A Contemplative Day: Farm Worker Statistics

Pass around to participants so that each person reads one fact aloud.

Farmworkers’ Reality

1. A study conducted in a five-county area in central North Carolina found that due to low wages, nearly half of NC farmworker households cannot adequately feed themselves or their families.

2. Each year, 2-3 million farmworkers and their families labor in fields in the US. 77% of these workers are Mexican.

3. 85% of US fruit and vegetable crops are still harvested by hand.

4. North Carolina’s major crops include cucumbers, tobacco, apples, sweet potatoes, Christmas trees, and green peppers, all of which require hand labor.

spreadingtheword_0_0.JPG5. In North Carolina, there are an estimated 142,000 migrant farmworkers and their dependents during the growing season, 90% of whom are Latino.

6. Most federal and state labor laws, such as those governing minimum wage, overtime, workers’ compensation and protection when joining unions, are different for farmworkers or exclude them altogether.

7. Pervasive poverty and joblessness in Mexico and Latin America force thousands of farmworkers to cross to “the other side” to work in the US, both legally and without proper documentation. At least 52% of farmworkers are undocumented.

8. 71% of every food income dollar goes to corporate food processors, 23% goes to farmers, and 6% goes to farmworkers.

9. Most farmworkers earn less than $10,000 per year. Studies have shown that increasing farmworker wages by 50% would cost the average consumer less than $5 more for fresh produce per year.

10. Agriculture is considered the second most dangerous occupation in the US, after mining. Workers labor long days (often 12-14 hours per day) exposed to intense sun and heat, with few breaks. In 2005, two farmworkers died in the fields of heat-related illnesses.

11. 45% of adult immigrant farmworkers are married and have children but leave their families behind while working in the United States. Most live in isolated labor camps provided by employers.

A Contemplative Day: Cesar Chavez’s Fasts for Righteousnes

This should be read before the walking meditation, and can be read by being passed from one participant to the next. Facilitator can choose to use 1-2 of the reflection questions or none at all.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.

In this Beatitude, Jesus speaks to his disciples regarding righteousness in the most elemental terms possible. There are no physical sensations more primal than hunger and thirst. If a person is in dire thirst there is nothing she will not try in order to satisfy her craving. The reason for this is simple: without water a person will die. Hunger and thirst are regular parts of our lives, and they are instincts that save us from death. It is with this powerful language of hunger and thirst that Jesus confronts his listeners in the Sermon on the Mount.

cesarcross.jpgIn the original text there is a definite article before the word “righteousness.” This article is often not expressed in our English translations. A more accurate translation might read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after the righteousness, for they shall be filled.” What does this mean? What is Jesus trying to communicate here? It seems that Jesus is confronting popular conceptions of righteousness, and promoting a specific type of righteousness. The righteousness that Jesus promotes is not an abstract righteousness, or dusty legality, but a deep and abiding righteousness that bears witness to the kingdom of heaven on earth, a truly new kingdom defined by forgiveness, peace, and hospitality. The righteousness that Jesus refers to in this Beatitude is the kingdom ethic promoted on the Sermon on the Mount. How are humans supposed to respond to this new ethic, this specific righteousness? We are supposed to desire it as we desire food. It is to be such a priority to us that we sense that we would starve without it.


In “The Long, Hot Summer of 1967,” brooding political and social tensions erupted into violence across the U.S. Radical political rhetoric increasingly evoked violent imagery. Riots broke out in Detroit and Newark, and violence loomed over the fields of California. The popular vision of violent and rapid social change seduced some of the striking farm workers in César Chávez’s movement. They had grown tired of participating patiently in the non-violent struggle for justice. They began to carry weapons, threaten scabs with beatings, and commit acts of sabotage on police cars and farm machinery. César grieved this violent spirit and rebuked the strikers saying, “You reap what you sow; if we become violent with others, then we will become violent among ourselves. Social justice for the dignity of man cannot be won at the price of human life.” Despite his words, the longing for violence among the disgruntled farm workers only seemed to increase. Early in 1968 large scale violence seemed unavoidable. Cesar then began another form of rebuke, one that reveals profoundly what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.

