Friday, August 31, 2012

Labor Day, with Tomatoes and Justice For All

The following is an article I wrote for the United Methodist Church General Board of Church & Society...
GBCS is committed to building an economy that values work and honors the dignity of all workers. Across the connection United Methodists are engaged in transformational ministries to support the unemployed and to stand with workers struggling for justice. In this series of blog posts we will highlight a few of these stories and provide opportunities for you to be a part of this movement. To share your story or for more information on how you can get involved contact Rev. Israel Alvaran ( or John Hill (

God of shop and marketplace, of farm and studio, Of factory and shipping lane, of school and busy home: Bless the produce of our hands. Redeem our work for Kingdom-use. By Your grace, our efforts stand, all offered up to You. There in Eden, You proclaimed that we should work the earth – Stewards over all we named, delighting in their worth. Through our fall we brought decay, lost access to Jehovah’s rest. Through the cross, we rest in faith and all our labor’s blessed. In Your image we are made: Creative like You are, Forming goods for use and trade just like You formed the stars. Send us out in power and skill to worship through each task assigned. By Your Spirit we fulfill the holy, grand design.
Bobby Giles ( meter)
On this Labor Day, I celebrate a woman who 40 years ago walked away from her job. June Kistler Adams was my grandmother. She made the 30-minute commute from Palatka, Florida to Green Cove Springs with a fellow teacher who happened to be a woman of color. The principal made it clear she could either lose her riding companion or lose her job. “Mommom” told me this story the year before she died, saying “I looked that jerk in the eye and told him where he could stick that job.”

Pullman strikers outside Arcade Building in Pullman, Chicago. The Illinois National Guard can be seen guarding the building during the Pullman Railroad Strike in 1894. Source: Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project
I’m guessing most articles about Labor Day don’t start out with someone walking out on their job, but actually, that is how the first Labor Day came to be. It goes back to the Pullman Strike of 1894, a nationwide conflict between labor unions and the railroad, involving 250,000 workers in half the country over wages, treatment, and housing conditions. When those who benefitted from the railroad were affected, 12,000 US Marshalls and troops broke up the strike, killing 13 and wounding 57. Six days later, Labor Day became a federal holiday. Most people spending today at a picnic don’t realize that their day off was created because the bloodshed of exploited workers fighting for their rights.

Where I live, the struggle isn’t over railroad worker conditions… it’s more of a food fight—tomatoes to be specific. Most of the nation’s tomatoes are picked by immigrant farmworkers being exploited in fields a few hours from me in a small town near Naples, Florida named Immokalee. One of their largest local purchasers is headquartered where I live in Lakeland, Florida: Publix Supermarkets.

For generations, farmworkers have been deprived a fair wage. Retail food giants like Publix have high-volume purchasing power to demand tomatoes at a cheaper cost from suppliers. This downward pressure on the cost hurts the farmworker at the bottom the most. Accordingly, tens of thousands of farmworkers and their families have been made poor so that supermarkets and their beneficiaries can profit.

Despite Publix’s reputation of good work in the community, they refuse to join the Fair Food Program, a path that would give a penny more per pound to farmworkers. This is a touchy subject within The Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church, as executives, employees and farmworkers are members of our churches. Publix people give millions of dollars to our churches, camps, and colleges. A few clergy have firmly placed themselves on the side of the corporation, but most clergy, including Bishop Whitaker, have come down on the side of justice for the farmworkers, calling on Publix to sign on to the agreement.

Farmworkers experience horror on a day-to-day basis. There have been nine cases of slavery in Florida’s agricultural fields since 1997. Recent federal convictions include tomato pickers locked in the back of a cargo truck every night for months; another farmworker was literally chained to a post. The U.S. State Department gave the CIW an award for its work in uncovering and aiding the prosecution of these slavery cases.

