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Courageous Church

by Noelle Damico

My tongue startles at the metallic taste of the freezing cold. I’m standing in front of the “Rock ‘n’ Roll” McDonald’s in downtown Chicago, balanced precariously on an upside-down, thirty-two-pound, red plastic tomato bucket, surrounded by a crowd of 700 people. My breath forms a cloud around the microphone as I receive it from Lucas Benitez, a farmworker and leader of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), one of the most powerful and innovative farmworker organizations in the world. “Good afternoon, I’m the Reverend Noelle Damico of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The PCUSA is a 2.4 million-member Protestant church that has struggled side by side with the CIW for fair food. For three years we supported the Taco Bell boycott that successfully led to improved wages and ground-breaking human rights advances for farmworkers.”

The protesters cheer enthusiastically and wave colorful signs. Thump, thump, thump goes my little twenty-five-week-old fetus, kicking with delight inside me.

“And we are prepared to go the distance again, to ensure that McDonald’s and other fast-food corporations do the same.”
Hundreds of people are spilling off the sidewalk onto the street: moms holding babies on their shoulders, students from elementary school through college, clergy garbed in the attire of many faiths, elderly people sporting canes with fold-out seats, seminarians bleary-eyed from reading week at McCormick Seminary, and, of course, the tomato pickers themselves. I look toward the dour police officers who are busy protecting the restaurant from this dangerous group.

Precedents Established in the CIW-Yum! Agreement

The CIW-Yum! agreement sets several important precedents, establishing:
• The first-ever direct, ongoing payment by a fast-food industry leader to farmworkers in its supply chain to address sub-standard farm labor wages (nearly doubling workers’ wages);

• The first-ever enforceable Code of Conduct for agricultural suppliers in the fast-food industry (which includes the CIW, a worker-based organization, as part of the investigative body for monitoring worker complaints);

• Market incentives for agricultural suppliers willing to respect their workers’ human rights, even when those rights are not guaranteed by law;

• 100 percent transparency for Taco Bell’s tomato purchases in Florida (the agreement commits Taco Bell to buy only from Florida growers who agree to the pass-through and to document and monitor the pass-through, providing complete records of Taco Bell’s Florida tomato purchases and growers’ wage records to the CIW).

“We come armed only with truth and determination. We know, with God’s help, that one day soon we will see the day McDonald’s works with farmworkers to advance their human rights, not profit from their exploitation. Together we made history. Now, let’s make the future!”

The crowd roars. In my mind’s eye, I can see the change coming. It’s not a matter of if, it’s only a matter of when.

I have the honor of coordinating the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Campaign for Fair Food. The Campaign for Fair Food is an ongoing effort of the denomination, in partnership with farmworkers from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and allies from the human rights, student, labor, and grassroots communities, to establish purchasing practices within the retail food industry that ensure fair wages and other human rights for tomato pickers who labor at the base of these corporate supply chains. It is one of the most diverse and strongest alliances in existence. And it’s growing.

While I could never have envisioned it while in seminary, I have found myself at the center of one of the most significant social movements in recent history. It is a humbling, challenging, hopeful experience. My ministry flourishes in the creative exchange between farmworkers who have the courage, faith, and tenacity to take on the fast-food industry, and the theology, social witness, and determination of the church as we refuse to be complicit consumers in an industry that is so dependent on exploitation.
My call to this ministry has been both protracted and unmistakable as it has unfolded over the last twenty years. After I completed my M.Div. in 1991, I served a small rural church, and then returned to Princeton in 1992 to do a Th.M. in liturgy and aesthetics. Following my marriage to the Reverend Jeff Geary (M.Div., 1994), I labored in the corporate world in the field of software, pastored a suburban congregation, served as a campus minister, started a 501c3 that helped churches and synagogues combine efforts to meet survival needs of the poor in our community, wrote liturgy and music while consulting in church revitalization, served as the minister for the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Peace Action Network on Capitol Hill, and helped start and continue to coordinate The School of Theology of the University of the Poor, a multifaith, web-centered, community-based “school-without-walls” that builds partnerships between poor people’s grassroots organizations and academic and religious institutions for shared action and reflection to end poverty. In all of these pursuits God was preparing me for the work I am doing now: helping the church create partnerships of dignity and equality with poor people struggling for their rights.

