When I think of Immokalee, my mind remembers a place where reconciliation has come alive. After spending close to four months in this small, rural town in the middle of the Florida Everglades that often feels like Latin America, I have found reflections of the kingdom of God within the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).
Though the CIW claims no religious or political affiliations, the faith of the workers who run this grassroots organization have a faith in God that goes deep. They are the ones fighting not just for themselves but for any brother and sister in similar shoes; their fight is for fair wages, safer worker conditions, and an end to modern-day slavery in the fields of Florida. The CIW currently has over 4,000 members, the majority of whom are workers for the agricultural industry in Florida, harvesting tomatoes and citrus groves.
I arrived in Immokalee with the desire of wanting to learn to love the "least of these" within our society in a deeper way. My heart longed to learn from the community, to hear their stories, to connect to their pain, but also to share in their joy and simply to come stand alongside them in their struggle. As a first-generation daughter of an Ecuadorian immigrant (my mother), I have felt a deep connection to the mostly immigrant community of Immokalee and in embracing the struggle of my people. God was not only faithful in fulfilling these desires within me, but He actually took it one step further than I could have ever imagined.
In the midst of learning to love the poor, He also taught me to love the rich.
Most of my days in Immokalee often confronted me with the realities of the divide between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots. All that I had learned about globalization, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and transnational corporations (TNCs) in my International Studies courses came to life in front of me a bit more each day. The stories I heard from different members of the Coalition and from the community convinced me more and more that the root cause of all this oppression was indeed the wealthy of the world. It was because of NAFTA that many people from Mexico were forced to leave their families as they lost their livelihoods as small farmers in places like Oaxaca and Chiapas and had to immigrate to the United States, in desperate search for work. It was the people working within the World Trade Organization (WTO) that helped unjust trade policies come into existence in the first place. The powerful billionaire CEOs of transnational corporations often ignore the exploitation of the day laborers at the other end of their industry chain. No longer just statistics or stories in a textbook, the results of oppression became alive to me with faces, names, and an array of emotions.
How could God ask me to have mercy on the wealthy and powerful of this world, the ones who have caused families to be separated, livelihoods to be shut down, communities to be destroyed? How could God ask us to have mercy on the ones who strip away the dignity of other human beings through their exploitation?
It is because God knows that through His mercy and love, reconciliation can come; yes, it can come, even between the oppressor and the oppressed.
Several times during my time in Immokalee, the Lord kept bringing me back to the story of Zaccheus the tax collector. There was one particular time I came across the passage in Luke 19 when it all finally hit me. Jesus, the man who came to the world to stand with the poorest of the poor, also reached out to this wealthy man who gained his riches from cheating the poor. The one who abused the already corrupted system was drawn to Jesus. Not only does Jesus not shame nor condemn Zaccheus for any of his actions when they meet, He invites Himself over to Zaccheus's home to break bread! As a result of this radical and gracious love, Zaccheus is moved to repent for his sinfulness and make his wrongs right. He ends up giving half of his possessions to the poor and promises to pay back anyone he has cheated four times the amount. In this silent yet radical way, Jesus brought the justice that God has always promised He would bring.
I then glance back to the generation we live in and I see Zaccheus alive still today. I see him as the CEO of a TNC, I see him working for powerful institutions in the world like the WTO, and I see Zaccheus in many of our powerful politicians who we often insult and deem corrupt with much validity. My mind cannot help but wonder what would happen if Jesus was here today, walking on this earth. I have no doubt in my mind that many of our modern-day Zaccheus-like folks would be drawn to the grace of Jesus and that His love would be enough to lead many of them to repentance for any injustices they have committed against the poor in our world.
With that, I am reminded of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Campaign for Fair Food. Currently farmworkers earn an average 45 cents per 32 pound bucket of tomatoes picked; in order to earn $50 in one day, one must pick 125 buckets of tomatoes. The average yearly salary for a migrant farmworker is around $10,000, right around the federal poverty level. This rate has not increased since 1978, even though the cost of living surely has risen. In addition to earning sub-poverty wages, tomato pickers are often forced to work under harsh and unsafe conditions; water breaks are infrequent, there are no health benefits, and there is such a thing as rights to "overtime," even though farmworkers may work up to 12 hours of a day. Sadly, the most extreme situations of abuse in the fields have actually been cases of modern-day slavery. In the past decade alone, the CIW has worked to bring seven slavery cases in the agricultural industry to prosecution. As a result, over 1,000 workers have been freed from indentured servitude.
In order to work to bring justice to agricultural workers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers began the Campaign for Fair Food. In 2001, the CIW began their first ever campaign against a major fast-food company, Taco Bell. A large purchaser of tomatoes in Florida's fields, the CIW attempted to begin a dialog with Taco Bell in efforts to hold them more accountable to the situations going on in the fields. The demands of the CIW were that Taco Bell would raise the wages of tomato-pickers by a penny more per pound (thus making a 32 lb. bucket of tomatoes worth around 77 cents, versus an average of 45 cents), along with taking the social responsibility of ensuring safer working conditions and ending slavery in the fields. The Taco Bell campaign ended in 2005 after four years of determination from the workers when the fast-food chain finally agreed to the demands of the CIW. Although it is important to note that the workers themselves were the main ones organizing and always should be the ones at the forefront of their struggle, the vital role of people of faith in the fight for farmworker justice should always be remembered as well.
In my mind, I picture wealthy CEOs and other top executives of corporations like Taco Bell, as well as McDonald's and Burger King (who have also now agreed to pay a penny more per pound for tomatoes purchased in Florida); then my mind works down to the other end of the tomato supply chain to see the workers. What I see in between is God's desire to reconcile these two worlds. Then I see the Christians coming out of their own worlds and choosing to stand alongside the workers of Immokalee. I think of the stories I have heard about Christians who chose to step in to help reconcile these two worlds -- nuns who went to shareholder meetings for McDonald's, families that marched nine miles from downtown Miami to the Burger King headquarters, and ministers who participated in the 10-day hunger strike during the Taco Bell boycott. Not only do I believe that actions such as these are required for Jesus followers, but I think we are called to go a step further and love the rich as Jesus did.
Rather than bashing and condemning the wealthy and the powerful of the world, what if we actually befriended one another and shared the gospel of Jesus? What if, like Jesus, we invited Zaccheus into our home again to break bread and to be a part of our community? One can only begin to imagine the kind of reconciliation and righteousness this could possibly bring into our broken world. Bringing the gospel with a lot of love to the ones who make so many important decisions is a step toward God's righteousness and peace, something we are desperately in need of in these times. The agreements between the CIW and the corporations are a demonstration of the reconciliation God desires between the rich and the poor, but let us not stop there. Let us keep going and keep flaming the flame of love.
Lauren Ashley Maxwell is a biracial Latina originally from Miami, currently living in Tampa, where she is part of The Underground Church and Network. She has lived and worked in Immokalee and has been a close ally to the CIW for almost two years now.