Several years ago, I joined a handful of fellow seminarians on a one-day immersion in farmworker rights in Immokalee, Florida, a long-time center of human slavery in our time. Immokalee first became infamous as the subject of Edward R. Murrow’s 1961 report, "Harvest of Shame," which documented the plight of migrant farmworkers. Their abuse at the hands of the owners included long hours, abysmal working conditions, low pay, abhorrent living conditions, sexual abuse, and more.
Though much progress has been made in the 50 plus years since Murrow’s report, many conditions remain much not much changed. Workers "sleep" in old, dilapidated trailers, 15 to a trailer made for four, awake at 3 a.m. and head for one of several parking lots in town where old former school buses await. Each worker must apply and be hired on a daily basis; there are no regular jobs; hiring is at the whim of the bus driver. The buses leave for the fields at 5 a.m., driving as long as two hours to reach a particular destination. The workers wait on the bus at the field until the dew has dried off the produce; wet tomatoes can’t be picked. Then they work 12-15 hours at the back-breaking work of picking. They fill a 32-pound bucket, which they then carry to the truck, sometimes as far as 100 yards away. All day long they do this, back and forth. For many years, the owners would not even supply food or water to the workers. Rape was common. When the day’s work is done, the buses return the workers to their trailers at about 9 p.m.
And the pay for this work? If a worker is really fast, and can fill, drop off, and return one bucket every five minutes, at $.45/bucket, he/she could almost make minimum wage (which is not mandated for these workers). That is before the $50/week deduction for trailer rental and any food. Oh, the trailers and the food stores in the small town are all owned by the same few families who own the farms; with no supermarket, these small stores charge exhorbitant prices, especially for staples like rice and beans. And the dilapidated trailers? Their owners get $750/week, $3,000/month for them! One farmowner even went so far as to get his workers hooked on drugs, and then deducted the cost of their drugs from their paychecks!
You might read these words and feel some of the farmworkers’ plight. But nothing is as powerful as looking into the faces of the very real and very human people who are trapped in this system, lured to this country with promises of riches to support their families back home, who then have their papers confiscated and are ruled by fear for years. Unless you hear their stories with your own eyes and ears, it’s impossible to believe that this is happening in America. I looked into the faces of real migrant farmworkers telling their real stories. I talked with them as they took us on a walking tour of Immokalee. I watched as they demonstrated their work of filling and hauling buckets of tomatoes. I felt, deep in my bones and muscles and soul the depth of their suffering. I heard their story.
Stories, personal stories, are important, but do we stop to listen? Do we really want to know what’s going on in the world around us, or are we afraid that we might see a pattern that we don’t know how to deal with? Perhaps spending time with a homeless veteran might raise difficult questions about why we incessantly go to war. Stories might disturb us out of our comfortable, convenient, consumeristic lives.
Stories form the core of biblical spiritual work of building community. You and I are part of a "beloved community," as Martin Luther King, Jr. put it. A diverse community from which none are excluded and in which all are loved. One in which we share our stories, which then become the many-colored foundations stones of our life together. In our stories, we become intimate friends, dwelling "in" each other, as Jesus calls us to do. The Celts have a name for such closeness, anam cara, or "soul friend." We are all called to become intimate friends of each others’ deepest essence.
Stories are important because they form the basis of our friendships. We cannot become any more than casual acquaintances if we don’t know each others’ stories. And we can’t stretch our consciences into right action if we don’t encounter the stories of people we’ve never met. There are, even today, and even right here in Bennington, opportunities to listen, really listen, to others’ stories. Let us watch for, and reach out for, every one of these opportunities.
Rev. John Ransom is a non-denominational minister of peace and social justice. He is the author of a prayer book and "Emerging Revolution: Toward a Global Moral Ethic," to be published this summer. He lives in Readsboro with his spouse Michael, and may be contacted at email@example.com or through his website, www.EmergingSpirit.info.