Sunday, December 13, 2009

Holden, Las Posadas, Santa Lucia

We've been at Holden Village (a retreat ministry of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in the north Cascade mountains, and a truly magical place) for two weeks now. Celebrating Advent and preparing for Christmas here is simply amazing--going out to get a tree with the family and making all the decorations that will go on it, having our kids be surrounded by a loving and thoughtful community, gathering daily for prayer and worship, and sharing in amazing meals in an incredibly beautiful place.

Then we started this weekend celebrating the Latin American tradition of Las Posadas and the Scandinavian festival of Santa Lucia. Below are my reflections from this morning. I hope to add some pictures in the next couple of days.

What an amazing place this is. Not only for its incredible natural beauty, but by its hospitality, spirit, and hope. This weekend we went from a true celebration of Las Posadas to Santa Lucia. In the rhythms of migration at the village—of the bus that takes folks down the mountain and new comers up the mountain every other day in winter, daily in the summer—come so many gifts. The awkwardness of new beginnings, of orienting someone to a new place, of celebrating a new arrival, and grieving a departure—all of it is ritualized, acknowledged, celebrated. As a group of folks, the majority of them with roots in Mexico, came off the bus on Friday, they immediately joined the village in preparations for Las Posadas. As kids went out to go sledding, adults lined up in the dining room to assemble hundreds of tamales that would be used in the celebration. Elsewhere in the village someone was lining up white fabric, t-shirts, greenery to make the customs for Santa Lucia on Sunday morning—enough for all the kids, those who live in the village year round and those just coming in for the weekend.

Saturday night we gathered in the Fireside Room, where the community gathers for worship during winter, and began the celebration of Las Posadas. Kids and adults read Scripture in English and Spanish, we acknowledge our own connections to Jesus’ journey and search for a place to call home, for shelter, for welcome. The wisdom in the language and simple tune of the Posada songs became apparent, as we connected individual experiences in this place of “migrants” with the lives of so many in the world searching for a better future. The group of women who had come up from Yakima quickly assembled outfits for the kids to wear as angels, Mary and Joseph, kings, shepherds, and even a donkey. Young and old practice songs, and rehearsed being mean innkeepers. We marked out four areas in the village that would serve as our stops, and the ritual did its magic. Berta, one of the women who came up—in her case from Wapato, expressed her joy at the celebration. She also noted that it is here that many of the kids that came this weekend—children of immigrants—would celebrate for the first time something that is part of their own heritage. She even said that she had come in part to find ideas to take back to her community for celebrating Las Posadas. What a powerful image: someone coming to the mountains here, to rekindle and share a tradition to deep in her own memory. Towards the end, as kids broke the piñatas, she spoke of her grandmother lining up all the kids to tell them about the symbol of the piñata: seven points on the start represent the deadly sins, and their colorfulness both the gifts of God, but also the attraction of temptation. The stick represents God’s power to overcome temptation and brokenness, and as the piñata opens up, the candy represents God’s abundant blessings in our lives. She acknowledged both joy and sadness in the celebration. “It is at times like these that the distance from home is felt the most… when I think of my mother, whom I have not seen in over twenty years that I have been here.” Berta, like many others, is unable because of her status to travel back to her homeland…

Earlier in the day, Jim Bodeen—a retired teacher from Yakima who has made lots of connections to people in Michoacan, Mexico (where most people in the Yakima valley are from) and through his travels to Holden with the church in El Salvador—shared some of his poens and pictures from his recent travels. One that he shared shows the picture of a young woman and her grandmother in an embrace as they face the camera. The granddaughter lives in Yakima, born here in the US, the grandmother lives back in Michoacan. This embrace, Jim said, represents not only that young woman’s connection to her grandma, but also the one her mother cannot give. The “in-between” generation is unable to travel back, and so the granddaughter becomes the carrier of everything from gifts and remembrances, to the physical contact that a border makes impossible.

The food, the music, the piñata, everything was so beautifully done. I remembered my own childhood and the celebrations of Posadas in Guatemala. I remember my “tia Titi,” the “honorary” aunt to everyone on our block, who took it upon herself to organize the nine day celebration, lining up households that would host the party each night until Christmas. At times these seem like vague memories, almost like a dream, and I must wonder what of it actually took place. This year in particular, as I continue to live with the daily awareness of those around the country who truly have no place to call home—particularly those directly affected by the raid in Postville—Las Posadas have gained a new meaning. At the end of a Bible Study on the book of Esther that we did with a group of women in Postville, the group planned a surprise Posada. During the Bible Study we had talked about celebrations and banquets that are such a central part of the story of Esther, and that are placed at the center of this book that explores the themes of identity in a foreign land. They planned a great Posada. And then this weekend again, we got to celebrate it.

“No seas inhumano,” beg Mary and Joseph, “don’t be inhuman,” or “have a heart,” “take pity on us, God in heaven will reward you…” Their words echo those of thousands at the border who pray “please God let me get in this time.” And the response in the song names the centuries of so many who have been excluded “Ya se pueden ir, y no molestar, porque si me enfado, los voy a apalear”—“Be on your way already, stop troubling me, lest you make me so mad, that I give you a beating…” The Posada gives a ritual opportunity to play with these powerful words, like the book of Esther itself, it uses humor and exaggeration to name a harsh reality. It gives us a way to enter into a conversation that is otherwise too difficult to engage.

In one of the stops, Joseph identifies himself and his trade—Mary and I arrive wear from our home in Nazareth, I spend my days as a carpenter, I have the name of Joseph.” The reply names the struggle of generations of immigrants whose very identity and gifts are often reje3cted: “Go now and leave us to sleep. Who cares, your name’s not important. Surely I’ve already told you, open we’re not and we shan’t…”

It is only until the innkeepers recognize the humanity of those who are seeking shelter—until they see in them the image of God—that they open not only their home but their hearts. “You there, is that you Joseph?” asks the innkeeper finally, “With you is Mary your wife? Enter blessed pilgrims, we did not know it was you!” Gone is the fear that they may be loafers or thieves, but rather they are welcomed with the words of a festive song: “Entren santos peregrines, reciban este Rincon, no de esta pobre morada, si no de mi Corazon,” “Please enter holy pilgrims, holy pilgrims, you’re received and welcome here. Although our home is humble, we receive you with our hearts.”

That hospitality was echoed again this morning with the celebration of Santa Lucia, a young girl whose generosity is remembered in spite of the fact that it was originally rejected. Kids of all kinds of hues gathered here in this small piece of heaven, and with wreaths, candles, and star hats on their heads shoed hospitality by serving a meal for the adults. Like so many festivals this time of year—Advent, Diwali, Id El Fitr, Hanukkah, etc., their actions proclaimed that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Widening Circle of Effects from Postville Raid

The ripples of the Postville raid and the implosion of Agriprocessors continue to expand, exacting both an economic and human price well beyond the immediate community. An often forgotten impact of these events reaches as far as Gordon, Nebraska (population close to 4,000), where Agriprocessors owned another meatpacking plant, Local Pride, which was a much smaller operation with less than 100 employees. Some of those workers – the majority of them Native American – were bused into Postville in the immediate aftermath of the raid to try to keep operations going there. In November 2008, following the bankrupt fate of Agriprocessors in Postville, Local Pride also went broke. The articles below provide an update on that plant's situation, where – as has been the case for Postville – local government and credit institutions have ended up with a mess in their hands. The articles do not speak, however, to the fate of those who worked at the plant, the huge chain of supply to it or the economic impact on local businesses and families from the disruption of the plant.

As with the larger Agriprocessors plant, this situation gets tangled up between the corruption of the owners/employers and the issues of labor supply. They both point to the need to broaden the immigration conversation well beyond narrow arguments for legality to recognizing the complexity of the labor and economic markets, and their impact on those whose life circumstances lead them to a decision to leave family and all that is familiar in hopes of finding work.

Former Local Pride plant for sale
Nebraska kosher slaughterhouse up for sale
Local Pride plant purchased

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Trial Begins for Agriprocessors Executive

The first trial against Sholom Rubashkin, the former top executive of Agriprocessors, started yesterday – sixteen months after the raid and almost to the day of the one-year anniversary of when 270 of those who toiled in the factory completed their own sentences. Unlike Rubashkin's trial, the workers’ " trials" did not involve high scrutiny, scores of witnesses, not even juries... For them, "justice" was swift. The world did not get to hear about their children, their loved ones and friends who if asked would have spoken of their openness, their commitment to family, their basic hope of survival and a better future for their children...

