Reflection: Breaking Down Walls
The following is a reflection from Sylvia Knight, Earth Care Coordinator at St. Paul’s Cathedral, Burlington.
On Saturday October 1st I was among about fifteen people gathered at St. Paul’s Cathedral for a conversation with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove of Rutba House in North Carolina about Christian community and racial justice. He is director of School for Conversion, which “works for beloved communities that unlearn habits of social division. We do this by experimenting in a way of life that meets Jesus in the neighbor and the stranger, making surprising friendships possible.” (www.schoolforconversion.org/about)
Jonathan spoke of the Highlander School in Tennessee where civil rights and labor leaders learn from each other about community organizing and connections between labor and race issues. He spoke of the reconstruction needed in us as the church, and in the world as God’s Creation. How are we to be Christians in public? Jonathan told us about the economic systems (plantations and slavery) that dominated the land of southern Virginia, North Carolina and other southern states in the 18th and 19th centuries and the Church’s acceptance of that system.
October 1 was the day for a planned action in Burlington to protest the arrest and detention by Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE) of Miguel Alcudia, the second leader in the farmworker justice movement in Vermont to be arrested. I shared this news with those gathered at St. Paul’s as we approached 12 noon, the time of the rally. Jonathan responded by saying, “It sounds as if that is where we should be!” He and six others joined the energetic march around the center of Burlington to show solidarity, then returned to the workshop at St. Paul’s. Thanks to all who shared in this action!
I stayed with the roughly 150 people gathered in front of the Federal Building on Elmwood Avenue to listen. Members of the farmworker community (Migrant Justice–MJ) and of the local chapter of Black Lives Matter spoke about their personal experiences of racism, ICE arrests, and police power in Vermont. They expressed pain of police killings of neighbors with mental illness in Vermont and black people elsewhere in our country. They spoke of their experiences of racial bias undergirding the dairy economy of Vermont. Another member of MJ’s governing board and co-worker at the same dairy farm, Victor Diaz had been arrested by ICE in April 2016. He told us of his experience on September 22 when his friend Miguel was followed from the farm and arrested while driving to the bank to deposit his paycheck. Victor followed them to Vergennes and asked why Miguel was being arrested. The ICE agent–the same one who had arrested Victor in April–was verbally abusive to him as he arrested Miguel, also a member of MJ’s governing board. ICE told Miguel that they would soon be arresting another member of this council. (Miguel was finally released on October 14 without bail.)
Why would ICE target farmworkers in the VT dairy industry who stand up for human dignity, for decent working and living conditions? Is ICE acting as an instrument of oppression, keeping farmworkers in fear, urging them to be satisfied with oppression or else get arrested? Victor, Miguel and his co-workers are our neighbors, hardworking, contributing to our economy, and courageous enough to face oppressive legal and economic systems.
I see Victor, Miguel and their colleagues and allies chiseling away at walls that separate God’s people, that keep some in de-facto slavery while others reap the goods. (Visit www.migrantjustice.net to learn more of their work.) I am reminded of the passage: “Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 43:19)
About the Author
“One might say I have been steeped in the Episcopal Church from birth, having been ‘marked as Christ’s own forever’ by my grandfather, a priest, one of several family members ordained or dedicated to service in the Church. My experience over 70+ years has taught me about my privileged status and leads me to synthesize my love of God’s Creation with my love for and solidarity with God’s people who struggle for basic dignity and justice, As a church member I have worked as Earth Care Coordinator at St. Paul’s Cathedral in Burlington for over 10 years. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.”