Major corporations like Burger King, Taco Bell, KFC, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods have signed on to the Fair Food Program and use their purchasing power to ensure fair pay and safe conditions for farmworkers. But sadly, Publix constantly claims to the media and on its website it is “more than willing to pay the penny more per pound” to increase tomato pickers’ pay but “we will not pay the employees of other companies directly for their labor.” Publix has chosen the path of public relations falsehoods and corporate greed for their shareholders over doing the right thing.

New York Supreme Court Justice Laura Safer Espinoza leads the Fair Food Standards Council, the body monitoring retailers’ penny-per-pound payments. She challenges Publix stating, "No corporate buyer pays a farmworker directly in the Fair Food Program. They pay a premium that gets passed down the supply chain to the workers, who are paid by the growers who employ them. In other words, buyers like McDonald’s are doing exactly what Publix says it’s willing to do—they are putting the Fair Food Premium in the price they pay for Florida tomatoes. The fact of the matter is Publix is not willing to voluntarily pay that penny as other corporate buyers have.”

So as a people called to do justice, what are we to do? Here is what I am doing and I invite you to join me:
  • Engage Publix and other companies practicing injustice in conversations via letters, blogging, social media, and action in their stores and in your community.
  • Visit or better yet, tour Immokalee in person, or another immigrant farmworker community.
  • Research news media coverage on the issue and submit your own letter to the editor in your local paper.
  • Bring a group to a Publix produce department and hold a prayer meeting around the tomatoes.
  • Most importantly, make relationships with immigrants by going to community meetings, actions, invite them to lunch, listening to their stories, and sharing your own.
On this Labor Day, let’s take the challenge to speak truth to power for the sake of exploited farmworkers. George Jenkins founded Publix on the principle "Don't let making a profit stand in the way of doing the right thing." Might this day of rest help us remember to do the right thing and call on corporations around us to do the same. And as you are getting ready to eat at your cook-out today, be sure to remember whose sweat watered the tomato on that Labor Day burger. Chances are it came from exploited farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Today I March

Today I join my LGBTQ friends, my friends of color, women, the poor, the undocumented, the marginalized, and the forgotten as we march together on the RNC. I do so demanding justice. I do so remembering a march on Washington DC organized by one of the greatest civil rights organizers in American history, fellow angelic troublemaker, Bayard Rustin; a man of color forgotten by history because of his sexuality. I march remembering the words of Martin Luther King Jr spoken on this very date, two score and nine years ago.

Often we only hear the soundbite of the end of MLK's speech, but read now the barely mentioned beginning that speaks as true today as it ever did 49 years ago:

...In a sense we've come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the "unalienable Rights" of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness." It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." 

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we've come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of Now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God's children. 

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. And those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. And there will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

May it be so. Amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Protest, Bad Theology, and Petra... My Day at the RNC

Apparently there is a "Great Awakening" coming to America, and the RNC Faith and Freedom Coalition held a rally to inform God of this revival today. The rhetoric was very pro-Jesus and anti-Obama, but Romney was hardly even mentioned. Prayers were abundant that reeked of bad theology directed at a God made in the image of Ronald Reagan, that believes fetuses have full rights (unless they come out gay or become an immigrant), loves American exceptionalism, and hates gay marriage. Speakers featured Newt Gingrich, Phyllis Schlafly, Mike Huckabee and Texas U.S. Senate GOP nominee Ted Cruz. Here were some of the highlights...

The Protest
Seven were escorted out during a protest as Wisconsin Governor Rick Scott took the stage. A large sheet reading "Scott has a Koch Problem" was unfurled. They were greeted with chants of "USA, USA" and only given trespassing warnings. You can watch the police action at the one minute mark:

Heckuva Job, Cruz
Thanking God for Hurricane Isaac literally in the same moment that New Orleans declared a State of Emergency... yeah, that happened. In Texas GOP senate nominee Ted Cruz's defense, he was thanking God for sending a storm that kept Vice President Joe Biden from speaking in Tampa today. I'm sure the people in New Orleans will understand his humor 7 years almost to the day after the GOP forgot about them following Katrina.