I just spoke this morning with Luis, one of the 36 former workers at Agriprocessors who, after serving a 5-month sentence and an additional month in detention, was not sent back to his home country as he had expected. Rather, he was brought back here to Northeast Iowa as a material witness against his former employer. Luis had signed his guilty plea primarily because he understood it would be his quickest way back home to his loved ones,his wife and young child, whose birth first motivated him to go al otro lado in hopes of a better future. One of the many things Luis and those who share in his legal limbo didn't realize about the pleas they signed is that they included a "cooperation clause" that have resulted in their having no choice but to remain away from their families at the mercy and whim of bureaucracies and legal processes.

In our brief conversation this morning, Luis updated me on his wife's health. Luis' wife – who like him is in her early twenties – is very ill back home in Mexico. She is scheduled for a major operation in December, and Luis is still hoping that he would be allowed to return home to be there with her for her surgery. Word is he will not be able to travel... Depending on what happens with Rubashkin's trial, who knows when he will be allowed to return to his family.... Otto, another one of the material witnesses, knows what Luis is going through. His wife had surgery in Guatemala last week, and he could do nothing but wait by the phone for news...

Every morning Luis, Otto and the rest of the "material witnesses" wake up early and head out to work. Since they are required to remain in the country awaiting their participation as witnesses in the trial against Rubashkin, they  have been given temporary work permits. Many of them retrace the same steps they took on May 12, 2008 – the day of the raid – as they are back working at Agriprocessors (now under new ownership and functioning at a limited capacity under the name Agri Star Meat and Poultry LLC). They are glad for the work, as work is what they have known all of their lives. It is that work – and the fact that when they were detained sixteen months ago it was AT WORK – that fills their days and fuels their resistance against the barrage of assumptions many make about them because of their former immigration status...

Following this trial, which focuses on accusations of fraud and is expected to last about five weeks, Sholom will face a second trial related to immigration violations. It is in that second trial that Luis, Otto and the others will be called on as material witnesses. Even after that, legal battles will remain related to the hiring of minors (22 of those detained in the plant on the day of the raid were minors, hired not only without proper immigration documentation, but against state labor laws that prohibit minors from working on the floor of a meatpacking plant and working the kinds of hours these kids were working...). 

It is easy to tire of the complexity and pain of this situation. Yet, it is emblematic of much larger issues among us. Our economic decisions and technological advances – which have so greatly benefited many of us – bring about complex global markets. Labor supply and demand is a part of it, but our immigration policies have not reflected our economic decisions and technological advances.

Today I will pray for Luis and his wife, for Otto and his wife, for their families and the countless others whose lives have been so devastated... I will pray for Sholom and his family as well. I will pray that our awareness of their lives will motivate us to call for and to enact change.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Reading, Late Night TV, Senate Hearings & Another Example of a Broken System

Monday, October 12, 2009

The last couple of weeks I have gotten into more of a pattern for reading, and that’s been great. I would like to write some notes on the books I’ve read. Although I need a less serious title for it than “reviews.” The last couple of weeks I read Postville, USA and Jonah, Jesus, and Other Good Coyotes. This week I’m starting on Coming to America, which is quite thick, and Pedagogy of the Oppressed. It’s really great to have the time to do this kind of reading and have mental space for lots of connections to be made.

I read an article yesterday on the New York Times that explored some of the sharper criticism that seems to be coming against Obama from the Late Night Television Circuit. As everybody tries to measure the impact of everything from the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the failed Olympic bid for Chicago, it’s hard to figure out what is really an indication of what. There’s an image from the Late Night scene that has stayed with me, though. It’s from Jon Steward of The Daily Show. Highlighting the ongoing refrain that the President has “too much on his plate” as a way to call for patience on a variety of issues, Steward said basically, “OK, so start eating and clearing some of that plate.” I think that’s something that needs attention from the immigration conversation. We cannot continue to wait and assume that there is too much on the plate. There is a need for action and for pressing for change. 

The hearing by the Senate subcommittee on immigration that focused on “faith perspectives” was hopeful. It was rather thin because of limited time, but significant in some of the statements made. From what seemed like a specific choice, primarily “evangelical” Christians made up the panel (with the exception of a Catholic Bishop). It was disappointing that no other “faith perspectives” were brought in, but what I understand from others is that the intent was to highlight the fact that even the more “conservative” parts of Christianity – perhaps assumed by many to oppose immigration reform – are changing their tune. So timing seems to be right, and we can’t wait for the plate to be any less full. There seems to be broad – and growing – consensus on the religious front. The telebriefing by the Opportunity Agenda on their media and Web 2.0 scan indicated a significant change in both of these media from what used to be dominated by anti-immigrant reporting and postings to the complete reversal toward a dominant positive view of immigration. The time is right. We must act.

Locally, we have a commitment from Senator Harkin’s office to have someone present at the Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers event but no commitment that Harkin himself will come. We will have a potluck and town meeting combination, where various community members whose lives have been shaped by immigration will speak. It’s coming together pretty well.

Another significant development in the last couple of days has been Hoa’s arrest, one of a multiplicity of stories around the country that point to the desperate need for reform in the immigration system. To the devastating events in Postville last year (and their ongoing repercussions in our community and region) is added the bizarre situation of Hoa Nguyen. Hoa is a stellar 2003 graduate from Luther who is originally from Vietnam, has been in the U.S. for 10 years now and is pursuing her masters at the University of Minnesota. She married Dan Hanson, also a 2003 Luther Grad, in November of last year. Following a mess-up on her paperwork, Hoa is now in detention awaiting deportation... There was an article about it in the Decorah newspaper, and her husband has set up a Web site to seek support for her at

Taking Stock of (Lack of) Progress with Immigration Reform

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

There has yet to be any significant movement on immigration reform. They announced another hearing for later this week, and the expectation is that a bill would come before the House/Senate sometime in early 2010. Luis Gutierrez from Illinois has raised concern about the delay in dealing with legislation, saying that waiting until next year with the pressure of mid-term elections will translate into impasses and stalling. Unfortunately, he is probably right… 

There are some significant issues moving through at least initially. On a larger level, the administration is set to release a review on detention practices calling for an overhaul. The little that I have been able to find out about it is that it has a number of positive elements: considering alternative detention options for non-criminal immigrants. (Currently everyone can wind up in jails/prisons with criminals, even asylum seekers!) There is also talk of better direct supervision from DHS in the main detention centers – much of this has been “entrusted” to the detention centers themselves, and it has resulted in uneven and problematic enforcement of standards. The review also calls for better “basic expectations,” including better access to telephones.

Two concerns that have risen for me in what I have read is the fact that there is an expectation to “learn more from the private sector.” That always sounds good, right, but it depends on what they mean by the private sector. If this means increased reliance on private jails, it is seriously problematic. In the aftermath of Postville, the “private” detention centers were the hardest to deal with. Treatment was uneven, and getting information about individuals was impossible (since the private detention centers do not have the “custody” over individuals, they cannot – or at least refused – to provide any information or communicate with those detained). On the other hand, if learning from the private sector involves exploring alternative detention in places like those provided by LIRS and others for ORR, that could be positive.

The second area of concern for me is that there was no mention – in what I have read anyway – of creating some kind of centralized database of those detained. This is a huge project, since an estimated 400,000 people make their way through this gargantuan system of somewhere around 32,000 “beds” each year. Again, from the Postville experience (and others) a significant “humanization” of the process would come from being able to figure out where an individual is at any given time. Currently it’s a hotchpotch, time consuming, frustrating and often ineffective process trying to locate someone. And it is all complicated by the “security” concerns as people are moved between detention spots, which happens quite regularly both because of cost and process.

There seems to be some increased activity in religiously-affiliated groups to try to organize and get the word out. With so much else going on politically – healthcare, a review of war policy and engagement, economy – it seems difficult to keep attention to this conversation. Again, the important piece here is to recognize the connection of our immigration conversation to all of these issues. Unfortunately, some of those connections are being drawn negatively around the health care reform discussion, particularly in trying to work very hard to make sure to exclude immigrants – for sure those undocumented, but to a large extent even documented immigrants – from any of the benefits of the reform. Jim Wallis from Sojourners published a significant piece on this regard yesterday in the Huffington Post, highlighting significant concern about how fear/resentment against immigrants as a policy-making motivator is really against the grain of the values of the nation – and certainly against Christian convictions. What does it say about us as a nation that – as we try to improve aspects of our health care – we must spend so much energy and time, with horrendous comments going unchecked, to try to exclude some people from these benefits? Wallis’ concern is how this further stereotypes and excludes people who already live among us…

More locally, a number of things are happening as well. After several months of “silence” regarding the ongoing immigration remedy cases for people who were affected by the Postville raid, three additional U visas have been granted in the last couple of days! This has been incredible. Hopefully it will mean that additional cases will be resolved soon. People have been in limbo now for a year and a half. One of the cases is for a young woman whose main dream has been to attend college. She was an excellent student through high school and has been sort of stuck since the raid, although she has continued to try to improve her language skills and take courses at an area community college.