To learn more about The School of Theology of the University of the Poor, visit and

My middler year at Princeton I enrolled in Professor Mark Taylor’s feminist theology class. It was the first PTS course to solely explore feminist theology and, I might add, students who took it were not accorded a theology distribution credit. There were many things I learned about hermeneutics and power in that class. But what I principally took with me into my ministry was that creating relationships of dignity and equality among people was central to Jesus’ ministry. In particular, I came to believe that to hear God’s Word in Scripture rightly, the church needed to interpret the Bible in community with people who are poor or otherwise subjugated by the powers of this world, and who are resisting that domination. It was all quite theoretical in 1988. Today, it’s come alive.

“The Presbyterian Church (USA) has worked with us, side by side,” wrote Gerardo Reyes-Chavez, a leader of CIW, to the church upon the announcement that CIW and Yum! Brands, Taco Bell’s parent company, had reached a groundbreaking agreement in March 2005. “You supported the boycott, facilitated our process of negotiations with Yum! Brands; you were with us in our hunger strikes; you supported the truth tours and welcomed us in your congregations; you put the words of the Bible into action. And for us as farmworkers, to see that, it is more than just the church ‘standing with us’ in our struggle—it is about becoming people who are a part of one community, struggling together for the same goals.”

Immokalee (which rhymes with broccoli) is located about forty minutes due east of Ft. Myers in southwest Florida. More than twelve languages are spoken in Immokalee among the Mexican, Guatemalan, and Haitian day laborers who pick tomatoes bound for the tables of fast-food restaurants around the country. Like the day laborers in Jesus’ parable of workers in the vineyard, each day the farmworkers gather in a local grocery store’s parking lot at four thirty in the morning to look for work. If they are chosen to labor that day, crew leaders will drive them in old school buses to tomato fields 20 to 200 miles away. There, if weather permits, they will work ten to twelve hours picking at a per bucket rate that hasn’t changed in more than twenty-five years, namely 40-45 cents per thirty-two-pound bucket. At that rate, a farmworker must pick two tons of tomatoes to earn fifty dollars. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, these workers earn about $10,000 a year. They do not receive overtime or healthcare and, unlike workers in other industries, they do not have the right to organize.

As if this isn’t bad enough, in the most extreme cases workers are held against their will and forced to work in conditions of modern-day slavery. And I’m not using the word slavery as a sensational metaphor. I’m referring to conditions that meet the high standard of proof and definition of slavery under U.S. federal laws. The CIW has worked with the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the FBI to successfully investigate and prosecute five cases of slavery in recent years, freeing more than 1,000 slaves. These cases have been prosecuted either under laws forbidding peonage and indentured servitude passed just after the Civil War during Reconstruction (18 U.S.C. Sections 1581–9) or under the 2000 Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, which prohibits the “recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery.”

The struggle of the CIW for fair wages and human rights in the fields first came to the Presbyterian Church through local congregations who regularly offered food and clothing to the workers.

While the farmworkers were and are grateful for the donations of food and clothing by Presbyterians, they stirred congregations to ask, “Why should farmworkers who work ten to twelve hours a day, six and sometimes seven days a week, need donations of food and clothing? Why can’t farmworkers live in dignity and obtain food and clothing for themselves and their families?”

Congregations suddenly saw that while their donations helped farmworkers meet their survival needs, these donations essentially served as a subsidy for growers who were underpaying workers. So while donations continued, local congregations were ready to look at what it would mean to stand side by side with the workers.