Christian Zionist Prayer
You will notice the prominent place of Israel's flag stage left. All I could think about during this prayer was the suffering of the Palestinians. Here is the prayer... It is a great example of theological malpractice. I am posting the video just so you can believe these words were actually said in the name of Jesus.

"Our God and our Father, you are not the God of defeat. You are the God of victory and destiny. And you planted your foot, on this earth, on a piece of real estate, and you declared it to be Israel; yours and your people. And we as your spiritual descendants of Abraham, we lift up the physical descendants of Abraham and their nation. They're not occupying a piece of land; they own it, because you gave it to them. We pray supernatural protection from ALL of their enemies this day. May their enemies be scattered once again as they have so many times. And we pray that our nation stand with this nation during this critical period, fully aware that you will continue to bless he who stands with Israel. And so with one heart, this place, this day, we cry out for the peace of Jerusalem. In Jesus name, Amen.


"Rock Legend" John Schlitt from Petra
I'll leave you with this! And yes, he was actually introduced as a "rock legend" and we got to hear him sing. Here is the video and also a bonus video where he explains that Christianity is essential to the existence of this nation AND that if our christian nation didn't exist, how would the rest of the world know what following Christ looked like. You can't make this stuff up.

Monday, August 13, 2012

#LGBTQequalityfail: An Open Letter to Mayor Gow Fields

The 4-3 vote denying healthcare benefits to same-sex couples by the Lakeland City Commission was a victory for the LGBTQ community. Yeah, you read that right. That wasn’t a typo. The vote actually will do more good in the long run for equality than had it passed. Why? Because now we have a reason to fight. This vote gave a face to discrimination, and that face looks like Edie YatesPhillip WalkerHoward Wiggs and Mayor Gow Fields. Over the next week I will be writing a series of letters to the City Commissioners. If you care about equality, I encourage you to join me.

Mayor Gow Fields, Lakeland, Florida

Dear Mayor Gow Fields:

I am saddened by your vote against equality for LGBTQ city employees. To be clear, it isn’t really your vote that I take issue, but the reasons you gave for your vote—reasons that I feel fall short of what I look for in an elected official.

I commend you and the Commission on your civility and demonstrating, in your words, “how to disagree without being disagreeable”. If any of my words come across as disagreeable, please know that is not my intention, but in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter From a Birmingham Jail, “We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.” In MLK's case, many White moderate clergy were painting his actions as disagreeable, but time has shown us who was on the right side of history. I hope that I write in that same tradition of justice demanding.

I have put your argument from the City Commission meeting in italics, with my thoughts interspersed:

In the strongest possible terms, I absolutely disagree that [not providing same-sex partner health benefits for city employees] is discriminatory. We didn’t create the laws of marriage in this country; they existed well before any of us were born… …We didn’t carve out same-sex couples from this benefit. They existed before we got here. So to suggest that we are being discriminatory is just not accurate.

Let’s talk about the laws of marriage that existed before you were born. You were born in 1963—two years before it would be legal for you, as a man of color, to marry a White woman. By your own logic, if we only consider the laws of marriage before your birth in 1963, we would not offer benefits to interracial partners. After all, it wouldn’t be discriminatory because we didn’t carve them out of the benefit, and these laws of marriage existed before you were born.

Continuing with your argument:

I could go into my personal beliefs on this issue. God loves and accepts every last one of us. But he calls us to behave a certain way. To follow the directives in the law that he has given us. And he gives us the power to choose whether we do or we don’t. And everyone in here will have to answer for that. We will each have to give our own account.

Here are the words of a Virginia Judge in the 1940s in his upholding of the state’s ban on interracial marriage: "Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix."

He too used God to support his convictions for inequality. No disrespect meant, but it was bad theology then and your using God is bad theology today. As an elected official, it is not your role to interpret Scripture in order to set policy and law. That is a theocracy. It is your role in some cases to look out for the rights of the minority in spite of the attempts of an oppressive majority to deny equality. The 14th Amendment of our Constitution means something to me. It is the amendment that created our present day society that allowed me to vote for you, a person of color, to be my mayor. That "equal protection under the law” part extends further than just the color of a person’s skin. So many government officials before you have used their distorted interpretation of Scripture to support unequal protection under the law. It saddens me that you chose to do the same.  

