“So, just as there’s no end to the opportunities to organize workers, there’s really no end to ways that people of faith can be involved.”
Ed Brandt discusses various faith communities’ support of the farm worker movement, the need for collective bargaining rights, the mutual need between farm workers and churches in the United States, and why people should get involved with the work of NFWM today.
Ed Brandt: Well, here in the agricultural communities of the Willamette Valley, some of the Roman Catholic parishes are quite conservative, and growers are quite powerful in their local parishes, and so it’s been difficult for the Oregon Farm Worker Ministry to get much Roman Catholic involvement. Nationally, various Roman Catholic orders have been very supportive of the farm worker struggle. But when you get right down to the local setting and the politics of the local parish, then it’s very, much more difficult. We have tried to tell the farm worker story and introduce farm workers into local evangelical congregations so that more of the evangelical, non Catholic community could become a part of the farm worker struggle, but that has been difficult because these denominations, the more conservative evangelical denominations see ministry more as just sharing the Word and, you know, spiritual, rather than a more holistic kind of ministry, a justice ministry.
Staying involved over the long haul, I’d like to talk a little bit about that. I think it’s the workers themselves who really keep throwing out challenges to us in the farm worker ministry. Year after year, there are new campaigns to be involved with, for example, in the early years of the Oregon Farm Worker Ministry, we were mainly concerned with western Oregon and traditional agriculture like fruits and vegetables. But in the last decade, there have been, as abuses have come up in big feed lots and big dairies outside of western Oregon, in eastern Oregon and eastern Washington, the farm workers themselves have been coming to the unions, to the United Farm Workers saying, “Stand with us. We need collective bargaining, we need better wages, we need benefits on the job, we need safer conditions. We need a collective bargaining agreement that will protect us.” And, so, through the struggles that have taken place in eastern Oregon and western Oregon, more of the churches have become educated about how complex northwest agriculture is, and really how vital the faith participation is in the overall struggle. Just as we need the farm workers to speak to us in our churches, so also they need us to stand with them and to speak with them, you know, to offer our assurance, to offer our friendship, and our solidarity, so that they can keep going in their struggle.
So, you know, besides being involved in the union campaigns in eastern Oregon and Washington, the Oregon Farm Worker Ministry has been invited to be a part of the CAPACES leadership institute, which is occurring here in the Willamette Valley in the Woodburn area. PCUN, the farm workers’ union, has seen its main focus in this part of the 21st century to train the next generation of farm worker leaders, young people who will take us in through the next 50 years, in making our communities more open, more participatory, and that the citizens themselves can be involved in the process. So, as we’re a part of CAPACES, we have opportunities in our religious communities to be financial donors, to be volunteers in the work crews that are taking place to build this new institute, and to work really side-by-side with the farm workers who are building their own structure, and their own leadership institute. So, you know, this provides not only, you know, day-to-day labor, working side-by-side with the farm workers, but it’s mutual support. We can provide moral support to one another and with one another.
What would I say to those who are, maybe, searching for more information about the National Farm Worker Ministry? The farm workers, just in my 25 years that I’ve been involved in this movement, the movement has grown tremendously, not only in the numbers of unions today, but the different geographical regions of our country, and working in more ag commodities, you know, tobacco, and fruits and vegetables, and grapes, and dairy and feed lot, ferns, you know, horticulture, nursery stock, you name it. So, just as there’s no end to the opportunities to organize workers, there’s really no end to ways that people of faith can be involved. We can be involved in advocacy, that is, standing with the farm workers as they are involved in legislative advocacy, be involved in their leadership training for the next generation, just being present to listen to their stories, to affirm who they are and to affirm their struggle, and to really validate them as people, as people of faith and people who are in charge of their own destiny. Then, as we listen, and we ourselves can interpret their stories to our own faith communities from which we come, and which we serve on a day-to-day basis. So I’m saying that anyone in any faith community, if you have listening skills, if you have fundraising capacities, if you’re a good organizer or a good communicator, if you have technological skills and leadership skills, and you want to offer them to a good cause, then the National Farm Worker Ministry is a good place to put those gifts to work, those skills to very good purpose, in promoting justice for farm workers. This is really a movement not only for a variety of denominations, but for a variety of ages and people, and this has been really wonderful for me to see how YAYA is working, and that even just the past couple of days, to be part of a national meeting in which younger people have had a major role in carrying out our meeting, and then leading our meetings as well. So I’m grateful for that opportunity, to see a variety of, a multi-generational movement going on in the farm worker community.