After years of marches with the farmworkers in which we called on Florida-based growers to increase wages to little avail, we realized that the power and resources to change these conditions lay at the top of the supply chain, with the powerful retail food corporations who purchased the tomatoes workers picked and who benefited from farmworker poverty. In 2001 the CIW called for a boycott of Taco Bell, one of the fast-food companies publicly linked to buying tomatoes from an Immokalee-based grower. In 2002 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church voted to support the boycott. But the General Assembly did more than make a statement: it allocated funds to hire someone to ensure that our words were matched with understanding and committed action. That someone was me.

Back in seminary, Professor Dan Migliore taught us that the Trinity had immense implications for social action and the witness of the church. Among the three persons of the Trinity we find a liberating, community-building, self-giving reciprocity of love. The power of this communally constituted triune God challenges human understandings of power as domination, invites the community of faith to recognize its interrelationship to all creation, and is the grounding for the church’s insistence on the rights and dignity of all people. I have come to believe that to confess the reign of this triune God, to say “yes!” to this God, requires the church to simultaneously say “no!” to other gods and unmask the idols of our world who exercise power and seek profit without regard to human well-being. In my current position coordinating the Campaign for Fair Food for the PCUSA, I am charged with helping the church speak powerfully in the public square in light of our faith and our history. From local congregations to the Office of the Stated Clerk, from the General Assembly to Presbyterian Women, from the National Black Presbyte-rian Caucus to fifth and sixth graders in Sunday school, the PCUSA is at the forefront of the struggle for fair food, and we are playing a critical role.

“The church is absolutely necessary in this cause because of the power and credibility it has with corporations,” insists Lucas Benitez of CIW. While the General Assembly’s stated clerk has clearly and publicly insisted that fast-food corporations that are profiting from exploitation have a moral and ethical responsibility to end that exploitation, all across the country ordinary Presbyterians are getting out of their “comfort zone” to join in marches, to support CIW-led boycotts, to learn how to talk to the media, and to take a public stand that sometimes puts them at odds with their neighbors, in order to, as Gandhi said, “become the change they want to see in the world.”
The church is also critical to the fair food movement because it has more connections with what Reyes-Chavez calls the corporations’ “human side.” In his letter to the PCUSA at the conclusion of the boycott, he explained, “Executives of corporations are members of congregations. And farmworkers are church people also. Your ability to connect both with executives and with farmworkers as people of faith allowed a point of encounter between worlds that were in conflict but that were able to find, in this case through the church, a reconciliation.”

But the process of encounter that led to this reconciliation was very intense, very public, and very confrontational (even as the CIW and the PCUSA kept lines of communication open with the company privately during the Taco Bell boycott). To change a multibillion-dollar fast-food industry and transform an agricultural industry that is stuck in the nineteenth century when it comes to human rights requires courage, sacrifice, honesty—and faith from both the farmworkers and the church.

PTS Students Support the Campaign

On a February weekend, six PTS students gathered with faculty member Rick Osmer, curriculum specialist Carol Wehrheim, and Noelle Damico to put their seminary education to the test.

Energized by the struggles of the farmworkers and the vision of the Campaign for Fair Food, they quickly made critical connections to the prophet Micah’s question: What does the Lord require? And to its answer, so simple and basic—justice, compassion, and the humble walk.

From the weekend work, the students forged curricula for elementary, middle-, and high school youth that interpret the Campaign for Fair Food in light of the gospel. The plans will be available online so congregations all over the country can join in this movement. Visit

The students involved in the project were Ryan Timpte (Dual 1), Eun Bee Ham (Dual 2), Erin Heisler (Dual 2), Jennifer Gruendler (middler), Eric Rhoda (Dual 3), and Jill Rumpf, (Dual 2). Jennifer Gruendler said, “It was such an honor and wonderful learning experience to be part of a team, joining farmworkers, denominations, and individuals as we worked for justice together as the Body of Christ. It painted a beautiful picture for me of what the church is and what the church can be.”

