Brian McLaren: “The Scandal Of Publix and The Coalition of Immokalee Workers: A Christian Critique”

Brian McLaren: “The Scandal Of Publix and The Coalition of Immokalee Workers: A Christian Critique”

Pastors prepare to break the bread with which fasters ended the Fast for Fair Food outside Publix
headquarters in Lakeland, Florida, this past March

“We’re people and we deserve more respect than what Publix has shown us thus far.”

Earlier this month, the Rev. Clay Thomas, a Presbyterian minister and longtime ally of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, was removed from a Sarasota Publix store, threatened with arrest, and banned from returning to the store for one year — for the crime of ordering a sandwich while wearing a CIW t-shirt.

The absurdity of Publix’s latest reaction to the Campaign for Fair Food moved Brian McLaren — the nationally known author, activist for social justice, and public theologian whom Time magazine called one of “the 25 most influential Evangelicals in America“– to sit down and pour his thoughts into an article published today in the Huffington Post.

His article, entitled “The Scandal of Publix and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers: A Christian Critique,” is a thorough take down of Publix’s unconscionable decision to reject farmworkers’, and its customers’, calls to join the growing Fair Food Program. He measures Publix’s actions against the company’s own standards, citing the philosophy of business and service that Florida’s largest grocer teaches all of its managers, a philosophy based on seven fundamental principles of good business defined years ago by company founder George Jenkins. Not surprisingly, he finds that the company’s response to the CIW’s campaign falls well short of its founder’s ideals.

We will bring you excerpts of the Huffington Post article below, bur first, a little background on the event that inspired it. An article in the Sarasota Herald Tribune, “Minister kicked out of Publix in wake of labor protest” (9/11/12), described the events around Rev. Thomas’ eviction from the Publix store:

“A local Presbyterian minister evicted from a Publix supermarket for trespassing says he is under a one-year shopping ban for supporting a Florida farm labor movement.

The Rev. Clay Thomas — who acknowledges that he wore a T-shirt in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers on the Saturday before Labor Day — maintains that he was not part of the actual protest on Sept. 1 and that he pulled into the parking lot after the hour-long demonstration had broken up at noon…”

Rev. Thomas told the paper that, ultimately, his religious beliefs were at the root of his removal from the store:

““For me, it’s not about politics, but a commitment to faith,’ Thomas said. ‘Standing up for the poor is as old as Moses — it’s biblical.’”

The Rev. Don Thompson, a retired United Methodist minister, agreed, telling the Herald Tribune:

“The 76-year-old Bradenton activist said he will complain to managers at his local Publix store.

‘I think what Publix has done is significant,’ Thompson said. ‘Standing up for the poor is a religious tradition that dates back to the social gospel movement of the 1800s. We haven’t done anything wrong.’” read more

The Herald Tribune article prompted Brian McLaren to imagine himself in Rev. Thomas’ shoes. He begins his Huffington Post piece with the realization that he could easily find himself in the same situation, as he shares the same moral commitment, rooted in his faith, that compelled Rev. Thomas to support the CIW:

“… I love shopping at Publix – there’s one walking distance from my home – but I must say, now I wonder if I’ll be escorted from the store sometime soon for being a known supporter of CIW. That would be sad, but I guess it could happen.

Like Rev. Thomas, I’m part of a growing movement of people who realize that there is a moral dimension to capitalism. With every purchase, our dollars “vote” for companies. Of course, some companies have better prices and products than others – but that’s not the end of the story. Some companies are more careful of the environment than others. Some companies take better care of their employees than others. Some companies are more responsive to the community than others. Some companies work harder to ensure well-being down their supply chains than others.

Because of our moral commitments – rooted in our faith commitments, more and more of us don’t stop with price and product quality – we’re concerned about justice and corporate responsibility too.” read more

He then goes on to lament Publix’s intransigence in response to the Campaign for Fair Food, writing, “Their persistence in avoiding honest, civil, and transparent conversation has been quite surprising.”

From there, the article pivots into a point by point reflection on Publix’s behavior in light of the seven principles established by founder George Jenkins decades ago. Here’s an example, from the sixth principle, “Prepare for Opportunity”:

“They say:

6) Prepare for Opportunity
George Jenkins advised, “Prepare yourself. The opportunities are up for grabs.” Jenkins likened Publix to “a smorgasbord, with opportunity spread out for you.”
Opportunity includes going beyond the call of customer service – going the extra distance to further cement long-term relationships with your customers.

— It’s hard to imagine why Publix would want to miss this excellent opportunity to become a moral leader in the grocery industry by becoming an enthusiastic participant in the Fair Food Program. The Program is proven, it has been operational for several years; it has been lauded by the US government; it is delivering real results not only to farmworkers but to participating growers and corporations as well.” read more

And it concludes with a simple challenge to Publix’s leaders:

“… My suspicion is that Publix would rather be making headlines as a moral leader in the Fair Food Campaign than they enjoy making headlines for calling in the police to expel potential customers – especially Christian pastors. If they’ll just begin, the rest will be easy. If they still believe in George Jenkins’ seven principles – and I think they really want to – they have a lot to gain by doing so.” read more

It truly is a great read, one that shouldn’t be missed. And once you’ve read it, stay tuned this week for more on this developing story, as an action is brewing for this weekend in Sarasota to protest the Rev. Thomas’ mistreatment, and to remind Publix that faith can be a powerful force in the struggle for liberation of the poor and dispossessed — far, far more powerful, ultimately, than pride, animosity, and avarice.