The Least, First

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“I’LL KICK THE S**T OUT OF YOU!”

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I spent a memorable afternoon Thursday, beneath a tree on a corner in the little town of Conesville, Iowa, learning about a world that I hadn’t known before.

Melissa Regennitter/ Muscatine Journal

From left: Migrant worker Hector Manuel Cardona-Ramirez sits next to Monte Asbury, a Washington, Iowa, pastor. To Asbury’s right are two other migrant workers who bunk with Cardona-Ramirez and more than 600 others from Mexico in a migrant worker camp in Conesville. On Thursday, Asbury listened to a group of migrant workers who said they’d been unjustly fired and complained of illness. Asbury, an online blogger who writes about immigration and human rights was there to give moral support. Photo: Melissa Regennitter/ Muscatine Journal

My friend Carlos Rich (he’s a community organizer who works on immigrant health issues for the Center for New Community) had phoned, that morning, to tell me of some fellows who’d been fired from their jobs detasseling corn and picking melons.  Some had talked to a reporter the previous day, and Carlos wondered if that was connected to the firing.  Off we went.

We met eight men in a very hard spot.  They’d come to Iowa from their homes in Colima and Durango, Mexico.  Up at 3:30 A.M. each morning, they jockeyed for position on the buses taking workers to the fields. After a day in the blistering heat, they’d be back  – at 9:30 P.M. – for a quick meal and shower, then to the bunkhouse for 10:30 lights-out. Seven days a week.

Carlos invited reporters to join us (see Melissa Regenitter’s article in the Muscatine Journal).  While they made their way to Conesville, the boss drove past several times, sometimes stopping to pleasantly ask who we (Carlos and I) were, and to ask the men if they were going to work this afternoon.  It was a puzzle, given their certainty that they’d been fired. Carlos was cell-phoning what seemed like a dozen people – the Governor’s Office in Colima, some legal advisors – and the general drift I got was that it was a good idea for none of us to say much if we were questioned.

In the distance, the massive bunkhouse

In the distance, the massive bunkhouse

Which proved to be a handy thing to know.   For in a bit, an office worker drove up, eye-poppingly irate.  To the men, soothing mother-hen reproaches:  “How could you boys do this to [the bosses] after all they’ve done for you?  You should be ashamed of yourselves.”

In my mind, a window opened up and history blew in.  How many times had that siren-song seduced workers through the years?  Hadn’t it been sung in the dangerous factories of the north – the stifling cotton fields of the south – the brutal vegetable harvests of California?  It seemed like the timeless, place-less essence of the struggle of workers:  You  “boys” should be ashamed of yourselves. (Some were close to her in age.)  How could you be so ungrateful? What’s gotten into you?  We’re friends, you know we are!  What have they been telling you?

Endless line of portable toilets

A vast collection of portable toilets

The men were politely, firmly quiet.

To me, she gave a mildly derogatory “some kind of pastor” talk:  “What are you telling these boys?  They’re good boys!”

But to Carlos, venom:  “Shut up! … I’ll kick the s**t out of you!

It’s hard to imagine how trapped foreign workers are. If they want to quit, how will they get home, thousands of miles away?  Without English, to whom can they turn for help?  They’ll need to go to a city to get a bus.  But what city? And without transport, how will they get there?

One row of the bunkhouse. This room had about 160 beds, and was one of four.

About 160 men sleep in this huge bunkroom. Three more rooms, of 150-200 beds each, adjoin.

Intelligent, thoughtful men, all with perfect H2A visas (see the bottom of Melissa’s article), all with families at home needing income badly enough for them to risk this journey into a foreign country.  But it wasn’t going to work.  After telling of heat and work-related ailments, confusions about firings, conditions different than the Mexican recruiter had led them to expect, and less work than they’d hoped, they decided they just wanted to go home.  Since they’d borrowed to pay for their passports and visas, and after the $100 a week they paid the company for food, they figured they’d just about break even after the next morning’s paycheck.

Worried about staying in the camp after attracting media attention, they traveled back to Washington in my pickup.  They spent the night in the church, so grateful to be secure, so delighted to have found a way out.  Carlos gave a lift over to get paychecks on Friday (and the boss was more generous in the final settlement than they’d expected), and then up to Iowa City’s bus station to start the long ride home.

Most of us, after showers, at the church

Most of us, after showers, at the church - Carlos Rich is at the top left. I'm the one with the baby-bottom-pink face!

Perhaps most unexpected was the tenderness of the friendships developed in those hours.  After trading stories down at my place, glimmers of hope remained in my mind, suggesting that God had done something wonderful among us all.  I was honored to enjoy it.

What a memorable privilege it was, sharing that moment with these good men.


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Written by Monte

August 4, 2008 at 5:50 pm

18,000 dead: The moral issues of health care

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It’s not just politics.

Jim Wallis at Sojourners describes three moral issues that live at the center of the health care debate.  Here’s an excerpt.  Read the entire article by clicking here:

The Truth

For decades now, the physical health and well-being of our country has been a proxy battle for partisan politics.