Additionally, a couple of events are in the planning. One is a “Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers” event intended to organize a potluck/town hall meeting inviting elected officials and community members. Our particular one will evolve around hearing the stories of a number of immigrants – from over decades – to tell their personal stories. Those stories will be matched with readings about Biblical stories of “immigrants” who have shared aspects of those individuals’ experiences. For example, pairing Joseph with a successful businessperson; Daniel with a college student who has “migrated” to the community here to learn, etc.

While I Couldn't Get to Sleep...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Tonight I was in and out of sleep. I’m in the middle of a pretty profound section of the book Growing up Ethnic in America. I am not sure now which story I was listening to, but it was by a Jewish author. It was in the section about Crossings, trying to fit in. How do you define yourself when everything you are is defined by what you are not? I do not celebrate Christmas or Easter… I can’t even approximate the clever language. There was an earlier one too that left me quite impressed. It was also by a Jewish author, about a family who had left Germany during the war. The father died in Germany while the mother and child lived in England and then – when the mother remarried – they moved to the United States. The story is about Elsa, the daughter, who grows up in the U.S. It focuses on dealing with the humming of what turns out to be a 40,000 strong beehive that has formed in the wall of their house. In a rather – What’s the word? Comical? Ironic? – way, the writer juxtaposes personal memories, unsettling feelings about a past that shapes one’s life from a distance, world events, perspective…

Down Time Allows for Reading

Friday, September 25, 2009

I haven’t written in quite some time – last week because I came down with a terrible flu (or flu-like virus). There’s been H1N1 flu confirmed cases here in Decorah, so they are no longer testing. Just telling people to stay home and get well, only going to the doctor if things really get bad…

I was scheduled to go to a meeting today sponsored by a Catholic sisters’ order here in Iowa that would bring together a wide range of people from various disciplines and areas of community (churches, schools, police, etc.) to talk about immigration and try to move beyond an impasse. I was very much looking forward to it, but because of this sickness will not be able to go… I hope I can get meaningful details back from the meeting.

During September I’ve focused most of my energies on writing a Bible study guide for 1 Samuel for the Book of Faith series through Augsburg Fortress. It has been a demanding process since I have not worked with a publisher before, and – while I have led many Bible studies and also coached others in leading them – writing one for publication is definitely another story altogether. I’m amazed at how much I have learned about the process, as well as the subject matter, and there is much more in those texts, of course, than what I could ever cover in any single Bible study.

The one book I’ve been able to read this month is Justo Gonzalez’s Santa Biblia. I have ended every chapter with two thoughts (in addition to much insight): (1) Gonzalez is truly an amazing scholar. (2) I wish I had read this as I prepared for my sabbatical! I guess I am glad that I have gotten to it this early in my year of sabbatical. Gonzalez’s book explores some foundational contributions to how we read Scriptures to which Hispanics in the U.S. can contribute. Before getting there, though, he provides the best, most succinct articulation of a scholarly approach to Scripture, the importance (an inescapability) of viewing Scripture from various perspectives and the rich contributions that can come from various traditions. In this case, he address the contributions particularly from what is broadly called “Hispanic” culture. (He also addresses how tricky that definition is, as well as the limitation of trying to speak for any group, no matter how clearly defined). What’s amazing is that the book, while complex in the issues it addresses, is just a great read. Gonzalez writes in such a compelling and insightful way that I made notes all over the pages. Once I am feeling better, I will go back through the book and write some specific notes on some of the specific insights I found most helpful.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Back to Decorah, Iowa

Monday, August 24, 2009

Pastor Ruth Drews from New Heaven, Connecticut stayed with us last night. She drove two students from her town (one from her congregation, one that she met through her work as a college advocate in the local schools) here to Luther. One of them is coming back for her junior year already; the other is a first-year student. Each of these two students has an incredible story to share: migration, living in a refugee camp, major financial struggles, bright students, commitment to family, great hopes for the future… Ruth and I talked for a couple of hours last night and then again for about an hour this morning. She’s an incredible pastor, activist, person.

In the last year or so Ruth has moved to working part time in the parish and part time as a college advocate in the schools. Her work in schools has stirred a number of reflections for her, particularly about vocation. She said, “I have been working for years trying to convince people of the value of what the church has to offer and have often felt people do not see or pursue that need. To be working now, offering something that people clearly need and are lining up – like people coming off airplanes in O’Hare – to receive.” Her words articulated some of my own struggle over the last year and a half since the Postville situation, where the need is so clear and the purpose so urgent. I hear echoes of Jesus’ own disappointment – I imagine – as he moved from offering people actual food (which about 5,000 needed and wanted) and then the “hard teaching” that he wanted to give them – the food that brings abundant life, his body and blood.

I haven’t had a chance to write in a number of days on the last part of our trip back, so I will just summarize some things I thought about over the last couple of days:

•    LIRS contacted me as we were driving back to ask if I would provide a short statement to be included in a press release following a meeting Secretary Napolitano had called to discuss immigration reform with advocates and others. I found myself reflecting on the fact that much of our trip had followed the Lewis and Clark expedition, which was central to an earlier migration West. In our own trip west, we saw echoes of that earlier migration in today’s immigrants, who – like those of earlier generations – are building the infrastructure of the West: setting up businesses, working the land, providing services…

•    As we drove into Sioux Falls, South Dakota, we looked up restaurants on the phone and found Lalibela Restaurant, which we immediately knew was Ethiopian (because that’s the name of an important town in Ethiopia). We went there for a great dinner. We were kind of surprised when we pulled into the little shopping center where the restaurant was to see a huge sign on the window inviting people to an “African Celebration” being held there; the interesting part is that the sign was in Spanish! A similar sign advertised the event in English and Amharic. Inside we also found a sign that advertised, also in Spanish, a weekly Latin dance held in the restaurant. That’s immigration for you!

•    Pastor Drews told me about the prom for the student she brought here for her first year. The student is originally from Guinea but lived part of her life elsewhere before coming to the U.S. about two years ago. She went to prom with a guy who is originally from Rwanda but lived in a refugee camp in Kenya before coming to the U.S. The kid bought a white tux to take her to the prom. Someone pitched in for them to be able to ride in a limo. What a great image…

•    The international student orientation started yesterday at Luther. Along with the internationals, students in sports teams, residence hall staff, new staff and professors are also “migrating” into town. This is just the harbinger of our main annual migration, as 2,500 students come to Decorah. With them comes new life, energy, struggles, resources, histories and incredible gifts. It takes quite a bit of planning and intentional work to transform this group into a community. Oh that we would have those kinds of resources to integrate into our communities those who come from other countries bringing so much with them.

•    I spoke with Pastor Drews this morning also about the image of undocumented workers as people engaged in civil disobedience. I have wondered more and more about how it is that people – who are (for the most part) very pious, law abiding and would never break a law or a cultural norm – make a decision that translates into breaking the law by migrating here without documents. This single action places them in such a difficult situation and often becomes the reason that many other faithful, religious people struggle to support them. Is it too much to think of them as breaking the law as an act of civil disobedience? It is not a clear parallel that they are not, of course, intentionally breaking the law? They do not set out consciously to make a statement, but rather follow that basic need to provide for their families, pursue a better future or escape an impossible situation in their countries of origin. The “civil disobedience” part happens in the process…

Reading the Newspaper

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As we were heading down lake from Holden, I read through the Lady of the Lake paper (the boat company flier). It has some history of the company, the lake and the region. I was struck by the migrations that are marked in the history but noted the absence of any reference to the current migration of labor from Mexico and other Spanish-speaking countries. There was one particular section that I found sadly funny and actually disturbing. Talking about the influx of the “white man” to the region, it indicates that the military moved in, set up a camp, moved the natives into a reservation (as they were getting “restless” seeing the large influx of people moving into their lands) and all of this for the “safety of all.” Oh, the way we see history…

Thoughts From an Intense Day

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

It has been a very intense day…
•    Bible Study was powerful. We looked at the first ten verses of chapter 2. People clearly connected with the image of Moses’ crossing, and particularly with his mother putting him in the water. A number of people spoke of handing their children to the Coyote and having to wait to hear word of whether or not they had made it.

