Justice immersion event in Florida advocates for rights of farm workers
United Church of Christ leaders and a dozen local church members are spending a day in the tomato fields of Florida with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), to get first-hand experience on their working and living conditions.
Edith Rasell, UCC minister for economic justice, and the Rev. John Vertigan, conference minister of the UCC Florida Conference, are among those who are touring the fields in Immokalee, Fla., on Friday, Jan. 30. Their shared hope is that they return home from this immersion experience with a story to share.
“We seek to build support among the people who immerse themselves there,” said Rasell, “so that these 12 people might go home and tell their congregations and, with the help of our resources, can advocate for their rights.”
“[The Florida Conference] has a long relationship with the workers,” Vertigan said. “I want to see not only what they are doing in terms of fair foods, but what they are also doing on human trafficking, worker-to-worker justice. The program is much broader than I know it to be. I want to hear the stories of workers, stories of leaders, and how the Florida Conference can continue to partner with those who share values like ours.”
The UCC delegation is part of a larger group of about 50 people, most of whom are National Farm Worker Ministry board members, representing denominations that vary in size. The board meets twice a year, each time putting its business aside to spend a day with farm workers, and welcomes advocates who can hear about working and housing conditions of the workers from the people themselves.
Rasell, a member of the board, said the group plans immersion experiences such as these to learn more about specific issues of interest to the farm workers.
“We’ll hear personal stories, and also hear what they’ve done in the last 15 years to make their lives better,” Rasell said.
The CIW, a community-based organization of Latino, Mayan Indian and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage agriculture jobs, has long had the support of the UCC in its campaign for better wages and working conditions. The UCC first got involved with the group’s campaign for better wages for farm workers in 2001, when the CIW took on Taco Bell. So far, 12 multibillion-dollar corporations have signed onto the CIW’s Fair Food Program, agreeing to pay a penny-per-pound premium to their tomato suppliers, which is passed on directly to workers.
Vertigan, who began as conference minister in Florida at the beginning of January, has made it a priority to learn as much about, and meet the people from, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in his first 100 days. He hopes to ramp up the involvement from local congregations as a mission priority by inviting them to a deeper connection with the CIW.
“The gospel calls us into partnership with the disenfranchised and marginalized, and continuing this work makes it concrete,” he added. “It makes it live instead of a story, and gives us opportunity not just to claim the Gospel, but also to embody it.”
“Justice advocacy is high on what the church should be about,” he added. “I’m hoping this is a venue for that.”
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