Painting by Ray Harris
September 4, 2022
SERMON Rest From Labors Rev. Maddie Sifantus
So here we are on another Labor Day Weekend, the end of another summer, in the middle of a sweltering heat wave here in Ventura County. As we go about our Labor Day weekend activities and prepare for the Santa Paula’s Labor Day Parade which is tomorrow at 10 AM, wending its way right down Main Street in front of our church here in Santa Paula, we pause this morning to think of all who labor, but particularly this morning I want to raise up all those who work in our community, but especially the farmworkers, the packing house workers and all those who labor on behalf of bringing food to the nation’s table. And I would like to thank Ray Harris, Karen’s husband, for the lovely image of the farmworker which is on your order of service and which we just saw on the screen.
The last time I led a service here about Labor Day I shared these words from poverty scholar and Presbyterian minister Derrick McQueen which I have adapted for this morning:
“…tomorrow, we celebrate the … National Labor Day holiday. Between our media and our telecommunications we have heard about Labor Day Sales, Labor Day Traffic, [Labor Day heat waves and more]…We have been told that summer is officially over and that it is time to get back to life. Students are told to get those new clothes and get back to school. We are reminded to drive a bit more cautiously as more children [are] on the streets during early morning commutes. We are told many things during Labor Day Weekend…
“But there is one thing missing in all the messaging we receive about Labor Day. We rarely talk about Labor. We rarely stop for a moment to think about each other as laborers in the vineyard who deserve to be recognized for our work. Speaking for myself, I can’t remember the last time I turned to my neighbor and said, ‘Thank you for the work that you do, I trust that you are doing your best to make the world a better place. And on this day, I celebrate you.’ After all, that’s what the day was set aside for. In 1882 in New York City the workers themselves decided to hold a Labor Day Parade. They highlighted each other’s accomplishments, union solidarity, and the great strides in workers’ rights since the Civil War. And even after the holiday was established federally on June 28th, 1894, the Sunday before Labor Day was unofficially designated as a time to spiritually recognize the important of the laborer in bringing about the equity spoken of in so many sacred texts. My, how far we have strayed from this basic purpose of a Labor Day holiday.”
This morning I am using our time together to spiritually recognize all those who labor to support themselves and their families and to bring their hard work to bring the goods and services we all need, and especially those who labor in the fields surrounding us here in Ventura County, those workers we see daily, whatever the weather bent over row crops or up ladders harvesting lemon, avocado and orange trees. I love that Santa Paula with its Labor Day Parade continues to make an effort to honor the sacrifices of those who came before us and made the sacrifice for their fellow workers and those workers that came after them even to this day. I am well aware of state of unions in this country as well as their less than perfect past. However, isn’t that like any human endeavor? What is more important to me is their mission, their consideration of the wellbeing of the work, and the justice of fair and appropriate wages that allow families and individuals to support themselves, breaking the cycle of poverty that so many are still born into.
One of the wonderful organizations I became aware of since moving to Santa Paula and become a supporter of is the House Farmworkers. They were founded in 2004 and support safe, decent, and affordable housing for farmworkers here in Ventura County. I share with you now a short clip from this wonderful organization which gives us a picture of our agricultural workers:
I hope you noticed near the end of this clip a moment that was shot before my time here at an event held right here in our Sanctuary. Perhaps it is time for another informational session but here’s what I learned from being in touch with Gabrielle from House Farmworkers this week. Probably I am preaching to the choir this morning but did you know that Ventura has 98,549 acres of irrigated cropland, with a gross value of $2.1 billion a year? Did you know that there is estimated to be about 41,600 farmworkers in our county? Did you know that the average annual wage of a farmworker is $31,737? And did you know that annual income needed to afford a 2-bedroom apartment in our area is $81,480?
Ventura County still needs additional safe decent and affordable housing for our farm workers. This is where a group like House Farmworkers comes in. They don’t actually build the housing but work with local municipalities to make things happen. For instance, House Farmworkers has been working on getting language into local housing elements to help with that need. Gabriella tells me that the Santa Paula task force worked successfully with the City of Santa Paula on getting language into the Santa Paula Housing Element. Most cities have already submitted their housing elements for review, but Fillmore has not yet drafted theirs and that creates an opportunity to advocate during a Fillmore City Council meeting. Much to do.
In addition to housing challenges, these women and men who serve us are challenged with immigration issues, language, and more, not to mention the particular problems that the pandemic has brought. Another group addressing the needs of our farmworkers is the Farmworker Resource Program, a group within Ventura County’s Human Services Agency focuses on building trust and relationships with farmworkers, promoting and enhancing the agricultural industry in Ventura County, attracting farmworkers to Ventura County as a first-choice destination to work in agriculture, advising farmworkers of existing labor laws protecting them, and assisting farmworkers in navigating public agencies and seeking resolutions to workplace issues. The program offers a primary location in Ventura and satellite offices in Santa Paula and Fillmore and extended evening and weekend hours to meet the needs of farmworkers throughout the County. The program assists in facilitating prompt resolutions to workplace concerns such as payroll issues and working conditions, navigating available public agencies, and leveraging existing resources. We may contact Fatima Pena or Israel Vasquez who speak Mixteco, Spanish and English, and Flavio Reyes who speaks Zapoteco, Spanish and English. All are knowledgeable about the agricultural industry and farmworker issues.
Today I am thinking about our farm laborers nearby our church building as our tech team shares a slide of a painting by local artist Linda Pennock. We lift them up with thanks this Labor Day weekend. But we also know there are farmworkers across the country with similar and different working conditions and challenges. We think of those migrants that move to pick apples and stone fruits in Washington State and New England. And today I am thinking of those who travel to far northern Maine to harvest the potato crop. Yesterday I was in touch with Kara, the woman from the farm who found my wallet for me at their roadside potato stand during my sabbatical, if you heard that story from me two weeks ago. I asked her if they used migrant workers on their farm and she told me that many farms in Aroostook County do use them. She told me, “This is the first year we have used them because we needed good workers who wanted to work. They have been wonderful. Great group of Men who work hard and are providing for their families back in Mexico. We actually are having them back this winter during our shipping season.” We don’t think of Mexicans working in very northern Maine…and I wonder if they are still around for the sub-zero temperatures there in the winter, and I wonder what their challenges are, especially with the language spoken there being English and French.
So let us think this weekend and tomorrow when we see many of our farmworkers lining the parade route for how they provide for us and our nation. Let us support them the best we know how by informing ourselves about the work of organizations in our area, including House Farmworkers, Poder Popular and others. And may we all have rest from our labors this Labor Day Weekend. Hope to see you at the parade!
Blessed be and Amen.
 Derrick McQueen, Poverty Scholar and PhD candidate at Union Theological Seminary, from a sermon on September 4, 2010 at the Fourth Unitarian Universalist Church in NYC (since ordained Presbyterian Minister; also a singer)