I was traveling to Culpeper, Va., on the #Fast4Families bus tour to speak to a group of workers assembled at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church. As we looked out the window we were struck that every 50 feet there stood a plaque marking the place where another significant battle took place in the Civil War.
As we sat down in the church, I didn’t know what I was going to say to all-immigrant group. My message up to that point had focused on mobilizing non-immigrants to join the movement. What could I say to this immigrant gathering?
I prayed. I asked God, “What do you want to speak to this group through me?’ And the dots started to connect.
In 1853 no one could have imagined that the end of slavery in the United States was just 10 years away. Since the 1660s, race-based slavery had upheld the economic base of both the northern and southern colonies and subsequently the United States. The South’s agricultural way of life had been made possible and sustained through the backbreaking labor of millions of people who worked in their fields for free.
But people of faith rose up and said, “No!” They marched. They sang. They held revival meetings. And they fasted.
Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Finney traveled the north on a revival circuit calling on all Americans to enter the Kingdom of God, but there was no way they could be a citizen in God’s kingdom and own slaves or be a slavery sympathizer. So, on the altar — after people had wept and repented — there lay sign-up sheets for the abolitionist movement. God said “No!” through his people and the giant called American slavery fell to the ground.
Then after the Civil War, in the era of the Jim Crow south, southern farm owners maintained the economic upper hand by creating a system similar to slavery — the sharecropping system. Former slaves worked hard days for meager wages, but those wages weren’t theirs to keep. They had to pay for their tools, food, and housing. So they became indebted to the farm owners and entrapped in a cycle of paying off the debt through unpaid work.
In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The minimum wage was established for all American workers, except agricultural workers and domestic workers — the two primary labor forces that upheld the economy of the antebellum South and the post-Civil War Jim Crow economy. Compromises with Southern legislators brought amendments to the bill that left these workers unprotected from exploitation and abuse.
In search of life unhampered by the terrors of Jim Crow and the economic enslavement of the sharecropping system, streams of blacks flowed north to urban centers through the Great Migration.
And people of faith who stayed in the South stood up and said no to Jim Crow segregation and won the right to be equally protected under the law. They marched. They sang. The held revival meetings and they fasted. They won the battle for civil rights, but the economic battle was left unfinished.
Latinos took the place of African-Americans in the fields throughout the south and west. Farm owners took advantage of the lack of protections offered by the Fair Labor Act and the vulnerability of immigrants and they became the new slave class in America. They had no bathrooms in the fields. They were required to do backbreaking work from sunup to sundown. Farmers often held back their pay.
And people of faith rose up and fought back. Cesar Chavez organized migrant farmworkers to fight unfair labor standards. There were gains and losses, and the fight continues to this day.
Now our nation has the opportunity to make history — to acknowledge the image of God, the inherent dignity, the humanity in every single person who lives within our borders — to redeem our nation and resurrect the dream that was and is the United States of America. We have been fighting this same fight from the very beginning of our nation, and every time it has been people of faith who have stood up and said “No!” to the exploitation of people and “Yes” to a better America.
And so I looked these immigrant workers in the eyes and said through tears: “God sees you. You are not alone. Across the nation people from the north and south — people who are black, white, Latino, Asian American, and Native American are rising up to stand with you."
In the days before Easter Sunday, we think of the immigrants whose hope has died. We think of the many gains and losses suffered by faith communities that have fought this fight for generations. We watch as pundits sound the death knells of immigration reform. And then we remember the death of Jesus on that cross. And then we remember that no one thought the end of slavery would come! But God intervened! No one thought Jim Crow would die! But God intervened! No one thought Jesus would rise from the grave! But God intervened.
At every stop on the #Fast4Families bus tour, we have gained hope. People of faith are rising again. We are immigrants and we are standing in solidarity. We are crying out to the powers “You may think you have buried immigration reform, but you haven’t. It is rising again.”
We will not go away, because the cries of the people will not go away, and because God has heard the cries of his people. Speaker of the House John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte, say yes to a better America. Give commonsense immigration reform a vote!
Lisa Sharon Harper is senior director of mobilizing for Sojourners and the author of Left, Right, and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics and Evangelical Does Not Equal Republican…or Democrat.