César’s non-violence was inspired by his Catholicism. Additionally, he had seen non-violence work in the Martin Luther King Jr.’s struggle in the South. César understood that non-violence is truthful because it reveals Christ’s righteousness. For this reason, César understood the emerging militant tendencies of some members of the United Farm Workers union to be a move toward unrighteousness. Thus, as the leader of the farm worker movement, César announced that he would refuse food “until such a time as everyone ignored” him or “made up their minds that they were going to be committing to non-violence.” César announced his fast on February 18th, and told those near him that he had already been fasting for 4 days.

Day after day César lay in a bed declining food until the members of his cesarwalking.jpgunion convinced him that they were committed to the righteousness of non-violence. This fast became a defining moment for the farm worker movement. As César lay in bed, farm workers from all over California gathered around his quarters. The farm workers pitched tents near César’s house, creating a community. They began to share food among themselves and pray together. César’s fast was inaugurating a spiritual revival among the farm workers. On March 11th, the twenty-five day fast ended with a Mass, attended by 8,000 people. He broke bread with his mother and Senator Robert Kennedy. He began to fill his stomach again, because his hunger for righteousness was also being filled. After the liturgy, a statement written by César was read over the loud speakers. In the statement César wrote:

“The Fast was first for me and then for all of us in this Union. It was a fast for non-violence and a call to sacrifice. Our struggle is not easy. Those who oppose our cause are rich and powerful and they have many allies in high places. We are poor. Our allies are few. But we have something the rich do not own. We have our bodies and our spirits and the justice of our cause as our weapons. “It is my deepest belief that only by giving our lives do we find life. I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act…is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally non-violent struggle for justice. God help us…”

César’s fast in the winter of 1968 provides a dramatic example of what it means to hunger and thirst for righteousness. While Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically, César’s fast is a literal embodiment of experiencing hunger for the sake of righteousness. The righteousness of non-violence was so important to César that he expressed his longing for it through becoming physically hungry. His desire for the righteousness, both his own and that of the farm worker movement, are inspirational to farm worker advocates today.

Reflection Questions:

  • When were you most physically hungry in your life? Describe what it felt like. How does that experience influence how you understand this Beatitude?
  • How do you think that César’s faith helped sustain him during struggles that he saw in his 31 years of work with farm workers?
  • Why do you think that people are so quickly satisfied with their own righteousness? What do you think is at the root at the root of spiritual complacence?
  • Reflect on the statement that César had read after he broke his fast. How is it related to the Sermon on the Mount?
  • Do you think that Jesus was speaking metaphorically or literally when he said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they shall be filled?”
  • Do you think César’s hunger for righteousness was filled?

page 13-16 of Witnesses to the Kingdom: The Beatitudes Embodied by Matthew Smalley. National Farm Worker Ministry 2005.

A Contemplative Day: Farmworker Communion

Pass around for each participant to read one paragraph each before the meal.

Communal Act

Many generations after that first supper, there was another feast, and the guests ate and drank throughout the day and on into the night. A huge table was draped with a dazzling white cloth, woven of cotton picked by farmworkers in Alabama and Georgia.

Baskets were heaped high with fruit: citrus plucked in Florida groves by Hispanic, Black and Haitian migrants; melons carried from South Carolina fields by malnourished migrant children; apples and cherries picked in Pennsylvania and West Virginia by underpaid families traveling to follow the harvest.

Platters were piled high with fresh vegetables: white and sweet potatoes, cucumbers, corn, beans, lettuce, cabbage, peppers, onions–each representing the hard labor of seasonal farmworkers.

Throughout the feast, wine flowed–wine from vast California vineyards, where Latino laborers had organized, to demand and receive better pay and working conditions.

And the people sat back and ate, and drank, and talked and laughed, and the air was clouded with smoke from their North Carolina tobacco.

When the hour was come, a brown skinned guest, wearing worn overalls, stood among them, took the remaining bread, offered thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you; take and eat, in remembrance of all of us who labor in the fields, that you might eat.’

