Sunday, April 01, 2007

Prov 8 Gathering

Friday evening through this afternoon was the Province 8 Student Gathering – a conference of college students and young adults from all over the western US. It was hosted by UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Channel Islands, and was held at St. Michael’s & All Angels in Isla Vista (Santa Barbara). We had about 70 students from all over the West, including USC, UC Irvine, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Channel Islands, UC Santa Barbara, University of Arizona, Northern Arizona University, Washington State University, University of Idaho, University of Oregon, and University of Hawaii. I was initially a little depressed because I didn’t have any of my students from UCLA, but got over it.

The theme of the gathering was “Exploring Communion, Living Faith,” and was designed to look at how we live our faith in every day live, with attention to our response to issues of poverty, injustice, and peacemaking. The main event was our Saturday “immersion” experience. We left St. Michael’s at 8:30 in the morning, via yellow school busses, and traveled down the coast to Oxnard. We first visited a new housing project, Villa Cesar Chavez, which provides affordable housing for farmworkers. We toured some of the apartments and met the families that lived in them. These were beautiful, spacious units, and were a far cry from the conditions the families lived in prior to moving there. In many cases, these people had been living with six to eight people in one bedroom apartments. Paying over $1,000 per month in rent. Now they were in two and three bedroom homes, paying less than half their previous rental. Adjacent to the apartments, Habitat for Humanity of Ventura County was working on six houses that will be the homes of farmworkers.

From there we went to see the current home of one of the families who will receive one of the Habitat homes. It was a small, run-down place, with two small bedrooms, a small kitchen, and bathroom, and a small living room. In total, the place was probably smaller than my one bedroom apartment, yet was the home to a family of six. Normally, people do not want “outsiders” seeing that they live in such conditions, because a well-meaning observer may notify the County officials about the deplorable conditions. If that happens, the County goes after the landlord, who will evict the tenants. The only reason they were willing to let us see their home was because they will be moving in two months, so feel reasonably safe that they will not end up homeless.

Our next stop was a strawberry farm. We first had lunch with the farmworkers, eating food from the mobile taco stand that serves the area. After lunch, we received a lesson in the proper way to pick and pack strawberries. Then we were put to work. We worked in pairs, with six teams being overseen by a supervisor/quality control person. We worked for about 45 minutes to an hour getting a feel for what it’s like for the farmworkers. It was hard work, mainly because you are bent over picking the berries. I was aching after a short time. I cannot imaging doing that 9 ½ hours a day, six days a week. For this, the average worker gets $7.50 an hour. During peak harvest seasons, they also get an incentive of 35 cents per container. On average, each of our inexperienced teams filled four two-pound containers. When we got done, the owner of the field told us that the amount that we had picked as an entire group was equivalent to what three of his farmworkers can do in one hour. But as "payment" for our labors, the owner gave each of us a two-pound container of the strawberries we had just picked.

While it was hard work, the workers seemed to be treated well. They take pride in their work and enjoy working for this particular owner (if enjoy is the right word). Every year, about 70 percent of the workers for this company return, which is apparently an extremely high rate for farmworkers. But even so, it is very hard work for not a whole lot of money. And yet, what most of us don’t realize is that it is because of these people that we in this country have access to reasonably affordable food.

In addition to the immersion experience, there were various workshops, daily worship, some free time with optional excursions, and time to just get to know one another. And there was plenty of food, with breakfast provided by the Diocese of Los Angeles campuses, and fantastic dinners provided by local Episcopal parishes.

Overall, it was a great weekend. The students seemed to have a great time. For me personally, it was a great to get to know some of my fellow chaplains and some of their students. And for all of us, we gained some firsthand experience in matters of social justice, especially as related to affordable housing and working conditions of our valuable farmworkers. I think one student summed it up best in the comment, “I will never look at strawberries in the grocery store the same way again. Behind those strawberries are a face and a story.”


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