Faith leaders join in honoring farm workers at Department of Labor hall of honor

March 28, 2012

WASHINGTON

Members of the faith community joined with leaders of the farm worker movement March 26 to kick off the week’s events leading up to the second annual national César Chávez Day on March 31.

Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis honored contributions of farm workers by inducting the early martyrs and faithful leaders into the Labor Hall of Honor at U.S. Department of Labor headquarters. Solis dedicated the department’s auditorium in honor of César E. Chávez.

The Rev. Sal Alvarez of the Diocese of San Jose and Fr. Richard Estrada of CMF International ― a global partnership of mission workers, churches and other humanitarian organizations ―  offered opening and closing prayers.

Along with National Council of Churches (NCC) staff, faith-based guests included representatives of the Florida Council of Churches, the National Farm Worker Ministry, Interfaith Worker Justice, the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), and Bread for the World.

The Rev. Michael Livingston, a Presbyterian minister and director of the NCC’s Poverty Initiative, lauded the event’s purpose. “To have a place in the nation’s capitol where farmworkers are lifted up, where people can be reminded of farm workers’ struggle, says these people are important in our lives and they need to be respected,” Livingston said.

The NCC, PHP and the Florida Council of Churches recently engaged with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in a six day Fast for Fair Food. They called on Publix to support the Fair Food Agreement that would offer tomato harvesters a decent wage and dignified work conditions.

The NCC invited supporters to join with the Florida Council of Churches to continue to fast and pray during Holy Week.

Guests at the dedication Monday included Obama administration officials, members of Chávez’s family, farm workers and their families, leaders of community organizations, labor advocacy groups and unions and local students.

Michael Peña, actor and star of the upcoming film “Chávez,” was the event’s master of ceremonies. 

“This event is enormously significant in terms of recognition of farmworkers,” said Virginia Nesmith, director of National Farmworker Ministry.

“Farm workers have tended to be an invisible population,” Nesmith said. “Whether you start with orange juice in the morning, salad for lunch, or strawberries for dessert, you’re connected to farmworkers. Yet most people are not aware of the sacrifices they make to provide our food, the kind of conditions they endure — the low wages, the exposure to toxic chemicals, the heat stress, they don’t know that people die in the fields every year.”

The faith community has been involved for many years in the struggle for farmworker justice, Nesmith said. For decades, the National Council of Churches' Women in Home Missions migrant ministries served with farm workers.

“There were state ministries in all different areas,” Nesmith said. “When César Chávez began organizing in California, (the churches) understood what the conditions were. So when the workers said ‘We deserve to buy our own food, our own clothes! We need you to support us; we work hard,’ The faith community was ready.”

The faith community was a critical factor in the movement, Nesmith said. “First, they had a constituency: whether it was Sunday morning at Church or Saturday at temple. They also had a place to share a moral voice. Workers took huge risks in their lives, and there are many workers whose faith is very strong and central to their lives. For the faith community to say to them, ‘What you are doing is right — you have every bit as much worth in the eyes of God as anyone else and you are justified in standing up for your rights’ is validating and encouraging to the workers. And the workers’ courage give us that courage and the hope and the means to act on our faith. The partnership is critical for all of us.”

The Rev. Russell Meyer, executive director of the Florida Council of Churches, said: “The living memorial of Cesar Chavez and the induction into the Labor Hall of Honor of the five young persons who were killed for organizing farmworkers reminds me that greatness is all around us in those who give selflessly for the well-being of others. I think about that often when I buy produce and fruit. The great sacrifices of farmworkers go unnoticed too often, yet they feed our families. Let’s pray and work for the day when all farmworkers receive the dignity they deserve and the pay they have earned.”

Ruth Farrell, director of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, said the event reminded her of passages in Isaiah 58.

“We should live in a world where those who work in the vineyards are able to eat,” Farrell said. “When I came to the event, I thought it was just going to be a dedication and that was nice. But when they read the list of martyrs, and we saw their widows, and met their children who never knew them because they were two and three years old when their parents died for the cause of farm worker justice. I realize ― what a sacrifice. How many people must be sacrificed before we change? There are so many issues in our fields, and it would take so little to make it more just.”

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