Written by Anthony Moujaes
A nuevo dia — that's the theme, spoken of often during the 2013 Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) 200 mile march (in Florida) from Immokalee to Lakeland, the headquarters of Publix. By the time the march ended, the CIW members and their families had been joined by hundreds of supporters, including people of faith, students, activists and fair/safe food movement folks.
For those of us marching from the UCC, including Florida Conference Minister Kent Siladi and National Farmworkers Ministry staffer Bert Perry, participating in this march has become, unfortunately, an annual event. It is part of our commitment to the CIW and it is one more way to live out Jesus' commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves. It is one more way to live out the requirement of God, as spoken by Micah, to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. Surely God was walking among the farmworkers on this long trek for justice for those who pick our food.
Each of us was there because we wanted to put our commitment to justice in action, and to help end the centuries-old feudal agricultural system which the Immokalee workers are fighting. It's the same system that used slave labor for years, followed by the lowest-cost labor of share croppers and poor farm workers trapped by Jim Crow segregation. Make no mistake about it, Publix is supporting this same system. Oh, it might have changed its name and attire to match the modern world, but it's the same system that uses no-cost or cheap labor of many for the benefit of a few. Last year Publix earned something like $27 billion. The Immokalee workers are asking to be paid a penny per pound more for their labor and for the respect and fair treatment in the fields.
Sunday, the last day of the 200 mile trek, was the day that many others joined for the final hours and so we marched three by three. About a dozen members of our church joined the now 1500 marchers. Two of our members walked with walkers and one with a cane. I saw others around us in wheelchairs and walkers as well. I saw a big delegation from the Unitarian churches in the area. I saw Rev. Kim Wells from Lakeview UCC in St. Petersburg and other farm workers staff we work with. Rev. Michael Livingston from Interfaith Worker Justice, who fasted at last year's march with the workers, returned again this year and walked with our church.
What will I remember about this year's incredible march? I always remember the amazing grit, humility and determination of these women and men and children that inspire and touch us all. If only the leaders of Publix would sit down with them, they would see these qualities too.
I will remember those people I met. People like Julie, who farms a small farm in Maine with her husband. They had come with their two little daughters and Julie was determined to march every single one of the 200 miles herself. At the rally on Sunday her husband spoke poignantly about the connection between small farmers and farm workers, saying to Publix, “we will not allow you to separate farmers and farm workers.” There's a quiet but growing network of people across this nation, farmers, farm workers and consumers together, committed to fair and healthy food! It's about more than Publix.
And then I will remember the rally outside a Publix store near our church in Tampa. I was among the delegation that went to talk with the store managers. Over the three years that the Immokalee workers have been trying to sit down with Publix, they have held dozens of rallies outside their stores across the state. At the end of each, they send a delegation to talk with the store managers, to explain why they are marching outside their store and to ask them to tell their superiors at Publix why the farm workers are there. Often they not are able to see the managers, sometimes turned aside by security or local police. That has been occurring frequently during this year's march. But this time we did meet the manager and assistant manager.
As they listened to the words of Sylvia, one of the women farm workers, telling the story of the sexual harassment and safety issues faced by those working in the fields, the managers said nothing and stood with blank faces, as they had obviously been instructed. Sylvia said to them, just as you want to be paid a decent wage for your work, so, too do we. Just as you want respect, so too do we. Still not a word or change of expression. As the rabbi who accompanied us told them why she was there -- of her people's history of struggle for dignity and liberation, still not a word or change of expression.
And I remembered and understood something I had heard Archbishop Tutu say long ago. He said that white South Africans were trapped by their own system and were also damaged by it. For it took away some of their humanity. The cost of being a manager in Publix means losing of your humanity.
On Sundays in our local church we often talk about the kingdom of God and what it means to build it. It's not easy work because it requires sacrifice. The sacrifice of the cross. The sacrifice of working for a world of justice. Sometimes it means taking a stand against a wrong in our world or a wrong in our community. Sometimes that means tired feet in a long march.
But it's worth it because it means one day we will all sit down at the welcome table to share in God's abundance.
The Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson is the pastor of First United Church in Tampa, Florida.