In 1853, no one could have imagined that the end of slavery in the United States was just 10 years away. Since the 1660s, race-based slavery had upheld the economic base of both the northern and southern colonies and subsequently the United States. The South's agricultural way of life had been made possible and sustained through the backbreaking labor of millions of people who worked in their fields for free.
But people of faith rose up and said, "No!" They marched. They sang. They held revival meetings. And they fasted.
Sojourner Truth, Phoebe Palmer, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Charles Finney traveled the north on a revival circuit calling on all Americans to enter the Kingdom of God, but there was no way they could be a citizen in God's kingdom and own slaves or be a slavery sympathizer. So, on the altar -- after people had wept and repented -- there lay sign-up sheets for the abolitionist movement. God said "No!" through his people and the giant called American slavery fell to the ground.
Then after the Civil War, in the era of the Jim Crow south, southern farm owners maintained the economic upper hand by creating a system similar to slavery -- the sharecropping system. Former slaves worked hard days for meager wages, but those wages weren't theirs to keep. They had to pay for their tools, food, and housing. So they became indebted to the farm owners and entrapped in a cycle of paying off the debt through unpaid work.
In 1938 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act. The minimum wage was established for all American workers, except agricultural workers and domestic workers -- the two primary labor forces that upheld the economy of the antebellum South and the post-Civil War Jim Crow economy. Compromises with Southern legislators brought amendments to the bill that left these workers unprotected from exploitation and abuse.
In search of life unhampered by the terrors of Jim Crow and the economic enslavement of the sharecropping system, streams of blacks flowed north to urban centers through the Great Migration.
And people of faith who stayed in the South stood up and said no to Jim Crow segregation and won the right to be equally protected under the law. They marched. They sang. The held revival meetings and they fasted. They won the battle for civil rights, but the economic battle was left unfinished.
Immigrants took the place of African-Americans in the fields throughout the south and west. Farm owners took advantage of the lack of protections offered by the Fair Labor Act and the vulnerability of immigrants and they became the new slave class in America. They had no bathrooms in the fields. They were required to do backbreaking work from sunup to sundown and farmers often held back their pay.
And people of faith rose up and fought back. Cesar Chavez organized migrant farmworkers to fight unfair labor standards. There were gains and losses, and the fight continues to this day.
Now our nation has the opportunity to make history -- to acknowledge the image of God, the inherent dignity and humanity in every single person who lives within our borders -- to redeem our nation and resurrect the dream that was and is the United States of America. We have been fighting this same fight from the very beginning of our nation, and every time it has been people of faith who have stood up and said "No!" to the exploitation of people and "Yes" to a better America.
In the days before Easter Sunday, we think of the immigrants whose dreams are being deferred. We think of the gains and losses suffered by faith communities that have fought this fight for generations. We listen as pundits sound the death knells of immigration reform once again. And then we remember the death of Jesus on that cross. And we remember that no one thought the end of slavery would come! But God intervened! No one thought Jim Crow would die! But God intervened! And no one thought Jesus would rise from the grave! But God intervened!
Speaker John Boehner, Majority Leader Eric Cantor, Judiciary Committee Chair Bob Goodlatte, have faith. Say yes to a better America. Give immigration reform a vote!
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