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The Sanctuary at 1700 28th Street

I had to re-read the opening sentence of the news report: “Meeting in the sanctuary of the Christian Reformed Church of North America’s headquarters, a coalition of Michigan fruit and vegetable growers said their crops are rotting in the fields because U.S. immigration policy lacks a workable system for migrant workers.”

Meeting in the sanctuary? What sanctuary? We don’t have a sanctuary at the denominational HQ. The closest thing is a prayer room somewhere in the basement (mostly used for very small meetings). I had been at that press conference – moderated it – and it had been in the Michigan room, a generic low-ceilinged meeting room without anything sanctuarial about it. It had no stained glass windows (no windows at all in fact), no religious symbols, and no clock to check sermon length.

Not a holy place – a place to meet God—by any stretch of the imagination – even a CRC imagination!

But as I re-read the article I realized the reporter had chosen his opening sentence carefully. He meant exactly what he said. The fruit and vegetable growers who gathered to publicly testify to the detailed reality of a badly broken immigration system – a system that treated both farm workers and farm owners badly – really had been in a sanctuary. It was a safe place offered by a church to members of the community who had something important to say about systematic public and social injustice in our food system.

The growers were frustrated, angry, and worried. Because of years of inadequate numbers of farm worker visas – a supply of 4,000 visas every year for farm labor demands closer to 50,000 –most had been forced to choose between going out of business or hiring Hispanic workers whose papers might not stand up to scrutiny. No one looked too closely at those papers. In addition, over the years farmers had discovered that treating farm workers well in terms of living conditions, providing incentives for school rather than letting children work in the fields, and increasing wage rates made for high quality and efficient employees. Long-term relationships were built, with many families working for the same farm owner year after year. As with migrants the world over, they came with their young families. These children grew up here. Went to school here. Many more were born here. The population of farm workers without proper permission to work grew into the millions, but as long as no one cared too much about papers, things seemed to work.

And then in the late 90s and first decade of the 21st century, a growing U.S. Hispanic population became a social and political issue – and along with it came the clamp down on “illegals”. Workplace raids. Deportations. Families torn apart. Kids who had no memories of anything but Michigan and speaking English found out they were without a legal identity, couldn’t get a driver’s license, work, or apply for college loans. The clamps tightened again under the Obama administration with more deportations than ever before. Individual states like Alabama and Georgia began passing what amounted to their own immigration enforcement laws. Farm laborers no longer made the annual summer trek from the winter crops in Florida up through the peach groves and early vegetables of Georgia and finally to Michigan in time to harvest the cherries and apples and late vegetables. They were scared to drive through the places that had declared open season on stopping and deporting Hispanic farm workers.

And so the Michigan fruit and vegetable growers joined the broad and growing coalition of groups and citizens witnessing to a badly broken immigration system that is needlessly and ruthlessly endangering our farms and farm enterprises as surely as it breaks up farm worker families.

This is the kind of issue that the Bible speaks to clearly. It is about treating those who produce and harvest our food justly – and that includes farm owners as well as workers. This is the kind of issue that somehow has become so polarizing, so dangerous, so partisan that none of the farmers felt they could risk doing this press conference at their farms. Would the workers they did have be scared off by reporters and cameras? What would their friends and neighbors who believe immigration reform is a Democratic plot to politically take over the U.S. think? What would be said at the coffee shop?

And so they needed a safe place to talk, to give witness and voice to their frustration. To seek a little more justice in a food system that gives us cheap food on the backs of small farmers and farm workers.

One of the farmers who spoke up at the press conference was a member of a rural CRC church in Michigan farm country. And I think it was with both bewilderment and a little pride that he said:  “I had no idea – no idea—that my church was involved in things I care about and need for my daily life as a farmer.”

Well, it should come as no surprise to a Reformed Christian that every square inch of his land, every vocation, and right treatment for all creation is deeply God’s concern. In today’s splintered society the Church – and especially the Christian Reformed Church – can at the very least provide the safe place—the sanctuary – for the difficult conversations that always precede the hints of justice and peace restored .

The reporter was right. What happened in that windowless, business-like, completely ordinary Michigan room in our denominational headquarters could only have happened in sanctuary – an ordinary place graced by God’s extraordinary presence.

[Image: Flickr user Tojosan]

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