•    There was much conversation about children going “into the system.” The sense that kids were taken away, and the ambivalence about the idea that the princess would take over Moses. They subvert the system, getting Pharaoh to pay for raising Moses. But at the same time, they “loose” the adult Moses (at least at first), until he returns to save his people. There are some really powerful parallels there as well to think about the way that kids struggle to balance between their own culture and the new culture.

•    I had a really good conversation with the one of the people – originally from around Acapulco in Mexico – here on teaching staff this week. He came to the States early in his teens, migrated back and forth on the “corrida” following crops and eventually settled in Washington in Chelan. He had dropped out of school and got into drinking, partying and some drugs. But he said he kept reading anything he could get his hands on – newspapers, magazines, books – both in English and Spanish. He had learned English the first time he came, which was for about a year and a half. During that time he actually attended high school here. He came to stay with his aunt, and he came because “he wanted to see the Golden Gate Bridge,” which he knew from the touristy dust-gatherers that he saw in people’s homes who had been north. When he was about 20, he decided he wanted to get his GED. Even though he hadn’t been in school for about four years, he was able to prepare and pass the needed tests in about six weeks. He had to really convince his family that this was a good idea. His mother didn’t want him to go back to school because she needed his working. In time, he says, “She has come to see that this was better for me, and I could help her better.” He started going to a local community college, all the while still involved in partying and the whole scene. He ended up going away to college after a couple of years and had an “awakening” when he was stopped for drinking and driving. He had a choice of 30 days in jail or a six-month outpatient treatment plan. He chose the latter, and that turned his life around. He graduated in education and eventually ended up where he is now as assistant principal for the school in Mason outside of Chelan.

•    I also had a long conversation with Don Virgilio, who is from Guatemala and now lives in Chicago. He lived through the thickest of the conflict in Guatemala, experienced the worst of the church – when priests first came to his very remote village – and then also the best – as a group of progressive priests became instrumental in forming base communities, co-ops that helped people have independence from land lords and their whims and even created a “Promised Land” that was somewhat of a commune in a fairly remote area of the country. Jim Bodeen has been doing a lot of video taping of Mr. Virgilio’s story, and I got a copy of it. I made a short video asking him some focused questions on the possibility of the church’s role in connecting with today’s immigrants in the United States.

•    A priest, who is new to the parish in Chelan and is originally from Argentina, came today to the Village. I would like to talk some more with him and hope that he can be instrumental in helping increase the connections of the Village to the community in Chelan. When we were talking only a few minutes after he had arrived in the Village, a guy walked up to him and asked him if he was Catholic. When he said he was a priest, then the guy asked if he could confess!

Insights from Worship & Bible Study

Monday, August 10, 2009

Sunday night worship

Musicians worked hard through the day to prepare and had great music, drawing songs from a wide variety of countries and musical gifts from staff. During the day we coordinated to have a processional at the beginning with some streamers and the kids that do the traditional dancing using their dresses. That turned out to be great fun at the beginning and end of the service. It was perfectly appropriate to see the image of the little girls in their flowing dresses, flapping them back and forth, as we sang “Come, Holy Spirit, Come!” I was struck again, as I preached, by the similarity of the Biblical text with immigrants’ lived experience. This was particularly the case when I re-read the beginning part of the Kings reading, where it describes Elijah running out of water and wishing to die, and the story I told of “Martin Lopez,” an immigrant who – like many – miraculously survived his desert crossing. As I went back and forth between English and Spanish in preaching, I also noticed the difference in how it feels to preach in each language, and even something as basic as the fact that in the text the word “desert” is used in Spanish, but “wilderness” in English. The latter makes the connection between those Biblical stories and today’s immigrant stories a bit less obvious!

Bible Study on Moses (Exodus 1-2)
Solid participation – about 30 or so people; a good mix of male and female. People jumped right in and participated.
Some of the insights:
  • We talked about stories and the importance of them for us to know who we are, and that the Bible is a book of stories – stories meant to be told, shared, discussed and connected to our own stories. I highlighted in that first paragraph the importance of knowing who all the names in that list were, even though it can be easy to want to ignore it (in the way that we get tired of hearing grandma tell her stories!).
  • The fact that the Bible is a story of immigrants was already in the room. A woman from Puerto Rico, who turned out to have much insight and much to say, started us off in the right direction.
  • People connected immediately with the idea of fear of the immigrant and the concern that there are too many of them. People offered a few examples of things they had heard in the radio: “Go back to eat nopales en México” to white flight when “Hispanics” begin to move into the neighborhood to people avoiding the streets or making faces at immigrants in stores.
  • I emphasized the generational change and the fact that the new Pharaoh didn’t know Joseph. People also connected immediately to having their stories and contributions ignored. I emphasized the importance of countering the society’s narrative, and the importance of telling our own story to be more complete, to recognize the contributions and the need to do so in supportive communities and out loud.
  • It is out of fear that Pharoah acts and begins to rewrite the law, forcing people into hard labor. “They ask us for social security, and either for being immigrants or being women, they close certain jobs to us.” The laws must be adjusted, for those who can’t be trusted! There are systemic things in place meant to force them into specific types of labor.
  • Chapter 1 verse 12 talks about the way that the people of Israel actually “flourished” under oppression. One participant pointed out that the hard work immigrants are forced to do actually makes them stronger and more determined – hence backfiring in its attempt to exclude/drive them away, same as it did for Pharaoh. In his attempt to get rid of the people, he actually made them stronger.
  • Another participant, however, pointed out that this “flourishing” is not automatic. That if people accept only work – what the Pharaoh wants to dish them – then they can be eliminated. Instead, the participant called for people to go beyond work, and spend time with their kids: guiding them, nurturing their own lives, educating themselves and finding their way forward. At the end of the day, I said, after spending all day baking bricks in the hot sun, they went home and gathered their kids around the fire to tell them the stories of who they are and feed them that alternative narrative.
  • The alternative narrative is hugely needed, against what people hear in the radio, from others, in school, on television and sometimes even from one another.

Discussing Postville at Holden Village

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I did a presentation last night on the immigration raid in Postville. There were a lot of people there, especially considering the fact that it started at 8:15 p.m.! We were “officially” done at 9:30 p.m., but people stayed until about 10:30 p.m. Lots of engagement and questions. Many people expressed appreciation for the way the presentation helped them connect to the topic and broaden understanding of the issues. Immediately, however, some of the questions focused on asking for “where is the hope.” I need to find a better balance between presenting the complexity of the situation and our own complicity in it, but then also motivating people to get engaged. I haven’t really been doing this for very long, and I think I could learn quite a bit from others about that. What I do normally – preaching – is of course about preaching good news. There’s that balance that needs to be present – of the Law and the Gospel. At the end of the presentation, I felt as if I had focused primarily on the Law and didn’t leave enough time to get to the Gospel, other than to point to some hints of hope in the response. 

Heidi, a student from Luther College working here on staff, talked about some of her experiences during student teaching at the Postville High School. She talked about the segregation in the school – some of it seems related to ESL classes – between the “farm kids” and the “Hispanic kids.” She mentioned also that the “Hassidic kids” attend their own school all together. In her comment I think was the sadness and alarm that the next generation is not learning to do this any differently! During her time at the school in Postville, she felt that there was little to no conversation about this huge event that happened in their lives. “That is history, now let’s learn arithmetic…” Like many in town, it seems Heidi felt the school administration and teachers want to move on, but the kids are paying a high price for it. She saw much division and misunderstanding between the Hispanic kids and the farm kids.

Questions and comments reflected deep compassion, frustration and also puzzlement. “Who ever thought this was a good idea? Government should just get out of immigration all together… Even trying to tie it to the economy is something that government couldn’t do well,” said a frustrated Sean, self-identified as a Republican from California. Another person, who has two cousins who live in Postville, talked about the differences in the reactions and opinions of each of his cousins. One was a meat inspector for the USDA and is now retired. She said he mostly seems to be glad that things have calmed down in town and was fairly disparaging of the presence of the company. All that activity, she seemed to indicate, disturbed the peace of his retirement. The other cousin, on the other hand, works at John Deere in their production line and has co-workers who personally knew some of those affected and who themselves were impacted by the fear caused by that raid and enforcement in general. “Your reaction seems to depend on whether or not you know the people directly or not,” she concluded. Her experience names the complexity of a conversation that, like many others, is often avoided even in families because of its controversy.

So… Where are the signs of hope? In the students who – in the midst of finals – worked in the response. In the volunteers who continue to come 14 months later. In the staff at St. Bridget’s and the people at the churches in town who have given so much of themselves and have taken on a huge machine that came to destroy their town. In the thousands of donations that have added up to over a million dollars, all without any broadly-organized fundraising effort. In the success of the Project Jubilee. In La Historia de Nuestras Vidas and the voices of the stories being collected by Luz and Virginia and the other play some of the women in Postville have worked on. How does all this translate into the church’s involvement? How can we – as I said at the conclusion – avoid Martin Luther King Jr.’s assessment of the church as often being the taillights of society, rather than its headlights?

