Church Comes to Aid of Abandoned Workers

Post a Comment » Written on November 20th, 2008     
Filed under: News
By Stan Friedman

DECORAH, IA (November 20, 2008) – Decorah Covenant Church is providing shelter to roughly 20 Palauans who were forced from their homes when a meatpacking plant did not pay workers’ rent and utilities as it promised when they were hired, according to news reports and interim pastor Richard Nystrom.

Since Saturday, the Palauans have been staying in a building owned by the church – a facility the congregation hopes to remodel and eventually use. The structure, which formerly housed a bank, was purchased earlier this year. For the last 10 years, the congregation has met in a local Catholic high school.

“There could hardly be a better place for them,” says Nystrom.  The area faith community also is helping to provide food and other necessities.

The men had been employed at the Agriprocessors kosher meat packing plant in nearby Postville. In May, the business was the site of one of the largest raids by federal agents to arrest illegal immigrants. Nearly 400 people were arrested for violations that included identity fraud. About the same number sought shelter in a local Catholic church.

Authorities also found working conditions to be horrid, according to news reports. The situation led many people, including Gov. Chet Culver, to reference Upton Sinclair’s 1906 classic “The Jungle,” which exposed dangerous conditions in Chicago meatpacking plants.

Agriprocessors stopped production on Friday. It filed for bankruptcy protection earlier this month and former chief executive, Sholom Rubashkin, is in jail on federal bank fraud charges.

The Palauans were hired following the raid and have been working legally at the plant, Nystrom says. Brought by the company from Palau, the employees were led to believe they would be provided free housing and a pay raise after three months, he added. Neither happened, and on Friday, the landlords had the power shut off to the apartments in which they had been living.

The company had not paid the workers on Friday, says Donalee Burns, the church’s administrative assistant. When the Palauans were evicted, they had no money and few necessities.

“These people didn’t have anything to put their clothes in,” Burns says. “They’ve been carrying their clothes in garbage bags.”

Nystrom says the church is answering a question put to the Evangelical Covenant Church Annual Meeting in June during an evening worship service by John Weborg, professor emeritus of theology at North Park Theological Seminary

In his message, he highlighted the Postville raids and how they had displaced so many people.

“They took 389 people into custody,” Weborg recalled. “Three hundred pled guilty to a variety of charges of identity fraud and immigration violations. Four hundred women and children fled to St. Bridget’s Church, seeking shelter and safety and the whereabouts of their family members. Later, paroled workers were released to care for their children, but they had no work, and others went looking for their children who had been separated from their parents. That’s the brief picture.

“Now here’s my question,” Weborg continued. “Let’s suppose there was a First Covenant Church in Postville. If that was your church, would your first thought have been this: Let’s gather together our congregation, and let’s invite members from St. Bridget’s and the German Lutherans and the Norwegian Lutherans, and let’s do what is germane to the Covenant Church. Let’s get people together in a group, and let’s read the Bible and see what it has to say about aliens. Would that be your first thought? If the Bible is central, if we as Covenanters are readers, if the Bible is capital, would that have been your first thought?”

Nystrom says, “It was significant that John would raise a question at the annual meeting that would call for a response.”

At the time, Nystrom was sitting in the audience, but had not discussed the interim position at the Iowa church. “I never imagined in a few months I would be in Decorah and would be down the road from Postville.”

Click here to read the entire text of Weborg’s message entitled “The Word of God as Capital.”

Last Friday, after being evicted, the Palauans were bused to a local skating rink that offered to put them up. It was clear, however, that it would not be conducive to any long stay, Nystrom says.

He immediately called church leaders to see if they would approve letting the Palauans stay in the building. “The church has been incredibly open to this,” Nystrom says.

The Palauans have been “extremely grateful,” Burns says. “They are delightful people.”

The Palauans are cooking their own food at Decorah’s Congregational United Church of Christ with ingredients donated by the churches. The Red Cross has provided breakfast.

Caseworkers have been meeting with the Palauans to determine how to get them to other parts of the country or back home, Nystrom says. He adds community leaders hope to get the workers to other destinations or find them local jobs and shelter by Monday.

Nystrom says the work being done to help the Palauans in Decorah may prove to be a model for helping Guatemalan workers who were arrested in the original raid.

When the Palauans were evicted, the church already had its “ears tuned” to issues surrounding former employees of the plant. The prior week they had begun helping the faith community in Postville re-settle several Guatemalans who were arrested in the original raid and served their time in detention.

Nystrom says the men had not known they were in the country illegally and that the company had assured them it obtained approval for them to work legally at the plant.

The government allowed them to return to Postville as long as they promised to stay and testify in any proceedings against company officials. They returned with no money, and although the government provided temporary visas, no one has hired them, Nystrom says.

An alliance of Postville faith communities arranged places for them to stay. The Decorah Covenant Church donated furniture.

Nystrom recalls members of the church helping to serve a potluck dinner to the men at a local Lutheran church and listening to the men tell of their detention and being separated from their families. “They would talk with tremendous sadness and some would even weep.

“But they also were so quick to praise God,” Nystrom emphasizes. “The men were thankful to be able to call home, have a place to stay, eat and have shelter.”

Nystrom says the church has the responsibility to provide the shelter. “Imagine Joseph and Mary coming for a place to lay their head.”

Anyone wanting to help the Palauans may send checks to the Palauan Relief Fund in care of the Congregational United Church of Christ, P.O. Box 470, Decorah, IA, 52101.

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