Churches in the Farm Worker Movement: Organization and Faith (by Erica Reiss)

OVERVIEW:

Students will understand the many ways in which churches as formal institutions and spiritual communities worked in the farm workers’ movement in California, especially in the 1960s.

FRAMEWORK:

This lesson will ask students to look beyond the results of the farm workers’ movement and understand the process of organization fundamental to the movement’s strength. Students will examine how churches aided in the organization and motivation of movement members and the general public, as well as played roles mediating negotiations between workers and growers. The students will learn to engage with a primary source and interpret texts within their historical contexts.

ESSENTIAL UNDERSTANDING:

Churches provide organizational structure and institutional community, using religion and culture as tools for organizing people and motivating a faith in the movement and devotion to its success.

ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS:

1. What makes churches ideal for organizing social movements?

2. What makes the social teachings of churches distinct from those of secular organizations?

3. Why did clergy have such strong mediating power between growers and union members?

4. How did embracing Mexican history and heritage shape the movement and work to unite its members?

INTRODUCTION:

It takes more than a good heart to start a social movement—one must have skills and resources necessary to organize massive groups of people to fight together for a cause. In a church, one individual preaches to a group about morality and social responsibility, with the power to call large groups and networks of people to action. Affiliation with a known church gives credibility to a message and makes a cause trustworthy. Strong religious and cultural elements of the movement helped foster a culture of a movement, making it part of people’s lives rather than a side activity. One priest, Chris Hartmire, framed support of the farm workers as a black and white issue of right and wrong, and appealed to the “Christian conscience” of potential supporters to do what is right and join the cause1.

Chávez deliberately and systematically “transformed farmworker organizing and support work into a religious calling,” framing actions and issues through spirituality based on his own beliefs and practices and those of his community2. He and many others, including members of the clergy, urged a moral obligation to support the farm workers’ efforts to unionize. He organized “a Mexican religious pilgrimage, a Lenten penitential procession, and an act of defiance, all in one,”3 arriving in Sacramento on Easter Sunday in support of the farm workers’ cause. Religious language and both religious and Mexican nationalist symbolism were prominent in the pilgrimage, including the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. These symbols contribute to and represent the importance of culture and religion in the farm workers’ movement—allowing people to easily identify with La Causa and feel represented by its goals.

MATERIALS

1. The Power of a People’s Movement

2. The Farm Labor Movement

ACTIVITIES:

Day One:
For homework, students should have read the primary source, “The Power of a People’s Movement” by J. Benton Rhoades. In class, tell students to imagine that the president of the school district is going to reduce the weekend to Saturday only, and it is up to them to do something about it. Direct them to write up lists of people they will contact, including organizations. After 5 minutes, allow students to share portions of their lists and how they composed their lists. Talk about whether students collaborated or discussed during the list-making process or created them individually.
Following this activity, give a 15-minute lecture, telling a general history of the United Farm Workers and César Chávez, focusing on his participation in churches and the spiritual and cultural nature of his fasts and the pilgrimage from Delano to Sacramento. For homework, students will read “The Farm Labor Movement” by Gerald M. Costello, for a more specific analysis of the Church’s role in movement-building and negotiations.

Day Two:
Students will break up into small groups and discuss the readings in the context of the course’s essential questions. The groups will then plan skits, choosing from the roles of grower, church leader, union leader, and church member, to share their textual analyses with the rest of the class.

ADDITIONAL SOURCES:
1. Pawel, Miriam. “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement.” New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2009.
2. Shaw, Randy; “Beyond the fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the struggle for justice in the 21st century.” Building the Clergy-Labor Alliance pp. 75-96. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.
3. Watt, Alan J., “Farm workers and the churches: the movement in California and Texas.” College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.

STANDARDS:

1. Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
2. Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
3. Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
4. Students analyze how change happens at different rates at different times; understand that some aspects can change while others remain the same; and understand that change is complicated and affects not only technology and politics but also values and beliefs.
5. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
6. Students interpret past events and issues within the context in which an event unfolded rather than solely in terms of present-day norms and values.

1Pawel, Miriam. “The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez’s Farm Worker Movement.” New York: Bloomsbury Press. 2009.

2 Shaw, Randy; “Beyond the fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW, and the struggle for justice in the 21st century.” Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009.

3Watt, Alan J., “Farm workers and the churches: the movement in California and Texas.” College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2010.

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