I was born in 1993 at the start of the advent season. Just when the candles of rejoicing were being lit for the coming Christ child, the singer and African immigrant Haddaway was setting the world on fire with his brand new top hit aptly entitled “What is Love?” Long before Haddaway posed this question, there was another fellow who embodied the passion in all its fullness as he lived in this land. Woody Guthrie. 1912. A sojourner in the genuine sense of the word; a man who believed that creation had a dance in which people were the song and the word was the music. Yet this world he imagined during his long days of Dust Bowl dreaming was different from what he heard on the radio. “God Bless America” didn’t resonate with Guthrie. So he decided to speak the truth of the world he envisioned, the world he had seen glimpses of, and knew could come to fulfillment, if all those who were brave enough to dream of a new way of being got together and combined their voices with the sacred melody that was already rising out of the dirt.
This land is your landThe corn thinned out as a small whitewashed cinderblock hut and three trailers entered into our sight. Clamoring out of the big red van that my brother Thomas had parked under the oak tree, I waved to the young men who had stopped what they were doing to watch our arrival. Most of the men sat in beige folding chairs talking. It looked like they might have been waiting on a fire to spark while on a camping trip, had the other surroundings not given away the permanence of the location. Sounds of buzzing from an electric shaver and slowly dripping water echoed from the dilapidated hut on my left which served as both a shower facility and a makeshift barbershop. Small talk followed as we looked for our contact person, who had gotten all his buddies together to go with us to the union meeting. The buddies were all ready to leave, but the leader was not. Typical, they told us. Tall and confident, he marched by shirtless, with a towel and clothes wadded up in his calloused right hand. Upon hearing their comments he waved off their jokes and headed into the shower. Just a few minutes, he yelled. Eye rolling ensued from the other guys. Guessing it would be a while, I leaned back against the van, crossing my arms as the studs on the back pocket of my jeans banged against the metal. Facing the green stalks of corn, I watched them sway ever so slightly in the wind. Two young guys, probably in their early twenties, were standing at the edge of the field. One had an aluminum baseball bat that had obviously been used for other projects in the past, as it was full of dents that looked like craters on the face of the moon. The other was picking up a couple of golf balls off the ground. When he finished, he started tossing them to his friend, who with a mighty swing would send each one sailing off into the distance, until it fell hidden among the ears of corn. Mickey Mantle would have been impressed. Nurturing the soul often happens in unexpected ways.
This land is my landI was eight years old, a young girl with faded blue jeans, tan tricolor cowgirl boots, a blue and silver belt buckle, and a plaid shirt, all of which I paired proudly with a studded milk chocolate colored Wrangler felt cowgirl hat. (I wasn’t up to speed with cowgirl protocol for straw hats in the summer and felt hats in the winter, but I’d later be educated on how that worked.) There I was, out there in a field in black creek, NC at dusk with my parents, taking in my very first live rodeo. The cowboy’s lime green heeling rope as he pulled the steer up taught, his white straw hat; my parents beside me, the glistening stars above me, the Lord within me, the dirt and horses and fields and steers around me. As if the blood running through my veins was moonshine that a stranger in the dark struck his match on, I was hooked. I’m going to be a roper one day, I thought to myself. I’m going to learn how to do that.
From California to the New York Island“Passport please.” The former coal miner and current heavily tattooed Member of British Parliament slid his passport under the glass opening, towards the uniformed agent behind the counter. “Where are you going? And why?” The Honorable Brit replied, “I’m just going to visit some comrades.” Wrong answer. Raised eyebrows. “Comrades?” “I’m going to NC to see for myself the abuses occurring in the tobacco fields,” the Honorable Brit tried to explain. The agent paused for a minute, holding up the line of hundreds of people waiting to enter the States. Then he leaned forward and whispered, “You won’t see it. I worked in tobacco for years. They won’t let you. Everything is hidden in the backwoods.”
***Visiting the labor camps is not an opportunity to create identity for the workers, but rather an invitation to recognize the humanity and existing identity of the men, women, and children putting food on the table for us, day in and day out. It is humanity that comes in fullness; filled with saints and sinners, struggles and triumphs. It’s genuine; and as honest as the radiant colors of the sunset that illuminate the sky when it’s setting over the short rows. So frustrating at times, and yet as hopeful as the promise of a young girl that she will teach me how to draw a flower the same way she used to in her Kindergarten class if I come back to visit. Her wish was my immediate desire as she went on to tell me she was going to be a doctor when she grew up, she and the little boy who lived across from her near the other side of the woods. They would take care of me one day when I got sick. “So please,” she smiled, “come back when my daddy isn’t working.” She would stop mid-sentence during her description of the first grade drama (which was much more intense than Kindergarten last year) every time headlights lit up the trees lining the dirt road. Both our heads would jerk up around the same time, mine to see if the pickup truck held an angry farmer or contratista en route to deal with me, and hers simply on the lookout for her main man. It was a little before 10:00 at night, and her daddy was still in some far off field. Even though it’s so dark I have to hold a flashlight for my friend F just so that he is able to see the goal as he plays basketball with her older brothers, encouraging their youthful enthusiasm, and even though her daddy and the other workers had been picking since the dawn hours of the day. Hours were seemingly insignificant.