About 30 representatives of the Geneva-based World Communion of Reformed Churches (WCRC) on March 31 will begin a conference on social justice by visiting with low-paid, itinerant tomato field workers in Immokalee, Fla., and calling attention to their concerns.
WCRC representatives will meet with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organization of primarily Latino, Mayan Indian, and Haitian immigrants working in low-wage agricultural jobs throughout Florida.
Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) participants in the conference include former General Assembly Stated Clerk and World Alliance of Reformed Churches President Clifton Kirkpatrick, Ann Ferguson of Presbyterian Women, the Rev. Robina Winbush, ecumenical officer in the Office of the General Assembly, Andrew Kang-Bartlett of the Presbyterian Peacemaking Program and Sherri Hunter, senior administrative assistant for the Department of Ecumenical and Agency Relationships of the Office of the General Assembly.
“We will learn of the issues that they face and then consider ways in which the WCRC can help them, since justice for workers is a matter that WCRC takes very seriously,” said Peter VanderMeulen, the Christian Reformed Church in North America’s coordinator, office of social justice and hunger action, and the church's representative to the consultation.
The WCRC representatives will participate in the first “Justice Reading of Grand Rapids Consultation,” as the conference is called. At the meeting with the tomato pickers, they will hear about how the workers’ coalition has forged an agreement with farm owners and others to add one penny per pound to the cost of tomatoes and add that to the wages of the workers, said the Rev. Patricia Sheerattan-Bisnauth, executive secretary of justice & partnership for the WCRC.
However, because this extra penny would boost the cost of tomatoes in the retail sector, “the supermarket industry [except for Whole Foods] has yet to agree to the extra penny for each pound of tomatoes picked. Supermarkets are the only remaining obstacle in the way of a long-awaited, urgent change in the fields,” according to a document produced by the coalition, which has been negotiating a settlement in the matter.
Because the workers have fought to get other parts of the tomato industry to agree to additional payment and supermarkets are the sole hold-outs, WCRC representatives will gather outside of a grocery store and publicize the human injustice involved in keeping the cost of tomatoes low.
Following the demonstration and a discussion, they will depart for Fort Myers, Fla., where the rest of the meeting will be held. On April 1, the representatives will discuss ways in which the ecumenical organization, formed last summer in Grand Rapids, MI, can address justice issues such as the difficulty immigrant workers face in obtaining work permits.
WCRC representatives from countries such as Nigeria, Jamaica, Switzerland, Taiwan, India, Kenya, Canada, and the United States will review the key points, directions, and mandates that came out of the meeting last year at which the World Alliance of Reformed Churches merged with the Reformed Ecumenical Council.
The visit with the tomato pickers and the four-day consultation emerges out of the WCRC’s mandate that member churches find ways in which they can support workers worldwide as they struggle for fair compensation and decent living conditions.
The four-day meeting will include roundtable discussion, led by such WCRC officials as Setri Nyomi, general secretary of the WCRC. The Rev. Jerry Pillay, a South African pastor and president of the WCRC, will also lead discussions. The roundtables will address gender and race issues and economic, climate, and social justice.
Delegates will also discuss developing a methodology to implement approaches ― educational, spiritual, confrontational, and otherwise ― to address key issues brought up last summer. The final day, April 3, will be used to refine the methodologies and approaches and draw up key points and future direction for WCRC strategies and priorities.
The WCRC brings together 80 million Reformed Christians in 108 countries around the world, united in a commitment to mission, church unity, and justice. The WCRC links Presbyterian, Reformed, Congregational, Waldensian, United and Uniting churches.
Chris Meehan is news and media manager for the Christian Reformed Church in North America.