Thanks to faithful and generous giving, new beginnings are possible
by Emily Enders Odom | Presbyterians Today
Lupe Gonzalo understands all too well the hardscrabble life of a farmworker. Having worked for 12 years in Florida’s tomato industry — in addition to traveling to other states to pick sweet potatoes, apples and blueberries — Gonzalo often had to wake up at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to travel to a local farm, where she was handed a bucket and told to fill that bucket as many times as humanly possible during the day.
And, to make matters worse, farmworkers are generally paid sub-poverty wages, if they even get paid at all. Gonzalo said that being shorted or stiffed on their wages is a rampant violation among farmworkers, along with other injustices they regularly endure.
“I experienced firsthand how farmworkers really didn’t have any mechanisms or any ways of protecting our basic dignity from abuse or from being mistreated when working in the fields,” she said.
While many farmworkers are subject to flagrant exploitation, women are especially vulnerable.
“Farmworker women have faced sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace, which can be verbal but also physical in its form,” Gonzalo said. “The women don’t really have an option of speaking out for themselves, because often if you do, you run the risk of losing your job. And if you lose that job, you’re not able to put food on your family’s table.”
But Gonzalo’s life — and the well-being of thousands of farmworkers — has changed, thanks to the efforts of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), a worker-based human rights organization based in Immokalee, Florida.
God’s tangible love
As a partner of the Presbyterian Hunger Program (PHP), the CIW receives generous support through Presbyterians’ gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.
Founded in 1949, the Offering’s purpose of helping neighbors in need around the world remains constant, giving the PC(USA) a tangible way to share God’s love since Presbyterians first joined the effort. One Great Hour of Sharing benefits the ministries of the Presbyterian Hunger Program, Self-Development of People and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. Although the Offering may be taken anytime, most congregations receive it on Palm Sunday or Easter Sunday.
The PHP has partnered with the CIW in many campaigns like its Campaign for Fair Food, which was launched officially in 2001. This farmworker-driven, consumer-powered initiative has pressured major corporations to increase farmworkers’ wages while also seeking to protect their human rights with a Code of Conduct designed, monitored and enforced by the workers themselves.
“Accompanying the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as they struggle to bring safety and justice to the fields where our food is grown is a perfect way to actualize our commitment to being a Matthew 25 denomination,” said Andrew Kang Bartlett, associate for National Hunger Concerns in the PHP. “Farmworkers face daily hardships rooted in racism, sexism and poverty, and our solidarity with them is a clear demonstration of our beliefs.”
By demanding that corporations be held accountable for how farmworkers are treated on the farms from which they buy, the CIW has been able to bring about significant change — including in Gonzalo’s own life.
As a longtime attendee of the CIW’s weekly women’s group meetings, today she continues to champion women’s rights as a CIW staff member. And, as the farmworkers’ struggle for justice persists, Gonzalo gives thanks for the work and witness of Presbyterians, which includes — but extends far beyond — monetary gifts.
“For us farmworkers, the support from Presbyterians across the country has meant the world to us,” said Gonzalo. “It has meant that we don’t feel like we’re alone, and that we’re not just demanding dignity and human rights, but that human rights need to be guaranteed. And we’re walking the walk together.”
Dignity to India’s oppressed
While the economic and social status of women may be improving marginally — as Gonzalo’s story illustrates — the lives of many women in India, like that of Smitha Krishnan, a 37-year-old widow from the village of Chennaipalem, have remained virtually unchanged.
Krishnan is a “Dalit” — a word from Sanskrit and Hindi meaning oppressed or broken. Dalits belong to the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system. Dalit women, who according to published reports make up roughly 16% of India’s female population, are among the world’s most oppressed. Widely reviled across India, these women face not only gender bias but also caste-based discrimination and economic injustice.
Krishnan, a trained seamstress — who already faced rampant income inequality and lack of opportunity — was left as the sole provider for her family when her husband died just before India’s last tsunami, during which she lost their thatched and mud house and everything in it, including the only means available to her to make a living.
“The destruction of my old sewing machine, which was my only source of income, and the death of my husband, leaving me with five kids to take care of, made life extremely tough for me and my kids,” she said.
Today, supported through a grant from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to the Society for National Integration through Rural Development (SNIRD), Krishnan and her family face a more hopeful future.
As one of PDA’s traditional partners, SNIRD — a nongovernmental organization that has been instrumental in helping the people of India overcome natural and human-made disasters — provides supporters of One Great Hour of Sharing with an opportunity to participate in SNIRD’s transformative work in communities like Krishnan’s throughout southern India.
“It was lifesaving when SNIRD came to our community to provide us with shelter and sewing machines,” Krishnan said.