I was left with that question yesterday, and also at the end of my time in Yakima. It has often been the question at the end of forums at churches and other community conversations. Am I in the position of providing those answers? Is it sufficient for me to bring the awareness or am I also responsible for providing direction? Who am I to do that?

The Book of Ruth, Counter-Narratives & Asset Mapping

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

We had a great Bible Study this morning on the remainder of chapter 1 and part of chapter 2 in Ruth. We also had a great conversation with John “Jody” Kretzmann (a professor and co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University and “guru” of asset mapping) about his experience with gathering stories from around the country to illustrate the story of an asset-based approach to communities. In his work, he said the basic concept is approaching communities that have often been seen as “needy” with a different question. Rather than going to them to “prove” their great need – and therefore their worthiness for the charity being offered – they approach communities with the question of their assets and how they could be a worthwhile “investment” for those who have resources. The basic work and approach is outlined in their first book, Building Communities from the Inside Out.

Kretzmann reflected that only one particular case study has focused specifically on an immigrant community. In the book Building the Mercado Central, they looked at the case study of a faith-based group (at the time Minneapolis/St. Paul’s Isaiah interfaith group) that worked with a developing immigrant community to organize. The end result was the now quite successful Mercado and District Del Sol on St. Paul’s south side. They interviewed about 50 people in the community, slowly identifying those in the community that others would see as the ones who had gifts and opportunities, and asking them to think of the assets, skills, etc., that they had from their communities of origin. “The shift,” Kretzmann said, “was that the folks from Isaiah saw members of the immigrant community as people who had a past beyond their time of arrival in St. Paul.”

What was striking to me about his comment was the fact that I am trying to reflect on counter-narratives. Immigrant communities are defined by a “meta narrative” imposed on them that sees them as problematic, without resources and needy. Instead, the interviews revealed people who were quite creative in their home communities in finding ways to survive. Through the interviews, the repeated resource/asset that kept being identified was not so much what people had in the form of recognizable/certifiable skills, but rather the things they had done on the side. Many of them had experience – and had enjoyed – producing meals on the side or art and crafts, etc. Out of those who were being approached, a core group formed that worked with the external group (the Isaiah project folks) to form a cooperative. Much work had to follow on how they would organize a business: approaching city officials to obtain property and permits, providing some basic training to those who would become part of the effort, etc. In the long term, the Mercado has become an example, inspiring to those on the “inside of the community” (¡sí se puede!) and accessible as a valuable investment opportunity for those on the outside with resources. The Suomali market that is now a few blocks down the street from the Mercado and another international market elsewhere in the city drew at least in part from the success of the Mercado, according to Kretzmann.

How do the Biblical stories offer a counter-narrative in the way that narrative therapy looks for counter-narratives in people’s lives, experiences and instances that reveal their inner strength and ability to overcome the challenges that they are facing? This morning’s Bible Study on Ruth confirmed once again the power of these stories. The engagement from people was rich and powerful. I began by playing “Hamman’s Song” from the Veggie Tales take on the Esther story. The refrain for the song is “the law must be adjusted, for those who can’t be trusted.” We identified the common stereotypes of immigrants and argued that the book of Ruth is written to answer similar stereotypes present in the culture. Ruth proves herself to be loyal while immigrants are viewed – then and now – as those who can’t be trusted. Her loyalty is praised throughout the book, as well as powerfully articulated in a marriage-like experience between her and Naomi, where she commits herself “‘til death do us part” to her mother-in-law. Ruth also shows her knowledge of the law and customs of the land she eventually adopts as her own, by being mindful of asking for permission from Naomi when she goes out, by suggesting that she should take advantage of the laws that allow the poor to glean in the fields and, later on, by guiding Boaz to fulfill his responsibility as next of kin. Finally, when Boaz asks the servant in charge of the reapers about who Ruth is, he praises her as hardworking, even though that has not been solicited: “She has been on her feet from early this morning until now, without resting even for a moment.”

A number of people expressed great appreciation for this approach to a text that many of them have held dear, but have never heard in this way. Mrs. Johnson, the matriarch of a family that is here this week celebrating their family reunion, expressed surprise at the fact that even though the Women of the ELCA just engaged in a very thoughtful and insightful study on the book of Ruth, the fact that she – and Naomi – are immigrants was not at all reflected in the study. “That study opened my eyes to much that was new to me in this text, but our conversation here has brought to light a perspective that I think is very important to understanding the text,” she said. In that phrase she really articulated my hope for my sabbatical – to provide an “additional lens” to the way that we read these stories. 

When we got to the part in the story when Ruth returns “empty” to her hometown, I shared how the study group in Yakima had compared her deeply painful words to the experience of those who are deported. There was such a powerful feeling in the room – experienced in a deep silence – to imagine “Mrs. Echeveria” sharing the story of being deported back to her small town in Guatemala. Entering town on the bus, the whole community was truly “stirred” by her arrival. As she walked off the bus alone – as she had been deported without her family – feeling that she had failed, Naomi’s words that “the Lord has dealt harshly with me, and the Almighty has brought calamity upon me,” echoed deeply.

Later I ran into one of the study participants, who expressed deep appreciation for the way that this woman’s story of grief connected with her own. “I have not experienced anything quite like you describe that she did, but it connected deeply with my own loss at leaving home and the transition of my kids.” Also, as we were finishing the Bible Study, when we had already been doing about 15 minutes of overtime with a small group who stayed back to continue the conversation beyond the allotted time, one of the participants said, “These women had to become assertive. I just lost my husband earlier this year. The man who was supposed to provide for me was absent, and I have had to become so much more assertive to be able to do the things that I relied on him to do for me.” It was clear in her comments and the depth from where they were coming, that Ruth’s narrative had been opened up in a new way for her that affirmed her assertive actions – when the subtext was that she had paid some price for having to make those changes in her life.

I am deeply appreciative of the community’s energy and engagement here. Duplicating this kind of educational experience and openness is really hard to do “down lake.” Part of my ambivalence is that statement itself. What is so specific about our conversation here? How much of it has to do with my own skill to lead a Bible Study? Can this be “bottled” as I have asked before? Can it be duplicated? Part of me wants to believe that this is just what’s there, and all that people need to do is give themselves permission to read the text for what it says! Kretmann said that their approach has been to identify communities in a few places around the country who are “affinitive” (groups that have connections to each other through existing networks, like faith communities, or shared interests, like medical professionals). Their model is to form “communities that are co-producers of outcomes with professionals.” As I understand his suggestion, when presented with the request for resources or told that they need “me” there, I should be prepared to invite a community to identify a group of people who are willing to find the three most compelling grassroots accomplishments in a place, to name their assets and then begin their work from there.

Migration into Adulthood

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Kids these days… I’ve had a couple of conversations today where elements of youth and the dynamics of living on opposite sides of the “age” divide come into play. A senior professor at a university spoke of his realization of his own “migration” from one to the other. After a promotion and tenure meeting where two junior professors had been granted tenure, he offered comments about his memories of being on the other side – when he was a junior professor, suspicious of the established old fogies who were entrenched into their ways and lived in their own little worlds. Now, being among the “old fogies,” he viewed the idealistic, sometimes fearful, new faculty with a level of “paternalistic” concern for their over-eagerness. Relax, he wants to say to them; hold on for the long haul. In a way that I do not remember hearing so much before here in the Village, I have heard some of the long-term staff talking about the “college kids” who are here as part of the shorter term staff. There is a high degree of appreciation for their work, commitment and idealism, but there is also a deep awareness that there is some kind of “divide” here. I imagine that those “college kids” have their own awareness about it as well. 

In both conversations, I found myself thinking about Jesus’ words to his disciples: “There is much yet I need to tell you, but you are not ready to hear it.” In both cases I also commented about the image of “migration” as a helpful way to think about the transition from childhood into adulthood – this process that has become increasingly complicated and long in our society. While previous generations and cultures have had (some still do) clear markings of entering into adulthood – going out into the woods to become a man, Quiñceañeras or debutantes – the transition in most of Western culture is not clearly marked and it has been extended. Teenagers are the “immigrants” making their way from the world of childhood into the world of adulthood. The latter is a world foreign to them, one where they must learn new language, customs, values, worldview, etc. The differences, of course – as highlighted in part by the comments from the professor above – are often heightened by our own anxieties. We do indeed have much more in common with one another. To think of teenagers as a “tribe apart” may not be the most helpful.

