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Gene Boutilier

The rabble rouser

“I visited farm worker activities, including the labor camps and strikes. There was push back in the congregation that their pastor was doing that,” recounted Gene Boutilier, the first Secretary-Treasurer of the National Farm Worker Ministry. “There was an angry meeting that had been arranged by some of the members of the congregation in the church hall. One person said: “If Jesus were alive, Jesus wouldn’t have been down there on that picket line with those communists and trouble makers”. There was a church member whose family were growers and he was a lawyer in agribusiness – he was a well educated, faithful church member – he said “No, you’re wrong. If Jesus was alive, he would have been doing what our pastor had been doing but I wouldn’t have been paying his salary.” You have to respect a guy like that. He basically said I was doing the right thing but it wasn’t in their interest to tolerate it. So they didn’t. And that’s when I joined the [California Migrant] Ministry full time.”

Gene recalled the “hodge-podge” of structures that existed across the faith community dedicated to supporting farm workers prior to the establishment of the NFWM. “A decision was made to try to bring these state migrant ministries together into a national ministry loosely connected to the National Council of Churches as a ‘related movement.’ That was groundbreaking – no one really knew what that meant at the time,” he said. “This helped the state migrant ministries make the transition from charitable support into advocacy operations and boycott centers.”

Gene served on the NFWM for “two or three decades, give or take” across a variety of organizations, including time in Washington, DC where he was running the National Campaign for Agricultural Democracy and in Wisconsin in an urban ministry job. He returned to California at the request of Chris Hartmire, NFWM’s first executive director. Over his career, he also ran the FEMA emergency shelter board in Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Homeless Authority.

Gene isn’t afraid to stand up for what’s right – even if it means landing in jail. “Which arrest should I tell you about? There was the time…and then there was another time…” and so the conversation went, sharing moments when speaking truth to power didn’t always end up on the right side of law enforcement. From the time he was arrested for attempted murder when a wholesaler, fed up with his pleas to grocers not to buy California tablegrapes, used a large truck to force Gene to back into the wholesaler’s associate who was behind Gene’s car – all while police officers just happened to be parked near by (“it was a set up and thrown out by the prosecutors who knew it wasn’t attempted murder”) to the birthday he spent detained at a police station for leafletting on a sidewalk the store owner insisted was private property (“it wasn’t, the police concluded my position was right and the store manager was wrong”), Gene lived his commitment to standing with the farm workers.

But when asked about NFWM’s impact, he reflected not on the run-ins with law enforcement or violence, but on the intensity of the cooperation between protestant denominations and catholic religious orders to support the movement. “The fact that the membership of the board was by organization not by individuals, and the organizations whether denominations or catholic religious orders, were equal in standing, that was different. It was a working ecumenism that was focused on the chore at hand and had as a natural byproduct a reimagining of the proper relationship between a denomination and a catholic religious order.”

He also shared a special memory from a winter staff retreat during which they held a baptism for some of the staff’s children. “This [the NFWM] was experimental, grassroots and transparently cross denomination – and it was beautiful. One of my children was baptized in that setting. It might not have been regular but what a wonderful experience.”

Read more about Gene here: https://www.claremont-courier.com/articles/news/t37558-gene

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