National leaders of the farmworker movement join the UCC's Coachella commemoration. W. Evan Golder photo.
General Synod delegates honor, affirm farmworkers' efforts; commemorative resolution approved
The beer belly and the cross faced off in the stifling heat of California's Coachella Valley. Defiant grape growers were trying to break up a strike called by the then fledgling United Farm Workers. Two thousand miles away in St. Louis, at General Synod 9 in 1973, delegates were debating how best to respond to an urgent call from Cesar Chavez when the decision was made, "Let's go to California."
So it was that 95 volunteers, supported through the gifts of UCC people, chartered a DC-9 and quickly found themselves face to face with what one participant described as a line of armed thugs. In tense but nonviolent witness, the cross won out.
On Monday, July 14, at General Synod 24—30 years later—amid thunderous applause, a hardy band of 15 of these original "grape saints" barnstormed into the plenary to rekindle the flame of UCC support for farm workers.
They also got a chance to relive their sometimes-terrifying adventure. With red union flags waving, three of the four living UCC presidents, the Revs. John H. Thomas, Paul H. Sherry and Avery D. Post, were part of the celebration. The Rev. Joseph H. Evans was in attendance at Synod, but was unable to take part in the parade.
The California trip "changed my life forever," remembers the Rev. Marvin Morgan of First Congregational UCC of Atlanta, who at the time was co-chair of the UCC youth caucus. "I remember that the temperature was 106."
The Rev. Bill Klossner, pastor of Congregational UCC of Punta Gorda, Fla., also was transformed. A 20-year-old college student at the time and the youngest member to make the trip, it was his first experience on a picket line. On the flight, the fear of the unknown nearly did him in, he said, but the experience "got me out of my little box" and into "a whole new world."
Dolores Huerta, UFW co-founder, and the presidents of three other major farmworker unions—the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, the Immokalee Workers of Florida, and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos del Noroestes (PCUN)—praised the UCC for its support, both then and now. Their words evoked a flood of memories but none so sweet as the triumphal homecoming of 30 years ago.
On that momentous night in 1973, during the Synod's final business session, the doors of the meeting hall flung wide open. Ninety-five dirty, sweaty pilgrims, hefting boxes of grapes over their heads, streamed down the center aisle, tossing clusters of fruit to the adoring, clapping assembly. All business came to a halt as wildly enthusiastic delegates, staff and visitors joined the returning heroes in a gigantic conga line.
That excitement still lingers—this time in Minneapolis. After a rousing call to action by Bernice Powell Jackson, executive minister of the UCC's Justice and Witness Ministries, Synod delegates unanimously endorsed continued UCC support for the farm worker movement.
"Gracias!" shouted Dolores Huerta. "Viva!" the crowd thundered back.
William C. Winslow, a veteran General Synod press room reporter, is a free-lance writer in New York. Irwin Smallwood also contributed to this story.