassion and love. Part of that is providing a space for people to disagree, and to have those hard conversations, she said. “There needs to be room for more of those kinds of dialogues.” Indeed, much of Erickson’s original success six years ago came not from vilifying people with whom she did not agree, but from meeting them where they were.

She also hopes to solidify a group under JH United that focuses exclusively on issues of immigration. “I don’t feel like there’s a strong voice there right now, and there needs to be,” she said.

Erickson hopes to serve not as a replacement, but rather as a supplement for already-existing activist groups. There are a lot of organizations focused on the national scene right now, she said, “which is fabulous. I’m called to be very locally focused. What’s important to our community, and what do we need to be doing as a community to be more whole and healthy?”

Erickson hopes that in addition to direct advocacy work, JH United can also serve as an educational tool for those who want to be more involved. She wants to offer workshops on “Civility 101,” and answer questions as common but complicated as how to have meaningful and respectful conversations around a Thanksgiving dinner table.

JH United has filed for 501c3 status and is awaiting approval. And the response has been overwhelming. People want to know how to help. When the idea hit her to reignite JH United, she sent hand-written letters to more than 300 people, and received more than 100 responses. “That’s unheard of,” Erickson said. Clearly, she says, “there’s a huge desire out there. I feel like I’ve sort of tapped into something. If we can take that energy, I think we can make amazing things happen.”

Jackson is a small town, but it is a visible one. “We can do things here that can be a model for the rest of the country,” Erickson said. “We can set the standard.”

Advocacy is Erickson’s calling, she says, and it will upset people. “But part of the point is that you’re supposed to make people a little uncomfortable with the status quo. That’s the whole idea.” But it is possible to upset the status quo in a way that is engaging and respectful.

Moreno, for his part, is eager to praise Erickson’s advocacy work. “[Erickson] has been that one that has always looked out for community members … That’s how Mary makes me feel—that we are there for a purpose, to help people and advocate for people.”

Towards the end of that fateful week in 2012, Erickson recalled a Brigham Young University student from Rexburg, Idaho, who approached her. As she spoke, it became clear to Erickson that she was in town to protest abortion. But she revealed to Erickson that she was beginning to understand that nobody is “pro-abortion.” Anti-choice activists need to be concerned with life not just in the womb, she told Erickson. Erickson was shocked. “You sound like a pro-choicer,” she joked.

Her mission made sense to her then. She had to show people how to have those hard conversations, and advocate for those who needed it.

“When people say, ‘Don’t do advocacy’ … that’s my job,” Erickson said. “That’s my job and my calling.” And for Erickson, it all comes back to the Bible.

“If I’m not willing to stand up and have a voice around what Christianity means to me, I’ve just given up on it. The true message of Jesus is lost, and it’s a really powerful message. We need it in this world.”

JH United has given Erickson a vehicle to propagate that message. “You haven’t been able to shut me up since.” PJH

About Shannon Sollitt

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