Growing the Light: Advent Reflections on Farmworker Justice — Week 4

Vigil farmworker family.jpeg

This Advent, join unwavering allies of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), Rev. Brian McLaren, Rev. Traci Blackmon, Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis in preparing to grow the light of farmworker justice throughout the new year. The season of Advent draws us into a time of anticipation and preparation with all who long for release from oppression. Through the Fair Food Program (FFP), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, together with student and faith allies, kindles the flame of justice for farmworkers in the tomato fields of Immokalee and now on farms across seven states.

Singing Out God’s Justice by Liz Theoharis

The Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis is an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church, the director of the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and supporter of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

The Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis is an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church, the director of the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, and supporter of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW).

Luke 1:46-55

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

This year in the final week of Advent we read a section from the book of Luke called the Magnificat, also known as the “Song of Mary.” The Magnificat is a hymn sung by Mary when she is visited by the Holy Spirit and told she will give birth to Jesus. Upon receiving this message she visits the home of her cousin Elizabeth who is only months away from giving birth to John the Baptist. Mary enters Elizabeth’s home full of hope, proclaiming that God has,

“looked with favor on the lowliness of God’s servant.”

She goes on to sing of the God that she knows.

“God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;”

“God has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Mary’s burning faith knows that change is at hand. Radical change. The Spirit of God has helped her to see that the world around her, where the wealthy are exalted and the poor are violated and forgotten, will soon be transformed. The presence and the promise of new life in her body and in that of her cousin’s fills her with faith -  faith that something beautiful and liberative can come even in the darkest places of violence and oppression.  

This song of Mary's has brought strength and vision to the struggles of the poor and dispossessed throughout history. It sings of a God that is in solidarity with the poor and stands with them in the fight for justice. Indeed, Mary’s hymn resonates much with a song that we have used for many years in our work to build a movement to end poverty. That song is called, “The Rich Man’s House.” It tells of the same kind of radical reversal that Mary envisions in the Magnificat.

“Well, I went down to the Rich man’s house.

And I took back what he stole from me.

I took back my dignity. I took back my humanity.

Now he’s under my feet, under my feet, under my feet.

Ain’t no system gonna walk all over me.”

The power of a God who is with us in the struggle against the forces that violate and degrade life is well known to those whose lives are discarded by those forces. God is present in our experiences of hardship, but also in our resistance. God takes sides with the poor and dispossessed, especially when the poor and mistreated unite and organize together. This is the God that is revealed through the fight of farmworkers in the fields of Immokalee and across the world. Their struggles teach us of the deep immorality of our economic and political system, a system that produces unprecedented wealth alongside grinding poverty. It is a system that hides and justifies the exploitation and degradation of millions of lives in this country and across the world. It is the same system that poisons the water in Michigan, forces the unhoused into encampments in Aberdeen, Washington, and compels millions to flee their homes as refugees for this land. But the organizing of farmworkers and others also reveals that the poor have the power to change history. It is when we understand our various struggles as connected in the fight against this system that we can build the power necessary to win.

In these dark times we draw strength from the hope of Mary’s song and from the struggles of the poor across time. We get inspiration from what is happening in Immokalee in the tomato, pepper, and strawberry fields and in other industries being impacted by a mighty group of farmworkers and the larger fair food movement.

Through our study of history and the urgent work of the present, we come to know the cruel injustice of our world, but also the promise of God that tells us that the powerful will be laid low and the poor raised up. We remember the warning of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, that a country that prioritizes policies of violence over “...programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death”. We connect to the spirit that breathes life for all and to our faith that the sadness and pain inflicted by this soul-sick world will be reversed. It will not have the last word.

Prayer -  We believe in a God that identifies with the least of these. A God of love and of abundant life. A God that stands on the side of justice. A God that is with us in the fields of Immokalee, in the tent encampments of the unhoused in Aberdeen, and with the mothers in Flint without clean water. A God that walks with us on the picket lines and in our organizing work. We remember the strength and love of those unsung saints of yesterday and today who resist and lead us all to freedom. Together we lift up our freedom song knowing that the tables will turn and the world will be made right.

An Advent Call to Action:

Be a part of turning the world toward justice on January 28th, 2019 at 7 p.m. at St. Ignatius Loyola Roman Catholic Church in NYC!  Join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Brian McLaren, Obery Hendricks, and faith leaders from throughout the NYC metropolitan area for 'On Common Ground,’ a gathering to explore the vital connection of faith and the advancement of human rights. For event details and to RSVP follow this link.

About the Author:

The Reverend Dr. Liz Theoharis is an ordained minister with the Presbyterian Church, the director of the Kairos Center for Rights, Religions, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary and the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She has spent the past two decades organizing amongst the poor and dispossessed in the United States. She has led hundreds of trainings and bible studies and recently published Always with Us?: What Jesus Really Said about the Poor.

In 2018, alongside the Reverend Dr. William J. Barber, Theoharis helped to launch the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Over the coming years, the campaign will organize poor people across race, religion, geography, political party and other so-called lines of division to fuel a moral revolution of values in the country. Theoharis has been recognized for her work with the Poor People’s Campaign by many national bodies, including being named in the 2018 Politico 50.