In these excerpts, David Wildman discusses a Biblical argument for taking the lead from farm workers by looking to the story of Nehemiah and also referencing the ancient Hebrew prophets Isaiah and Micah.
David Wildman: Well, I think, you know, Ruth and Naomi is one example of how as migrant workers there’s, not only their situation was lifted up but how they took initiative in that situation to try and address the concerns. But Nehemiah, the fifth chapter, the people kind of returned to the land and are beginning to kind of reestablish themselves after being displaced and dispossessed. So there’s a migration thing, forced migration if you will. And suddenly there is a dynamic of repression within the community itself of some people exploiting and forcing into enslaved or slavery others in the community.
Now that was one small community of the Hebrew people of that time, but I think that the challenge is… the ‘how do we stand with them?’ The community organized, so, Nehemiah took the lead from people complaining and then gathering together, and I think that is, you know, something that is hard for us. There is a lot of charity orientations, so you know, and certainly there is a history within migrant ministries of churches of saying, ‘Let’s go to the fields and provide water. Let’s help out with housing.’ Those are critical issues. There’s no question. But the step is critical for the churches to take, I think, is to say ‘How do we listen to what farm workers are saying about their conditions and out of their conditions they are offering a model for us as a servant church on the way.’ They are forced to serve others all the time through their labor. But you know the examples of Cesar Chavez would be a modern day example that is very Biblically connected. Folks leading out of the fields to say ‘We have something to say to the powerful.’ And the powerful’s faith may be restored only when they listen to and respond to the needs and cries and leadership of the farm workers.
What I’ve found is that farm workers often can remind us of the agricultural groups if you will of many of the Biblical stories, and so they get it because they’re working day to day with crops. So, you know, images of, everyone in Micah 4 talks about, ‘they shall beat their swords into plow shares.’ One of the things that’s invariably happened, not just in the swords, but today is when more and more resources go to making more [weapons and war] … there’s a direct consequence in terms of agriculture and sustainability and the food industry. So that swords and plowshares thing that’s been very powerful as a Biblical scripture for the peace movement and in New York across the street from the United Nations there’s the Isaiah wall. ‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares.’ Well Micah goes on to say, ‘And everyone shall live under their own vine and their own victory and no one shall make them afraid.’
Well, if you look at the situation of farm workers, they are being intimidated, they don’t own the land, and in many cases it’s small farmers from Mexico, from Central America who’ve been pushed off the land by large corporations, and by governments. And have been forced to kind of move so now they’re still doing agricultural work but instead of on their own land they are doing that work for someone else. And Micah reminds us, no, the image and intent of God is that each of us will be able to kind of grow the food that we need to sustain ourselves, our family, our immediate communities. So a lot of the local, you think about now there’s a movement for eating local and producing local and so folks are looking for what’s the green market, the farmers market that I can kind of connect to in New York? So in the summer season are there products that come from within a hundred miles or so that I can make available?
Well that’s beginning to kind of open an entry point from a consumer stand point to the realities of what would that look like for the farm workers as well and the folks that work the land? And I think it’s a constant of like ‘How do we bring folks back together to see our common connections?’ It’s not easy because much of our society pushes us away from each other. So I don’t want to pretend that it’s at all easy but I found when folks are willing to take time to listen and then there’s a really important part of this for me is that, if you tell folks how bad things are in the fields but don’t give folks a sense of, well, where am I able to step in? What’s something I can do? Then a lot of folks are just like, you know, I’d like to hear but I can’t, I’ve got enough stress in my life, I’m struggling with just whether I’ll keep my job or not and how to provide for my family. But if you tell me something concrete that I can be a part of and I hear a way that I can actually connect and do something, and that’s where the boycott campaigns are terrific. You know, it’s not ‘Stop eating.’ It’s ‘Stop buying one product to send a message of support and solidarity and to urge a company to say, you need to change your practices.’ And then realize that that does lead to victories at times. It’s a huge movement, I mean, boycott campaigns take huge effort so the fact that there are not as many right now I think is a sign partly of the recognition by unions, especially the farm worker movements, that you don’t enter something like this lightly because of failed boycott or one that just calls for something and people don’t step is more disempowering, especially for the farm workers.
So you want to pick your campaigns wisely of what really there’s some vulnerability for some real change to take place even if it is one step in a much longer struggle. But there is a lot of lessons from being a part of that for churches. And I would say in that that a lot of churches right now have gotten Isaiah 58, sorry Micah 6:8 backwards. I don’t know if the church is dyslexic, but it says to do justice and to love mercy and to walk humbly with God. And a lot of the church loves justice and does mercy. That’s not what Micah calls us to do. They love to hear about justice, so they’ll do a film screening. They will do an event and then the outcome of it at the end may be, well let’s plan another event. And then the actions are food pantries and direct service, all of which is very important, but if it’s not tied to what is the doing justice component then we’ve fallen short of what it is that God is calling us to do. And I think that’s where the organizing of farm workers and the unions have been critical to remind folks, and the National Farm Worker Ministry really works to remind churches ‘Look, the church is an organized community. It’s not just an event.’ And so too, the farm worker movements and the churches walking with them are organizing movements, not one time events.