“I wasn't exactly sure what to expect coming into this project,” said Ryan Timpte. “I've written curricula for my own use before, summer day camp notes and so forth, but I've never done anything on this scale. Having Noelle there was a tremendous blessing. Her enthusiasm and energy did more for the creative process than hours of my own brainstorming ever would have. Her passion allowed our writing to flow. I hope the curricula that we put together can, in some small way, transfer Noelle's passion to the church at large. Just imagine what an entire community with Noelle's drive could do alongside the Immokalee farmworkers.”

These six students have expressed their solidarity with the Campaign for Fair Food. Perhaps you would like to get involved as well. The campaign’s truth tour met on April 13 outside McDonald’s headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois. On April 14, a Fair Food Parade took place in downtown Chicago. For details, visit

So we took up the tools of nonviolent protest—hunger strikes, marches, prayer vigils—as ways of putting a spotlight on farmworkers who to that point had been as invisible as they were exploited at the base of Taco Bell’s supply chain. It was while sharing in common action toward a common goal that I first began to sense what it meant to be a partner with the workers rather than simply a supporter. It happened at the CIW’s hunger strike on the doorstep of Taco Bell in Irvine, California, in March 2003. There was no predetermined end to the strike, but it concluded ten days after it began as farmworkers were taken to the hospital and national religious leaders promised that their communions would carry forward the farmworkers’ efforts, and begged the farmworkers to stop the strike. During the hunger strike, more than fifty farmworkers willingly and publicly bore the exploitation they face daily in the fields upon their own bodies. This sacrificial act was an appeal to the company to recognize their humanity and to respond by treating them with dignity. And it revealed the enormous inequities in power between the fast-food giant and themselves. Though the company did not respond at that time, it was a turning point in the campaign, and a watershed moment in my life. In my “hunger strike” journal I described it this way:

As the church, we are not simply deigning to walk with farmworkers because it’s compassionate or just, or even because we feel it’s the right thing to do because Jesus walked with those who were made poor and vulnerable in his own day. For that would imply that at some point, we the church could walk away, change the channel, or get on to other important “issues.” No. We as the church walk with the farmworkers because to be fully human, we cannot do otherwise. Their struggle is our struggle—the struggle to be human, to be regarded with dignity, to live peacefully and fully on this earth as God intends.

To read the 217th General Assembly Resolution on Ongoing Work with the CIW and the Campaign for Fair Food, visit

As the PCUSA began to walk with the farmworkers during the boycott, we thought we were lending the power of a respected institution and our individual social power to some of the poorest people in our country. And in one sense, that’s an accurate description of what we did. But the CIW asked us to go further. The coalition asked the Presbyterian Church to think about how this campaign for fair food was also about us—about our choices as consumers who purchase these products. We were asked to think about how the things that the farmworkers lacked were things that every human being needs: a job at a living wage, fair treatment in the workplace, safe housing, healthcare. The farmworkers were in the forefront of this particular struggle to address wages and working conditions, but they reminded us that it is part of a larger global struggle for human rights in which we are all invited to locate ourselves and to act.
From this challenge, the church began to move from a position of being an “outsider” that rushed to support farmworkers and their struggle, to being a leader with farmworkers in a common struggle for a food system that provides well-being for all.

“You drive like a demon!” exclaimed Cliff Kirkpatrick as I squealed my electric scooter to a halt directly in front of his ambling gait. It’s June 2006, I’m seven-and-a-half months pregnant, and my obstetrician said the only way I could attend General Assembly was if I got an electric scooter and put my feet up, a lot. But I wouldn’t have missed this meeting for the world.

