(The following post was submitted for our Thriving Rural Communities Devotional Listserv by Duke Divinity Student and Rural Ministry Fellow Laura Beach. Thanks, Laura!)
"Thus says the Lord: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, nor shed innocent blood in this place." (Jer. 22:3)
Sometimes I find it hard to know how to really "act with justice." Often I think that to do justice to doing justice, I need to eliminate injustice not just in my own life, but in my church, in my community, in this country, in the world. Obviously, all of this seems overwhelming, and it is easy to fall into the trap of doing nothing because I cannot do it all.
Blessedly, God is always ready with little reminders that push me back into action. Recently I traveled with a group of folks to visit a migrant farm-worker camp in Newton Grove, North Carolina, as part of the Harvest of Justice, an event sponsored by the North Carolina Council of Churches and Thriving Rural Communities. Only a few weeks before, I had traveled with a group through Mexico as part of the Encuentro experience to learn more about Mexican history, culture, and faith. I was eager to see how this post-Encuentro trip to visit some of the farm workers in Newton Grove would be different from a similar visit the previous spring.
I certainly went into the experience this time with a different mindset. As I thought about these men we would be meeting, who had made a long and difficult journey to do incredibly hard work for little pay and even less appreciation, I kept remembering the sermon one person in our Encuentro group had preached at a church we had visited in Mexico City. As we joined our Methodist brothers and sisters in worship in Mexico, he unfolded for us the story of the prodigal son, lingering at verses 15-16.
"So he went and joined himself to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have fed on the pods that the swine ate; and no one gave him anything." (Luke 15:15-16)
To those of us sitting there that Sunday, foreigners in Mexico, we had to acknowledge that these words hit close to home. They seemed to be describing the farm workers who work on our hog farms and sweet potato farms and chicken farms here in North Carolina. You name the big agribusiness, and it is probably built on the backs of farm workers from Mexico and other parts of Central and South America, all so that we can have abundant, cheap food conveniently available year-round in our supermarkets. Yet what do we give these children of God who come and live among us?
I'm afraid that often we are like the citizens in the parable in the way we treat foreign workers in our country: “no one gave him anything.” Sure, migrant workers receive some small monetary compensation for their labor, but it can hardly be considered a fair wage. They receive little support or appreciation for their work--remaining isolated in hidden pockets down long dirt roads through the woods. I as an individual, and we as a society, have failed to love them as our neighbor. In so many cases, what we have given them is worse than nothing, for the work that farm-workers do here often results in injury and sickness, due to exposure to pesticides, terrible working and living conditions, long hours, and lack of support and resources. I am filled with sadness and shame when I think about this, and how the people we encountered, worshiped with, and ate with when we were foreigners in Mexico treated us with such love and shared with us so selflessly.
Considering all this, what does it mean to act with justice? I know I cannot change our entire food and labor systems overnight. But I can do as we did during The Harvest of Justice event. I can go and meet some of the people that have come here to work, building friendships and letting God use us to restore each others' faith and to strengthen each other in our daily work. I can sit down to eat with these visitors to a far country. And I can struggle through conversations in Spanish with these friends, so that I remember what it is like to be vulnerable and unable to communicate easily, and so they might be encouraged by not always having to be in that position. And I can advocate for just food systems, where we know that the food we are eating and asking God to bless is food that is not full of injustice, but instead is honoring the land and the workers.
I believe each of these are acts of justice and I pray that we may all continue to receive the opportunities God gives us to do little acts of justice each day, and so work to bring about the kingdom.