And likewise, she took the wine and when she had given thanks, gave it to them. And she said to them, “This is the blood of the migrant farmworkers, which is shed for many. Verily, I say unto you, we will not drink of the good wine, nor eat of the feast until the kingdom of God comes to this earth.”

A Contemplative Day: Buddhist Meal Prayers

Make copies and pass out to group to read aloud together before meal.

Over the full serving bowls of food, say:

In this food I see clearly
the presence of the entire universe
supporting my existence.

Looking into one’s own empty bowl, breathe in the suffering of all those whose bowls are empty while saying:

All living beings are struggling for life.

Breathe out while saying:

May they all have enough food
to eat today.


Food is served. Just before eating, see into the food and beyond the food to all the hands that brought it to you: the cooks, the grocery clerks, the truck drivers, the food processors, the farmers, etc., and hold them in gratitude and compassion while saying:

The plate is filled with food.
I am aware that each morsel
is the fruit
of much hard work
by those who produced it.

At the first mouthful, say:

With the first taste, I promise
to practice loving-kindness.
With the second, I promise
to relieve the suffering of others.
With the third,
I promise to see others’ joy as my own.
With the fourth,
I promise to learn the way of nonattachment and equanimity.

After the meal, say:

The plate is empty.
My hunger is satisfied.
I vow to live for the benefit
of all living beings.

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Contemplative Day Reflecting on Food & Labor

(Modeled on Peace Hill Gathering 9/9/05 facilitated by Melinda Wiggins, Student Action with Farmworkers & Lori Fernald Khamala, National Farm Worker Ministry)

In advance:

  • Prepare altar with candles, religious symbols, photos of farmworkers, and foods farmworkers pick
  • Ask participants to bring a healthy, nourishing dish for potluck lunch
  • Ask participants to bring stories or readings from their own faith traditions about food
  • Bring a bell (or other) to break silence

9am-9:30 Gather & Welcome

  • Introduce selves and why you came today
  • Overview of the day
  • Opening quote/theme (below): examining ways we are connected and disconnected from our food; nourishing ourselves physically and spiritually; connection between what we put in our bodies and how it gets there

Food is basic to life, and those who provide it enable us to live. Sharing food, the means to life and livelihood, is what a community does. Breaking bread implies that those of us who receive the food pledge ourselves to justice for those who provide it.

from “Hands of Harvest Hearts of Justice” (a farmworker curriculum by National Farm Worker Ministry and NC Council of Churches), Session 1 “Food: A Sacred Exchange” theme written by Sr. Evelyn Mattern

9:30-10:00 Centering Reading by Wendell Berry (below)

Sit in Silence

We can [not] live harmlessly or strictly at our own expense; we depend upon other creatures and survive by their deaths. To live, we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. The point is, when we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament; when we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration…in such desecration, we condemn ourselves to spiritual and moral loneliness, and others to want.

from Wendell Berry, The Gift of Good Land (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1983, 1981), pp. 272-281 (I took it from page 12 of Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, edited and compiled by Michael Schut of Earth Ministry, Denver, CO: Living the Good News, 2002)

10-10:30 Discussion–Food: A Sacred Exchange

  • Overview/thoughts about the rituals of food (feast and fast) in our secular and spiritual lives and how those intersect
  • Opening reading by Thomas Moore (below)
  • Discussion of our faith traditions’ relationship to food: How does your own faith tradition connect with food, feasting and fasting?
  • Share any readings participants have brought
  • Open sharing of personal food rituals & how related to personal spirituality. Examples: Spiritual rituals: communion, Ramadan fasting, Jewish Passover Seder, Moravian Love Feast, table grace, church picnics. Secular (and secular as spiritual): shopping, eating around a table, gardening, farmers markets, family holiday gatherings, etc.

