“These ashes represent a new day dawning in the fields out of a dark past of abuse… These ashes also represent Publix’s opportunity for redemption.”

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United Methodist Women host CIW at last weekend’s Annual Conference in Lakeland, reaffirm their commitment to farmworkers and the call for Publix to support dramatic human rights advances taking root in the fields today…

This past weekend, over 300 Florida United Methodist Women gathered at First United Methodist Church in Lakeland for their annual meeting, and a delegation from the CIW was welcomed as special guests. Readers of this site are familiar with the steadfast support of United Methodist Women, who have been especially active over the past year. This past March, they showed their solidarity on the 200-mile March for Rights, Respect and Fair Food, and weeks later, nearly 150 visited Immokalee, wrote letters to Carol Jenkins Barnett and brought the message back to their congregations and communities. This past summer at their summer conference, they held a vigil in front of a Publix in Lakeland that made the front page of the Lakeland Ledger  and later was the subject of a must-read op/ed in that same paper by Rev. Audrey Warren. 

So it was not a surprise — but still a great honor — to be invited to participate in this year’s annual conference.  And the day did not disappoint!  Highlighting the profound advances in human rights for women in the fields since the implementation of the Fair Food Program two seasons ago — advances brought about not only without Publix’s support, but against the tide of Publix’s staunch resistance — the CIW delegation brought the house to its feet with a moving presentation.  And throughout the day, United Methodist Women members made their support for those changes known through the simple gesture of wearing the mark of ashes, ashes representing “a new day dawning in the fields out of a dark past of abuse,” ashes also representing “Publix’s opportunity for redemption and reconciliation after four years of turning their backs on farmworker families, refusing to even speak to farmworkers about their right to be treated with dignity and respect.”  

The symbolic gesture was not only a visual reminder throughout the day of the unique bond building between the UMW and the CIW, but was also an opportunity to strengthen that bond through the one-to-one, human connection of sharing the ashes, a connection made hundreds of times that day:

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Our friends at Interfaith Action accompanied the CIW delegation that day and were kind enough to share a report from the visit, which follows here below:

It was our great honor to take part in the UMW Annual Meeting this year. The United Methodist Women made the day not just one to take care of important business, but a time to reaffirm their commitment to standing with farmworkers to call on Publix to be part of the dramatic human rights advances taking root in the fields today.  With this in mind, the women decided that they and we together would wear and give ashes throughout the day as a symbol of their support for the new day in the fields rising out of the old. And indeed, as women streamed in to the sanctuary for the day to begin the meeting and saw their fellow UMW with ashes on their cheek, once they learned of its significance, they enthusiastically came over to the CIW and Interfaith Action’s table to receive their very own ashes. 

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The ashes were accompanied by a prayer card, reading in part: “These ashes – made from foliage from the Immokalee tomato fields – signify a prayer for Publix, a prayer for dignity and justice for farmworkers. These ashes represent a new day dawning in the fields out of a dark past of abuse, sexual violence, and slavery in the fields. The new day rising through the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Fair Food Program is one in which our brothers and sisters in the fields are treated with respect and dignity, so that as they undertake the hard work of putting food on our tables, they are also able to put food on their own…

These ashes also signify Publix’s opportunity for redemption and reconciliation after four years of turning their backs on farmworker families, refusing to even speak to farmworkers about their right to be treated with dignity and respect. They represent our prayer that Publix will take this opportunity to redeem its past and be part of the new day of justice for farmworkers in Florida’s fields.”

During the meeting itself, Nely Rodriguez and Lupe Gonzalo of the CIW were also invited to share a message (pictured below) with the hundreds of women gathered in the beautiful sanctuary. Aptly, before they came up on the altar to deliver their message about the changes in the fields and our shared work to convince Publix to support them, the hundreds joined in singing one verse of a hymn called “What Does the Lord Require?”: “All who gain wealth by trade, for whom the worker toils, think not to win God’s aid, if greed your commerce soils. Do justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” 

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After an introduction by the conference leadership, garnering great applause with the announcement of the CIW’s selection for the 2013 Roosevelt Institute’s Four Freedoms Medal, Nely and Lupe went up to the altar and spoke about the changes that the successes of the Campaign for Fair Food have created in the fields. That now, because of the Fair Food Program, parents are able to spend time with their children in the mornings before they go to school, because time clocks in the fields, guaranteeing payment for all hours, discourage growers from picking up workers so early in the morning. They shared that women in the fields, for whom sexual harassment and abuse was once routine, are now shown the respect they deserve and are able to report abuse without fear of retaliation. They also recounted a recent report of abuse just resolved through the Fair Food Program that can no doubt be celebrated by all who have been part of the movement for Fair Food. They told of a woman who learned she could report sexual harassment she had been facing from her crew leader for months when the CIW education team arrived at the farm at which she was working to talk about the new rights and responsibilities under the Fair Food Program. The situation had grown extreme, threatening her safety and that of her child. When the CIW received this report and informed the grower, not only was the crew leader fired immediately, but he was banned from working on any participating farm across the state. The woman was able to keep her job and finally live and work in peace. 

But, they also shared, had this case happened on a farm that was not part of the Fair Food Program, this woman would have never learned of her rights and would have never had the institutional support she would need to report this abuse without fear of retaliation. This crew leader would have never been fired, and this woman, and undoubtedly, many others, would have continued facing this grave indignity.  It was pointed out that, unlike Publix, companies that have signed Fair Food agreements only purchase tomatoes from farms that are part of the Fair Food Program.  

This, they said, is why the continued support of United Methodist Women and all of our allies across the country is so vital — it is making the groundbreaking changes we are seeing real, and it is necessary to continue rooting out the injustice that is now actively perpetuated by buyers like Publix.  

It ended in a standing ovation (below). We are grateful for the opportunity to have shared this beautiful day with some very special allies who continue to ensure us that their motto (now a Fair Food chant) indeed holds true: “Faith, hope and action… we will make it happen!”  

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The CIW’s gratitude for this flourishing partnership with the United Methodist Women cannot be overstated.  The warmth and genuine spirit of solidarity at the heart of this relationship burns ever more brightly with each and every occasion we get to reflect and act together.  We look forward to the great changes that we are sure to affect together in the months and years ahead on behalf of long-overdue justice in Florida’s fields.