According to the late Sheku Sillah, who was PDA’s Sierra Leone-based regional project manager for Africa and Asia until his untimely death in November, PDA has partnered with SNIRD for the past seven years, helping thousands of people to cope with the impact of tsunamis, flooding and the Covid pandemic, saving thousands of lives in the process.
Through OGHS, SNIRD’s work has included raising community awareness about Covid precautions, providing WASH (water, sanitation and hygiene), facilitating and promoting mask-making by local women — including Krishnan herself — and being involved in flood and tsunami rehabilitation projects.
“One thing I admire about SNIRD is they don’t just go to the communities and bring projects without consulting with the local people,” said Sillah. “Instead, they consult with all stakeholders in the communities and prioritize their needs. Programmatically this leads to sustainability, because community members then see themselves as part and parcel of the project.”
Krishnan’s tears of joy tell the whole story.
“The shelter and sewing machine donated to me by PDA through SNIRD has not only restored my livelihood but has also restored my hope and dignity in my community,” she said. “Because of people’s gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing, we now live in a permanent and disaster-resistant shelter, my kids are back in school, I am able to feed and clothe them.”
Sowing seeds of hope
Across the globe in Panama, Paola Tognarelli has also benefited from programs supported by One Great Hour of Sharing.
When the pandemic was at its loneliest, Tognarelli blossomed through new, life-giving friendships nurtured around community gardens and in WhatsApp-based support groups sponsored by Women’s Meeting Space, a nonprofit organization based in Panama City.
“In quarantine, it was great to meet this group of women who, despite the situation, took time together to share their experiences and give each other feedback,” said Tognarelli.
Women’s Meeting Space is a nongovernmental organization that advocates for the rights of Panama’s women, both indigenous and from its poorest communities. It helps the women, primarily heads of household who are unemployed, and their families grow food at home to help them overcome the challenges made worse by the pandemic, including high unemployment.
“Personally, planting helped me a lot with my daughter who has autism,” she said. “Planting was, for both of us, a therapy; and then my husband and my other daughter also joined us. This united us more as a family.”
Women’s Meeting Space — along with the Chilibre Women’s Training Centers and the Gonzalillo Community Organization, also in Panama City — receives funding through the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People (SDOP), which is in turn supported by gifts to One Great Hour of Sharing.
“I’m not surprised that when we first started working in Panama, we were finding women’s groups,” said Teresa Bidart, bilingual mission specialist for SDOP. “Everywhere we go, most of the organizations we reach out to are women’s organizations, which doesn’t surprise me because in all these poorer countries, children and families mostly depend on the women for everything they need to live.”
This project — designed to foster knowledge of urban production and boost the capacity of the community to overcome crises — also includes starting an experimental nursery to produce seedlings and installing a community farm stand. Its goal is not only to feed the growers’ families but also to sell surplus food to cover the basic needs of workers.
For Tognarelli, the gardening project contributed to her family’s livelihood and “sparked creativity” in her and helped her reconnect with the strong women in her family.
“In this process, it was beautiful because I remembered my grandmother, who always told me about the benefits of medicinal herbs, which she planted and shared with her neighbors,” she said. “That is what I did: planted, and then we shared.”
As people everywhere struggle to put food on their family’s tables, the many women whose lives are being transformed by this project are grateful that the people across the PC(USA) continue to think about them.
“I thank all the women, the managers [of Women’s Meeting Space] and the Presbyterian Church for giving us this support that went beyond what I thought,” Tognarelli said. “I’m always very grateful to all of you.”
Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to support the Presbyterian Hunger Program in its work to alleviate hunger and eliminate its root causes, to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events, and to support the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People to help transform people’s lives.
Emily Enders Odom is associate director of mission communications for the Presbyterian Mission Agency.
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Categories: Presbyterians Today, Special Offerings
Tags: campaign for fair food, Chilibre Women’s Training Centers, coalition of immokalee workers, eradicating systemic poverty, Gonzalillo Community Organization, Lupe Gonzalo, matthew 25 inviation, One Great Hour of Sharing, Paola Tognarelli, Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People, presbyterian disaster assistance, presbyterian hunger program, sheku sillah, Smitha Krishnan, Society for National Integration through Rural Development, Special Offerings, women's meeting space
Tags: chilibre women's training, chilibre women's training centers, coalition of immokalee, coalition of immokalee workers, committee on the self-development, emily enders odom, human rights, immokalee workers, meeting space, panama city, presbyterian committee, presbyterian committee on the self-development, presbyterian disaster assistance, presbyterian hunger program, self-development of people, supported by gifts, women, women's meeting, women's meeting space, women's training centers
Ministries: Presbyterians Today, Special Offerings