Reading by Thomas Moore*:
In fasting and in feasting, in proscriptions and blessings, religions around the world stress the importance of food for the soul, not just for the body. When I was a child, we ate fish on Friday and fasted for hours before communion and gave up certain food in Lent, and these simple food practices helped link religion with daily life in a simple but effective form of enchantment…

…Give us this day our daily crumb, our ice cream cone, our cherry pie. The slightest things–a walk, a word, a breeze, a passing view–please the soul immeasurably, and feed it. An dinner with a hint of imagination and effort, a tree bearing fruit outside the kitchen, a favorite market, an old recipe, can all feed the soul even as they nourish the body…

…Religion and poetry teach us how to recapture the soul in food, but we don’t have to “baptize” food by surrounding it with pomp and circumstance or elaborate symbolism. We could maintain food’s simplicity while at the same time safeguarding all the fantasy, memory, and emotion that are associated with or contained in it. Such ordinary activities as shopping, canning, boxing, making a pantry, and filling a shelf are rites of food that give as much to the soul as they do to the body.

* from pages 64-66 of The Interiority of Food by Thomas Moore, in Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, edited and compiled by Michael Schut of Earth Ministry, Denver, CO: Living the Good News, 2002 (originally printed in Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore, 1992, HarperCollins).

10:30-10:45 Stretch Break to affirm the body, “God’s beloved creation”
Yoga may be appropriate if someone can lead the group

10:45-11:05 Sit in Silence

11:05-11:20 Preparation for meal & transition from food to labor

  • Gather around altar of food and other items
  • Ask participants to list all the hands that touch, for example, a tomato as it is planted by a farmer and trace its journey to being eaten on a hamburger in a fast food restaurant (remember planting, tending, picking, transporting, packaging, unwrapping, slicing, eating)

1:20-12:00 Lunch

12:00-1:00 Silent Walking Meditation

Open the meditation by reading Cesar Chavez’s Fasts for Righteousness

1:00-1:30 Discussion–Politics of Food: Farmworker Issues

  • Centering quote by Wendell Berry (below)
  • Personal sharing by facilitators of how they got involved
  • Farmworker statistics read aloud by participants by passing around sheet
  • Farmworker quotes read aloud by participant volunteers
  • Discussion and questions

Quote by Wendell Berry*:
Eaters…must understand that eating takes place inescapably in the world, that it is inescapably an agricultural act, and that how we eat determines, to a considerable extent, how the world is used.

* Page 249 from Food & Faith: Justice, Joy and Daily Bread, edited and compiled by Michael Schut of Earth Ministry, Denver, CO: Living the Good News, 2002

1:30-2 Closing
Farmworker issues are intertwined with farmer issues, environmental issues, consumer issues health issues and all is tied to our spirituality

  • Participants brainstorm positive signs they have observed and offer alternatives for eating that is healthier spiritually. Examples might include: Community Supported Agriculture, new labor contract covering 8000 farmworkers in North Carolina offering them a voice for the first time ever, increase in organic produce, farmers’ markets etc.
  • Closing reading (below)
  • Closing moment of silence

Closing reading: A Word of Hope

Fundamentally, food and agriculture are about life: life for the hungry and for all who depend on farmers and farmworkers for what we eat every day. But they are also about life for farmworkers who risk their health to pick our food, sometimes not knowing what pesticides are in the field. They are about life for subsistence farmers in Africa trying to feed a family and make a meager living. They are about a way of life for farm families in the United States who are unable to meet debt payments and face selling a farm that has been in the family for generations. These reflections call all of us to make the protection of life and dignity the foundation for our choices on agriculture. We know these are not easy times, but as believers we have hope for the days ahead:

  • We have the capacity to overcome hunger in our nation and around the world. What an achievement that would be!
  • We stand with farmers, particularly those who own small and family farms here and abroad, in their struggle to live with dignity, to preserve a way of life, and to strengthen rural communities.
  • We insist that agricultural workers be treated with dignity–decent wages, safe working conditions, and a real voice in the workplace.
  • We advocate for creation to protect the fields and streams, which are gifts of God.
  • We find in our faith–the lessons of Genesis, the passion of the prophets, and the words and life of Jesus–the ultimate source of hope.

* from page 14 of For I was Hungry & You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers, and Farmworkers. US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC 2003.

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Contact us

National Farm Worker Ministry
P.O. Box 10645
112 Cox Ave., Suite 208
Raleigh, NC 27605
Email us here
919-807-8707 (office)