President Truman with

When Truman tried to pass a national health insurance plan, the American Medical Association spent $200 million (in today’s dollars) and was accused of violating ethics rules by having doctors lobby their patients to oppose the legislation. In the 1970’s when Nixon tried to pass a national health insurance plan, strikingly similar to what many democrats are proposing today, the plan was defeated by liberal democrats and unions who thought that they would be able to pass something themselves after the mid-term elections and claim political credit for the plan. In the 1990’s the “Harry and Louise” ads misrepresented the Clinton health care plan but was successful enough PR to shut down that movement for reform. […]

What we need is an honest and fair debate with good information, not sabotage of reform with half-truths and misinformation.* […]

Full Access

About 46 million people in our country today are uninsured and many more find themselves without adequate coverage …  Many of them are working families who live in fear of getting sick or injured. …  An estimated 18,000 people a year die unnecessarily, many from low-income families, because they lack basic health insurance. … Seeing your child sick is a horrible feeling; seeing your child sick and not having the resources to do something about it is a societal sin.

Cost

… An estimated 60 percent of bankruptcies this year will be due to medical bills. Seventy-five percent of those declaring bankruptcy as a result of medical bills have health insurance. … In the end, some are paying too much for care and others are making too much from these present arrangements. […]

… special interests groups … will be promoting their own self-interests during this process. The faith community has the opportunity to step in and speak for the interests of the common good and those who would not otherwise have a voice. I am sure that every one of the 18,000 preventable deaths that will happen this year from a lack of basic health insurance breaks the heart of God. And, it should break ours too […]

Amen to that.  People in this country are dying on our watch.   The life preservers have been kept under lock and key by special interests for a hundred years.  Profits are saved; human beings are sacrificed.

That’s a moral issue.


*As a resource for congregations, small groups, and individuals, Sojourners has worked with its partners to publish a health care tool kit [click here to download] to help frame and guide this necessary debate. This guide gives an overview of the biblical foundations of this issue and frequently asked questions about it.

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Obama’s quiet gains against poverty

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Apparently, progress being made against poverty may prove to be the greatest gains in 40 years.
clipped from www.thenation.com

At a the forum “Obama at 100: A Progress Report from The Nation” held on April 21, 2009 Deepak Bhargava, Executive Director, Center for Community Change, lauded the early progress the Obama administration has made in reversing forty years of neglect for the poor.

While Bhargava, an editorial board member at The Nation, made clear that the devastating scope of the recession has mitigated the impact of the reforms, he concluded that, “Boy, it is a new day in Washington.”

Corbin Hiar

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That’s “the least, first.” And I believe it is what government exists to do.

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Not even the enemy of HIS enemies!

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Third Sunday of Easter • April 26, 2009

Acts 3:12-19; Psalm 4; 1 John 3:1-7; Luke 24:36b-48

Spring 09 home 014I’ve been thinking a lot about why we come here.

We need a sense of that – a sense of what we’re here for. Just making a church bigger – that doesn’t do it for me. We’ve been down that road. It isn’t enough to satisfy my hunger.

Why do I come here?

I think I want one thing more than anything else: I want to bring love into my world. I want to bring it to my family. I want to bring it to you. I want to bring it to people on the street. I want to bring it to political decisions. I want to bring it to unloved people. I want to bring it to people on the internet. I want to bring it to the nations of the world.

I want love to change this world. I want it to smother tragedy. I want it to expose selfishness. I want it to change the way my family lives, my workplace operates, my government thinks.

What I want to do here is to re-capture that source of love – and share it in such a way that you do, too – so that love will make everything you touch as you walk through your week just a little different than it was before.

But my world doesn’t get that. It thinks love is a wimpy thing, not the way of heroes. So all week long I talk and visit and write to people who are convinced the Kingdom of God is not enough, and it cannot bring what the world needs. And sometimes their arguments wear me down.

And that’s why I come here. It’s because we’re doing something together. We’re believers that the love of God is stronger than anything that’s wrong in the world. We’re determined to bring it to the places we live and work and vote and write. You’re doing something. Read the rest of this entry »

Alfred Lilienthal, 1949: Israel’s Flag is Not Mine

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How very intriguing it is to read the early Jewish anti-Zionists! Lilienthal, an American, articulately decried the way his lifelong faith became a tool of Israeli nationalism, and used as a competitor intended to weaken his American identity.  [H/T Servant Savant!]

ISRAEL’S FLAG IS NOT MINE
By Alfred M. Lilienthal

Dear Mother:

I brought you my hurts and troubles when both they and I were little: in that same spirit I bring them to you today.

JO05   ISRAEL from JORDAN
Image by templar1307 via Flickr

Only last year, a new white flag with single blue six-pointed star was hoisted to a mast many thousands of miles away on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This flag of Israel is the symbol of a new nationalist state, with its own government, army, foreign policy, language, national anthem and oath of allegiance.

And this new flag has brought every one of us five million American citizens of the ancient faith of Judah to a parting in the road.

Judaism, I have felt, was a religious faith which knew no national boundaries, to which a loyal citizen of any country could adhere.

By contrast, Zionism was and is a nationalist movement organized to reconstitute Jews as a nation with a separate homeland. Now that such a state exists, what am I? Am I still only an American who believes in Judaism? Or am I-as extreme Zionists and anti-Semites alike argue-a backsliding member of an Oriental tribe whose loyalty belongs to that group? Read the rest of this entry »