First Days in Holden Village

Monday, August 3, 2009

Traveling to Holden is clearly a pilgrimage – a good reminder of how much of a “migrant” community this place is. Car, boat, bus and then carting suitcases up the hill to the Chalet. This is definitely a place apart: walking down to the dining room without a wallet (“come eat, without money and without price” beckons the prophet, and the rich table is truly set); watching people carrying suitcases down to the dock as they prepare to leave and others carrying up the hill to their housing. The nightly ritual of naming those who have come new to the Village and praying for those who will depart – daily reminders of the transitional nature of the place and of our lives.

Numerous conversations – in the kitchen where I volunteered to help chop some vegetables or around meals – focus on where people are from and where they are going. The former is sometimes easier to speak about – our roots, our towns, our families, our memories – than the latter, as where we will go next is often more uncertain. A place like Holden attracts those of us whose sense of the future is less firm and clear. Many of the people who are working here – from the directors to a college student volunteering for the summer – are not sure what awaits them at the end of their time in the Village. Isn’t that the life of an immigrant? A life of uncertainty about what lies ahead and a recognition that there are other things – God? – that will determine the next steps.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Tension Between Two Worlds

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

This week we have been staying with my brother-in-law, sister-in-law and their 4-year-old son in Woodland, Washington, which is about 30 miles north of Vancouver, Washington. It has been great. Like many of the towns near the Columbia, some of its industry depends on shipping by boat and also train. In addition, there are berry “farms” and tulips. I need to go see the tulip “operations.” According to Jon, the labor force is again all Hispanic in the fields. You can’t tell that by the areas of town where we have been, however. We’re staying a ways out of town, and out here views are gorgeous, lots are measured in acres and houses vary in size but tend toward the more expansive. Neighbors on one side have a few cows, on the other chickens, and across the street alpacas! But not much diversity when it comes to homeowners… The street names – and some of the people now living here – are descendants of Finns. Finn Hall is just down the road, Wiere Rd., Lathi Rd., etc. The main roads through here were originally logging roads, which are still evident as you get further up the mountain. But little evidence is visible of the Hispanic labor force that keeps things growing. I saw three guys working up on the roof of a gas station in the middle of the scorching heat. When I went to the grocery store around 6 p.m., I saw a couple of groups of men who had just gotten back from the fields doing some shopping and a couple of families as well.

These two worlds seldom meet. Is it a wonder that – sometimes when they do – there is tension?

News from Postville

Monday, July 27, 2009
I heard great news from Violeta at St. Bridget’s in Postville. Seven more women had their GPS “bracelets” removed today! I was struck by the change in expression in their faces from the “before” and “after” pictures. What has it been like to have been shackled to those things for close to 15 months? They finally removed them because of a doctor testifying to the physical and psychological impact that they have had on them. Was a doctor needed to state the obvious? Their lawyer, Sonia’s, dogged insistence that they be removed also bore fruit. She had repeatedly argued before the court that the devices were not what were keeping these women here. They have proven themselves worthy of trust, following up on every single request from the court, and are here basically awaiting resolution of their cases. If their cases would not be resolved, they are likely to want to return to their home countries anyway, rather than try to risk working here without documents. Who knows what will happen now and how long it will be before they hear on their cases. In the meantime, what’s important is to celebrate the moment. To recognize the importance – for these seven people – of having those things off. A sign that someone is listening. A hope that their limbo may some day end. And at the same time, I am sure it is a difficult adjustment. The fear that their plea is not as clear. The symbol of the “bracelet” has been a unifying image for them. What will they call themselves now? Only a few are now “las mujeres con brazalete.” Their plight has spoken of the injustice they have faced. Thankfully they have been released of that burden, but the absence of the physical evidence belies the reality of their on-going limbo and entrapment…
Luis Argueta spoke of flying with a group of people being deported to Guatemala. Divided, as usual, by gender. First he traveled with a group of women. This was the first time they were ever on an airplane for most of them – the contrast of their journey here on foot and then being flown back. The cycle of loss and disappointment, and the difficult future that awaits them. I spoke with my parents about Maynor, one of the men who was detained in Postville and then deported after serving a full year sentence. My family knew his family from years earlier.  He has yet to find work and has been back in Guatemala since March…

Wrapping up in Yakima

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Yesterday on our drive along the Columbia Gorge we saw breathtaking vistas all along the way – mountains, peaks, the river, water sports… It is really a beautiful part of the country. The landscape and vegetation varied dramatically, sometimes quite suddenly – one moment we’re driving through dry, brown grasses and nothing but very small shrubs, and then we cross an invisible line and we’re in the midst of a pine forest. Borders… Similar sudden shifts were visible in housing and lifestyle as we moved away from the agricultural valley to the tourism-driven economy of the gorge. Just as suddenly Native Americans – and at least the more visible Spanish speaking population – were also absent.

My time in Yakima was quite surprising. I could really have spent a few more weeks there and may seriously need to consider returning. In a week I ended up on the front page of their local newspaper, on the radio and offering a public lecture – one that was seemingly quite well received. The impact and appreciation of the conversations were evident in our conversation with Carole and Steve over dinner our last night in Yakima…but also the question about next steps.  Can churches be a resource to this conversation? I appreciated Steve’s skepticism and Carole’s desire for seizing opportunities.

I went to Yakima with the agenda of leading a Bible study with a group of immigrant women and spending time in the fields picking. The Bible study did take place, although with a much smaller group than I had envisioned. Was it the timing (during picking season)? The topic? (People are leery of church conversations and conversions, and perhaps just as much about talking openly about immigration). Still the conversation was rich and more than I could possibly absorb in the time that we spent together. Getting out to pick in the fields was another story. I can’t quite put my finger on why it didn’t happen. The arrangements I had made fell through because of the uncertainty and complexity of the harvest. In one case, the family ended up not picking the fruit at all because there is too much fruit in the market, and their crop had some issues and therefore the promised buyer didn’t want it. In another case, the grower I think grew cold feet about having me out there, so said instead he didn’t want to take work away from the folks who work for him regularly for whom this season is financially so significant. A number of other growers I contacted didn’t follow up. I could just have gone out myself to a large grower and asked for work, and I am sure that I would have found some, but I found myself hardly able to keep up with the connections I was making. I had incredible conversations with a wide variety of people and truly was just beginning to scratch the surface.

In the Bible study – like in the interview conversations and then later in the lecture – the challenge remains how to make this type of conversation happen and available to others. Carole’s reactions – and to some extent the reaction of others – was to place much of the reason for the nature of the conversation on me and the particulars of language, presence, style, etc. How do I write/create resources that can help others “do this at home”?

Constructive Dialogue & Engagement

Thursday, July 23, 2009

I don’t even know where to begin… The presentation at the Seasons last night went better than I could have expected. When I first arrived about 20 minutes before we were scheduled to begin, there was one person there. I spoke with her briefly, and she was clearly supportive. I imagined that’s what the group would look like and started to adjust for a very small group conversation. By the time we started shortly after 7:00 p.m., the place was fairly full! The best part of it was that there were people of all walks of life – the newspaper article and the coverage on the radio station did the work. The word of mouth invitations and the respect for the work of La Casa Hogar showed itself in the ability to convene a community conversation. And that is really what it was. Carole, the director of La Casa Hogar, did the introductions and welcome, acknowledging the other two sponsors of the event – Central Lutheran and the United Church of Yakima – whose willingness to officially sponsor the event also lent credibility to the conversation.

