I was elected to represent the Illinois Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC) at the Illinois Conference of Churches (ICOC) in 1976. I considered it an honor and an opportunity to work on the ecumenical relationships that I hoped would deepen as the years progressed. As it turned out, the ICOC Forum where we served was mostly an opportunity to be informed about what the leaders of the denominations in Illinois were doing, not to exercise any influence or activity ourselves. I stayed on, learning what I could. At the end of my four-year term, I had decided that the place of real ministry, where I might contribute, was an arm of the ICOC, called the Illinois Farm Worker Ministry (IFWM). There the denominations, including the Roman Catholic Church, were cooperating in providing a ministry to people who needed and deserved it—the mostly seasonal farm workers in Illinois, although many who formerly followed seasonal crop needs had “settled out” and adapted to work opportunities in various locales in the state. I asked for a place on the Illinois Farm Worker board and received it for the next two terms until 1988.
The Farm Worker Ministry gave support to organizing efforts of farm workers on the national level and in the state, provided resource people for several locations where workers had found more or less permanent work and homes, served both spiritual and material needs as we discovered them, and, after the Immigration Reform and Control Act was finally signed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, supported the educational and citizenship qualification efforts of thousands of Illinois residents. The capable leader of IFWM was Olgha Sandman, the wife of my mentor in the UCC, Robert Sandman, and soon an equally important mentor to me as well. We worked alongside farm workers to improve conditions in their work and for their families. That included such matters as documenting the use and abuse of pesticides and the exposure of people to chemicals that would harm them.
Olgha made every possible effort to bring her board members into close contact with farm worker leaders and people. We visited sites in Onarga, Princeton, and elsewhere, where farm workers were gathering, organizing, and needing services. We met and worked with scores of wonderful, hard-working, non-citizens and new and would-be citizens. The dedication of so many people who had come to work, make a living, and settle down, was evident as those who had come or been brought into the country without papers or permanent papers before 1982, and had stayed here for at least five years without any legal problems, took advantage of the classes to learn English and familiarity with US history and government. There were many who could not provide the necessary proof of their work history or long-term residency who were just as qualified by character as those who succeeded at that time, but those were the limits of the 1986 legislation, and no efforts since then have made such an opportunity possible again.
As communities of farm workers have continued to mature, most of their leadership has emerged from among their own ranks, and many of the various regional groups that used to provide a ministry have declined, including the IFWM after Olgha’s retirement. The need for people to advocate with them and on their behalf has not declined. Various industries and employers have continued to bring people into the country without papers and to employ those who are here, without the legal support or rights of citizenship, therefore taking advantage of their status to provide low wages, no benefits, and poor working conditions. In the end that has not been an advantage to either the immigrants who have come for a better life or to the rest of the workers in the country already, whether they were recent immigrants or not.
We could do much better and much more for hard-working people who come for a better life. The willingness to welcome such people has been a tradition of this country for centuries, before and after “legal papers” became an issue, receiving the vast majority of our ancestors. We have also seen the persistent practice of getting other people “to do our work for us,” and “to do what we are not willing to do,” and “to do what we have not enough skilled and knowledgeable people to do.”
The fraction of people who have come in recent decades is much smaller than most of our history, and the people who come have proven to be less dangerous than those who already live here. A variety of paths to new citizenship are appropriate, and the church always has a duty to provide hospitality to the stranger and sojourner. Having an opportunity to know and work with farm workers leads most of us to the same conclusions.