Noelle’s Hunger Strike Journal
Read the full journal at

For on June 23, 2006, at 1:27 in the morning, the Presbyterian Church’s 217th General Assembly meeting in Birmingham, Alabama, overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting Ongoing Work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and the Campaign for Fair Food. The goal is to extend the precedents that were achieved in the CIW-Yum! Brands agreement across the entire fast-food industry. The resolution affirms the church’s partnership with the CIW and authorizes its General Assembly Council to support consumer actions, such as a boycott, if it is in concert with our church’s boycott criteria and in partnership with the Alliance for Fair Food, a national network of religious, student, labor, grassroots, and human rights institutions and leaders working with the CIW.

Following the supportive vote, Lucas Benitez rose to address the packed Assembly, exclaiming, “Farmworkers are also people of faith like you, and we are partners in mission with the Presbyterian Church. Our mission is to transform the corporate food and agricultural industries into a fair food system that ensures human rights. Being here [in Birmingham] reminds me of what Dr. King said a few days before his death; that he had reached the mountaintop and that he had seen the Promised Land and he knew we would all get there together as one single society. I am here today to tell you that we are closer to that vision becoming a reality.”

I sat on the Assembly stage, excited and ridiculously tired, looking out at the commissioners, who were also excited and ridiculously tired, thinking, “a very important thing has happened here tonight. Not only is this the first time a farmworker has ever addressed the General Assembly, this is the first time this church has entered into an equal partnership with farmworkers with a common goal: transforming the fast-food industry.” Thump, thump, thump agreed the little one in my enormous belly.

Two weeks later, I gave birth to August Xavier Damico Geary, a little boy, one month early but already weighing more than seven and a half pounds. After my parents, Lucas Benitez of the CIW was the first person my husband, Jeff, and I called. “Lucas! Tenemos un hijo! Llámeme pronto,” I laughed from my hospital bed.

From Immokalee to Chicago, farmworkers and Presbyterians are getting ready; ready for the second McDonald’s Truth Tour this April. It’s clear that change is possible—the CIW-Yum! Brands agreement is in force and working well. But McDonald’s is on the offensive, claiming in a study (that was discredited by labor experts) that farmworkers aren’t poor, and partnering with growers to claim that conditions as they are should be certified as “fair.” As McDonald’s does all it can to roll back the advances for farmworkers that were achieved in the landmark agreement, Presbyterians and other allies of the CIW from the faith, human rights, and student communities are taking to the streets again to tell the disturbing truth about the exploitation that lies behind those glistening golden arches. As I speak to Presbyterian congregations in Atlanta, Montgomery, Louisville, Urbana, and Chicago, I sense an increase in both impatience and determination.

Take Action for Fair Food

Download and then drop off a manager’s letter at your local McDonald’s to show you want the company to work with the CIW. And send an email to Mr. Jim Skinner, CEO of McDonald’s, urging him to work with CIW to end exploitation in the McDonald’s supply chain. Go to


My husband and I baptized August Xavier on Long Island on World Communion Sunday when it looked like the allusion to the flood in the liturgy would become a reality; the sky roiled and the rain descended in sheets. Like every anxious parent on the day of a child’s baptism, I was in our house, running late, carefully threading August’s delicate little arms through the sleeves of his baptismal gown. Lucas, August’s padrino (godfather), was standing next to me, singing little songs in Spanish to the baby.

Once I got August buttoned in, Lucas pulled a small box out of his pocket; a baptismal gift! Nestled in the cotton was a tiny gold cross that said “mi bautizo,” adorned with a descending dove and a burning candle. As Lucas hooked the necklace around August’s tiny, tender neck, I couldn’t help but think about how my experience of walking with the Presbyterian Church and the CIW in our struggle for fair food has been a kind of baptism for me, an immersion into communal relationship replete with risk, hope, forgiveness, surprise, sacrifice, miracle, and hesed (steadfast, loyal love). As Jeff and I poured the water of baptism on August’s head, I thought about the kind of life he’s being baptized into and the kind of courageous church—a church of Presbyterians and farmworkers—that will nurture him.


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