I moved around greeting people who had arrived. The first group I met were two older gentlemen and a woman who identified themselves as members of “Grass Roots of Yakima Valley,” a group opposed to illegal immigration. Carole had previously indicated that the woman in the group is part of the Minute Men. There were several pastors of congregations. Workers from the field who said they came because they heard the interview in the radio. Women from one of the English class at La Casa Hogar came as a group. Many other people from the community, including a number of young adults – I already miss hanging out with college students! One of them was carrying newspaper articles from about 10 years earlier when a series of immigration raids threatened to cripple the harvest season in the valley…

I started my presentation by asking people to raise their hand if they were born and raised right there in the city of Yakima. Four hands went up… I thanked those “locals” who serve as hosts to the rest of us “immigrants.” As has been the case in other presentations, the simple acknowledgment that most of us live away – across the state, the country or the world – from where we were born sets up the basic idea of the “pull and push” of immigration. People move either “pulled” by opportunities or “pushed” by fear. As an example, I outlined Yakima’s own history, starting with a population of 1,503 in the 1900 census, to the estimated 83,000 it has reached. I talked about the impact of the canals that brought water into an area that had been primarily desert and shared what I had been hearing and learning all week from growers and field workers alike about the impact of technology and trade on their daily lives. A grower who came in the late 1930s as a result of the economy crash of the Great Depression said the city ended at 35th Ave when he came. A worker who came from Mexico in the early 1990s said it had reached 65th Ave when she came. A pastor who arrived just eight months ago said the city was reaching the small rural community he came to serve around 106th Ave…

As people called out one Biblical character after another, we talked about those characters’ experience of immigration. I moved through the macro changes in economics, trade, production, transportation technology, political changes, etc., that have resulted in huge movement of people worldwide. Yet some people are excluded form this mobility by increasingly more limiting migration policies that do not match our economic realities and trade decisions. Postville, I said, happens in the crash between these two trends. We viewed the trailer to Luis Argueta’s documentary, abUSed - The Postville Raid and followed up with a few comments about why the Postville raid demands our attention – as the clear, unavoidable evidence of the need for a change in immigration policies. I finished my presentation in about an hour, and it was followed by an hour and a half of good, meaningful conversation. There was a good feeling in the space, as people dared to speak and engage, even when they disagreed. Carole asked people to indicate in the cards they received when they came in if they would like to participate in on-going conversation, and she said she had much more engagement than she has had before. 

There were many powerful comments, but two that have stayed with me. One was from a field worker who said: “Thank you for your words and courage. In 35 years this is the first time I hear a pastor, priest or any religious leader talk this way about immigration.” This was a powerful comment, but also a strong call to action to the religious community. He also said, “Anyone who doesn’t want me here, I invite them to join me out in the field tomorrow for three hours in 90 degree heat, and then we can return to the conversation.”

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Meetings & Conversations

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

It was another full day. I feel as if I could stay here for many more weeks, just to be able to really take in the conversations that are available. I sat down next to someone just “by chance” at a meatpacking plant today, and – within a few minutes – he shared a powerful story. He came forty-five years ago, worked in the fields and now works at the plant. Every person carries a powerful story with them, if we could only listen to one another.

The local paper, the Yakima Herald Republic, ran a front page story on my presentation tomorrow and my visit here. It was somewhat overwhelming… Tonight I will review what I hope to say tomorrow. I can’t fully bring all of the conversations I have been hearing together for a presentation here, but I must speak in context.

I started the day with a meeting with Tomas Villareal. Our meeting was interrupted by an organizer from the UFCW who needed Mr. Villareal to go with him. We went to a local meat packing plant, Washington Beef. They employ around 800 people and process something like 1,200 cows daily. The facilities were so much bigger and seemed so much better than anything Agriprocessors has. They have been unionized for 11 years. That was an interesting experience, but very short as I needed to come back to Yakima to meet with Sandra Aguilar, the daughter of Isabel Aguilar. Sandra is a social worker with Catholic Charities Housing program. She shared with me about the program and gave me a tour of their senior housing complex. It is quite impressive to see the work they do – providing temporary housing for workers, low-income apartments throughout the valley, a first time home buyers’ program, educational programs and community building. Again, another conversation that could go on for hours.

Interview with a retired grower

Monday, July 20, 2009

I met this afternoon for a couple of hours with Ted Schmidt and his wife, Lois. They came to Yakima back in the late 1930s, early 1940s from the Midwest (North Dakota) – at different times but both families as a consequence of the Great Depression and the loss of family farms that followed. Ted was 13 when his family moved in 1939, and he bought his first orchard in 1952, getting his first crop in 1954. Shortly after, he and Lois were married. 

Over time they have seen huge changes in the valley. They sold their orchard in the early 1990s after 40 years of tending it. Ted spoke of the change in the valley over an even greater period of time, starting with the first canals that were built that transformed the place from a desert of sagebrush and low grasses into orchard heaven. He said changes began in 1907, and the canals were built over time, including major projects during the work projects of the 1930s. When they first moved out, his father rented an orchard that he tended for only a year. He and his brother also “went out to work” the following years, picking and doing other work in the area’s orchards.

In the 1950s, schools would close for two weeks during the harvest. Many people who had other jobs would do a few hours a week as well. Labor was made up of a wide range of people. Some Native American labor and workers from the community. Workers from “Front Street” (the street in town that runs along the tracks and where the original packing houses were). They were mostly people who were homeless or living with alcoholism, prison release, etc. Finally, there were a number of migrant workers that would come just for the season. By the late 1960s to early 1970s, labor switched completely to Hispanic labor. “There were no illegals,” Ted said, who used that term consistently and was puzzled by the use of the word “undocumented.”

I asked what had caused the change, and the answer ranged: government regulation that limited child labor, people’s own expectations, the need for more consistent labor and a growing market. Every part of production translated into changes in labor: from switching from the original wooden boxes that he used the first few years to the large bins that have come to dominate. The former would be loaded into wagons or small trucks and then transferred to larger trucks to be brought to the packing houses. From what I could gather, now the bins are placed on the back of trucks and transferred directly that way to the packing houses, significantly reducing labor. Chemicals used, refrigeration, transportation and the ensuing growing market have also meant a stronger fruit that can last longer. With some astonishment Ted talked about the fact that apples from the previous year’s season are still being sold a year later and taste just as if they just came off the orchard. Early on – with cooling houses and some minimal refrigeration – three months would have been the limit and then the unsold fruit would be lost. He expressed astonishment about the idea of cherries being flown on airplanes to Japan – and wondered with a laugh what they must cost there!

I continue coming across a frustration on the part of growers with increased government intervention. Ted wondered – with the government telling growers what to do so much through regulation – whether we are still a free country at all.

When I asked Ted what he thought had caused the shift in the origin of the labor force, he indicated that “there are just a lot of people coming.” The ready availability of cheap labor has made the need of the other labor pools less. His wife’s sense was more complicated than that: a mix of a more reliable, more “professional” labor force than the mix of part-timers, school kids, and “Front Street” folks; cheaper labor and better options for groups that had done the work in an earlier generation. There was clearly a sense of loss of a way of life for both of them – in terms of the willingness of people to work hard, life as more simple and even more free. “I am glad I am out of it now,” Ted said, reflecting on how complex and demanding – and often separated from the actual production – the work has become.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Church & Winetasting

Sunday, July 19, 2009

I felt pretty overwhelmed about the conversation of immigration – its complexity, the difficulty of building consensus, the prospects of reform… Those most affected – the workers – are in positions that are so demanding that they are worked until they can’t engage, and that is in addition to the experiences that have “taught” them no one will listen to their experiences. As I continue to explain to people what it is that I am doing – and try to do so in a compelling way – I continue to struggle to come up with my “elevator speech.” As I said before, it is different depending on who I am speaking to – workers in the field, growers, newspaper or radio people (and then it also depends on the audience they write for and who they themselves are, especially immigrant or not).

Language has also been interesting in this community that so clearly distinguishes between “migrants” and “immigrants.” They are two very different stages, but there doesn’t seem to be language that reflects their shared fate. The true “migrants” – at least in the minds of many – are not as present. Are they just hidden? How can the growers or the regular public even tell? The “migrants” no longer come in large covered trucks and follow the crops along the coast, and they likely try to blend in.

This morning I went to early service (8:15 a.m.) at one of the local Lutheran churches and to Spanish mass at the Catholic church in Zilah at 10:30 a.m. – two different worlds. The two churches shared a similar order of liturgy and the same set of readings, but embodied two worlds apart. Dawit, Meheret and only one more kid were at the early service’s children’s sermon. The majority of the congregation was clearly of retirement age and only a few were younger. It was the early service, so I don’t know what attendance looks like at other services, but it was pretty thin. (Later I heard from someone that the early service was the main service.) Then at the Catholic church, the place was packed, and the average age was somewhere around 30. Tons of kids! In fact, the main focus of the sermon was about keeping them quiet so we can listen to God’s Word… The second reading from Ephesians 2 started by saying that, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” Yet the sermon didn’t at all connect with the daily lives of the people who were listening…

Yesterday (Saturday), we went on a wine tasting tour, and even there I kept up the conversation about immigration – with a newspaper person in the Tri-City area, a farmer turned winemaker and a migrant worker also turned winemaker. The guy at McKenley Springs, the first winery we visited, was very open and conversational. He farms some 60,000 acres with his extended family. Only about 5% of that (3,000 acres) is in grapes. Like others I spoke with, he started planting vines in the early 1980’s. “Like most everybody,” he said, “we didn’t know what we were doing, and we just grew too many grapes on the vine. I’m a farmer; it’s all about producing more.” Over time, he indicated, they have been learning. Their first vintage was not until 2000. What an amazing crop! It demands long-term commitment and planning. In a way, the contrast between these long-standing family farms and the needed transient labor is puzzling. The contrast between that ever-present image of migration and the huge labor needs… The woman from the paper in Tri-State seem to indicate about 50,000 people are needed in the valley for the harvest. Then the statement in the Herald’s paper that was just appalling. In the opinion page, the writer ended by quoting – mis-quoting I think – Senator Shumer as saying that “We need engineers, not low skill labor.” Showing agreement with a comment like that in this valley seems either ignorant or willfully insulting. Will anyone respond or just let it stand?

