At its most rudimentary, the Gospel welcomes everyone with a warm embrace be they a friend or foe, family or stranger, king or pauper; religion is meant to be that unifying piece that connects us all with disregard for any distinguishing characteristics. It has played the role of a unifying force for centuries in countries where immigrants arrived in new lands that were less than welcoming to them or understanding of their culture. Why would it be any different for migrant farmworkers in the United States?
These are uncertain times with a lot of anti-immigrant conversation wrapped in political packaging aimed at specific groups of people who are simply trying to make an honest living. Consequently, it is not difficult to understand why so many individuals gravitate toward religion in a foreign land; it provides a sense of community and cultural permanence that is lacking in strange place. We can all relate to the need of ‘just wanting to fit in’ or feeling like you belong.
“Between 1 and 3 million migrant farm workers leave their homes every year to plant, cultivate, harvest, and pack fruits, vegetables and nuts in the U.S. Although invisible to most people, the presence of migrant farm workers in many rural communities throughout the nation is undeniable, since hand labor is still necessary for the production of the blemish-free fruits and vegetables that consumers demand.”
Migrant farmworkers are making huge sacrifices in their own lives for better opportunities to work in America’s fields, and although given the misnomer of ‘invisible populations’ they are anything but when you consider the challenges they face on a daily basis. Religion is a place of refuge for migrant farmworker communities, providing shelter from hostility and discrimination, and solace from the lack of economic mobility and social acknowledgement.
However, on a macro-level, the role of religion and religious institutions have long been a part of the farmworker movement and continue to play a role today. In the book ‘Farm Workers and the Churches’, Alan J. Watt compared the roles of the church among California and Texas farmworker communities as it either provided support or helped maintain the status-quo. Today many farmworker assistance organizations that are religion-based like National Farm Worker Ministry and others are working to combat many of the hardships faced by migrant farmworkers by helping them to organize. This is very similar to the role that religious leaders played in the 1960s during the Farmworker movement in California.
As an individual, the role of religion for many migrant farmworkers is to create that sense of community and continuity that is often lacking when you’ve left your home. For the most part it can alleviate that sense of being an outsider. However, as a whole, religion has served to magnify the injustices migrant farmworkers have endured and therefore to propel farmworkers to take action. In some cases it’s been in monetary form: in others as spiritual and physical support in numbers when taking action.
“When poor people get involved in a long conflict, such as a strike or a civil rights drive, and the pressure increases each day, there is a deep need for spiritual advice. Without it, we see families crumble, leadership weaken, and hard workers grow tired.”
-Cesar Chavez, founding president of the United Farm Workers (UFW)
In the end, it’s not to say that migrant farmworkers are more religious that other groups or communities. Rather it is to acknowledge that religion has and will continue to play a major role in farmworker communities in its most essential form: inclusiveness, irrespective of class or socio-economic background. Everyone matters, and everyone has a place.