Contemplating fruit crops & labor markets in Washington State's Yakima Valley

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

So much happens each day, it is hard to keep up with writing. I need to come up with a daily pattern for my days, so that the sabbatical “works.” I really need a sabbatical routine that includes time for study, reflection and rest. A rather contrary need is also to let go. To let go of my own anxieties and needs to perform, and to know that this will be a time where I do what I can – and may not be able to do all that I want.

Moving in
First there are the on-going, needed basics. Finding a barber. Figuring out the grocery stores, including the discount “club” card, and restocking on groceries, as we don’t have everything that is on our shelves at home. Schedule at the pool. Adjusting to the higher prices and working out a budget. Finding the right pots, pans, dishes and utensils, and adjusting to other aspects of a new place to live. Our arrival has been significantly cushioned by those who have welcomed us here – folks at La Casa Hogar who have helped to make so many arrangements, Bill and Betty who have graciously let us walk into their house – with no more instructions than the code for the alarm system!

What is this transition like for those who come without the language? Who live in fear because of their immigration status? Who come without resources? Doña Maria, 9 months pregnant and left in California with $2 in her pocket… It reminded me of my mom’s own feelings early on when she came to visit and felt trapped in our apartment… I haven’t even been able to find work picking yet. I have followed up on contacts that I know and certainly have approached it differently because my subsistence doesn’t depend on it. Still, after three days here, I am not all that clear about how the labor market works. I have become more aware of the complexities and unreliability of available work.

The best fruit growing land in the world

I spoke with Mr. Ingham the other night, a local small cherry grower who I was told may have some work available. He is about to do two additional days of picking starting today (Wednesday). He depends primarily on a single family that has worked for him for quite some time (the oldest of the siblings in the family began working for him just over 10 years ago in 1998). He was kind enough to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with me talking about the process. He talked about the fact that this section of the country (the “inside” part of the West Coast of the U.S.) is the best place in the world to raise certain fruit crops – particularly, of course, apples, cherries and grapes. The dry air prevents disease, the stable temperatures and plenty of sun aid the growth, water is readily available, etc. The northern part of the region—Oregon and Washington—is particularly appropriate for “deciduous” trees that must “rest” for part of the year in order to be able to produce each season. When I suggested that some apple crops are moving south to places like Mexico, he balked at the idea, saying that areas to the south cannot produce the same quantity and quality of fruit because of the lack of a seasonal change. “Even in parts of southern California, they have to chemically “slap” the trees to sleep for part of the year, because it stays too warm. The advantage for them on cherries is that they will have an earlier crop, so it doesn’t matter as much that the fruit is not the same quality.” He went on to say that in the Midwest—places like Michigan—they face a different problem with too much rain, resulting in a number of diseases on the trees.

Until I went to Holden Village for the first time about six years ago, I really didn’t realize how large the Hispanic population was in this area. The fact that this region is so well suited to growing fruit has everything to do with it. As highlighted in a presentation at a congressional hearing a few months back, which was looking at the possibility and need for immigration reform, Congresswoman Feinstein (I believe) pointed out that the U.S. is loosing much of its fruit and vegetable production because they require such high manual labor. Unlike crops that have become common in much of the country – like corn and soy beans – the planting and harvesting of fruits and vegetables cannot be so fully mechanized. They require lots of manual labor. As farmers struggle to find or afford the necessary labor, they either turn to more mechanized crops—and try to compete in an ever increasingly competitive market, needing to become larger and larger—or they simply turn to other professions.

A complex labor market
I am really interested in understanding more about how people make the decision to migrate, but also about the “demand” side. How does the labor market in an area like this one here in Yakima work? Some elements were revealed in my conversation with one of the growers here in this area. When I asked him about the need for migrant labor, he made a distinction between the “locals” and the “migrants.” He defined migrants as those—an increasingly shrinking pool—who actually migrate with the season and are here in the valley only temporarily. He talked about them as the H2H group, referring to the immigration visa designation for temporary farm workers. That number of visas is minute compared to the need, of course, so in that group I am assuming are many who are here without any documentation, but who still move with the crops. His sense is that as one moves away from the larger towns and cities, the need for that kind of labor is greater. His own farm is right in town here in Yakima, so he feels he has plenty of “local” labor. By local he means people who have settled into the area. Interestingly, he makes no distinctions about their immigration status, and is either unaware or it doesn’t really matter to him. He seems to prefer working with the same people year after year, and through various stages of the process. In fact, he expressed frustration—even anger—at the fact that some of these “locals” can get ideas and play growers one against the other for wages. “They have no loyalty,” he said with disgust in his voice when I interpreted this as a normal process as people became more aware of options and tried to exercise some bargaining power.

Then there is the fickleness of the crops. As I have been trying to find work here this week, a variety of factors limit opportunities. When I called last week, for example, I was told the “packing” warehouses, who purchase the crop in bulk and package it for distribution, were not taking product.  “The pipeline filled up,” said one of the growers. It has been a plentiful crop in some of the cherry varieties (Right now it is cherries that are being harvested.). The trouble is that many of the cherries are smaller. Cherries are traditionally measured by how many of them fill a row in a standard carton that they are sold on—the most desirable seems to be “9 row cherries.” That means the cherries are large enough that nine of them fill a row. The current crop produced a lot of cherries, but they tended to be smaller. In the case of the person I was talking to, he has ended up with a lot of 11 and 11 ½ row cherries, which are not as easy to sell and the market seems to be full right now. “It depends on what the market will bear,” said the grower, who like farmers in all other crops around the country are everything from engineers to mechanics to economists in order to get their product to market in an increasingly complicated economy. Of course, they don’t have much wiggle room in participating in this technologically advanced economy, when the fruit still grows on very “traditional,” nature bound trees! Cherries in particular have a very small window. When they are ready, they are ready and must be harvested. If you wait too long, they over ripen and don’t last well when packed. “People will remember a bad cherry,” he said indicating the high expectations consumers have and the little understanding for the vagaries of producing that perfect cherry.

In season and out of season
In the middle of all this are migrant workers, who must quickly learn about these things and figure out a way to make a living in a very unreliable labor market. During the cherry season, the one family that works for the grower I spoke with can make upwards of $20 to $25 an hour because they are experienced pickers. They will work starting at 5:00 a.m. (the cooler part of the day) and must pick for as long as possible. If the day is cool, that could mean going quite late and having a 12-hour day. If it is hot, however, they must stop before the fruit holds so much heat that it will be damaged when packed. So a more “traditional” day runs from 5:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. What happens in the off-season? I know in places like Florida, some farm workers – like restaurant workers – go on unemployment for part of the year. You don’t have that kind of “benefit” when you are undocumented and have no labor protections. What happens when the crop you were scheduled to pick ends up not being picked because – like it happened just two days ago with another small local grower – the company who was going to buy it decided the crop was “too damaged” and won’t buy it? So the crop must sit on the trees and wait to mature further to see if it can be sold in the wine market, which evidently needs more mature, sweeter fruit and is likely not as picky about what it looks like…

So you have a region that is geographically perfect for growing fruit, but then demands large labor during parts of the year and not during other times. How has the increase in immigration enforcement shaped this market? In my mind, I have the “ideal” of migrant workers that came in generations past, “only when needed’ and then either followed crops further north into Canada or went “home” to Mexico during the off-season. It is my understanding that that long-standing pattern has been disrupted by the border enforcement efforts. I have much yet to read about this, as well as doing some anecdotal research with folks who have lived in this area either as growers or workers for long periods of time.

I think I still hold on to the naïve hope that people who depend heavily on immigrant labor would hold a particularly open view on immigration reform. I am not sure that is the case. While personal contact and stories do make a difference in people’s attitudes, there is a way in which we are quite capable of viewing those we know as “exceptions.” So the people who work “for me” I designate as locals, and see the labor coming to work for others – especially those who continue to migrate – as more suspect… In that view, those to whom I have granted the privilege of acceptance had better behave. I will be quite angry if they get ideas and decide not to be loyal….