Continuing with your argument:

…I have spent a lot of time listening to both sides of the issue, but I haven’t listened to people who claim this is a homophobic issue. I have coached gays and lesbians… …I have employed gays and lesbians. So when someone says that I am homophobic, they haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins.

Mayor Fields, I can’t call you homophobic… I don’t really know you. However, someone knowing, coaching or employing a person who identifies as LGBTQ is not the standard to determine if someone isn’t homophobic. I think we both know many coaches, employers and even friends, who interact with people of color, who we know to be racist. Myself, being a person of privilege (White, middle class, educated, straight, clergy, male…) I constantly have to avoid getting defensive and need to check myself, being aware of how I unintentionally participate in cultural and institutional systems of racism. As a straight, high ranking government official, I call on you to do the same—be slow to dismiss others when they call you out on your privilege and be aware of how there are systems alive and strong in Lakeland that create inequality for LGBTQ persons that you might unintentionally participate in.

When you finished your argument with “they haven’t walked a mile in my moccasins,” the woman standing behind me, who identifies as a lesbian, said, “Nor have you in mine.” That is an ironic phrase for you to end with. Its origins are a Native American proverb used by a people oppressed by a government that denied them of their rights and equal protection under the law, simply because of who they were born to be. In all due respect, Mayor, you are not the oppressed in this proverb. You are the person of privilege and power denying equal protection under the law.


Rev. Andy Oliver

Walk a Mile in My Shoes
Joe South, 1970

If I could be you, if you could be me for just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside each other's mind,
If you could see you through my eyes instead of your ego
I believe you'd be surprised to see that you've been blind,

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Hey, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

Now your whole world you see around you is just a reflection
And the law of common says you're gonna reap just what you sow
So unless you've lived a life of total perfection
You'd better be careful of every stone that you should throw
[ Lyrics from: ]
And yet we spend the day throwin' stones at one another
'Cause I don't think or wear my hair the same way you do,
Well, I may be common people but I'm your brother
And when you strike out you're tryin' to hurt me it's hurtin' you
Lord, have mercy

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Babe, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes

And there are people on reservations and out in the ghettos
And brother, there, but for the grace of God, go you and I,
And if I only had wings of a little angel, well
Don't you know, I'd fly to the top of a mountain and then I'd cry

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Babe, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Better walk a mile in my shoes
Try before what you're doing

Walk a mile in my shoes, walk a mile in my shoes
Oh, before you abuse, criticize and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes...

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Wedding Homily for Mrs. and Mr. Ally and Phil Stricker

1 John 4:7-12
The Message (MSG)
 7-10My beloved friends, let us continue to love each other since love comes from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and experiences a relationship with God. The person who refuses to love doesn't know the first thing about God, because God is love—so you can't know him if you don't love. This is how God showed his love for us: God sent his only Son into the world so we might live through him. 11-12My dear, dear friends, if God loved us like this, we certainly ought to love each other. But if we love one another, God dwells deeply within us, and his love becomes complete in us—perfect love!

First let me say how honored I am to be a part of this celebration. Ally and Phil, you have been two of my best friends. I can’t tell you how much I admire how you have both given your lives to literally spending every afternoon and every summer over the last few years, playing with children, and letting them know that someone loves them. I have witnessed this love being expressed toward these children and it is that same love that first brought the two of you together, together to be a sign of that perfect love God wants us to show the world. 

Now, certainly much can be, and will be said about your summers and weekends together, serving at The Warren W. Willis Youth Camp… And to all of Phil and Ally’s friends that are already tired about hearing about this mystical cult campground that tends to turn friends into lovers, you are about to hear a whole lot more today. Having been to my share of these camp weddings, I have some advice on how to survive all the inevitable insider camp talk and the flash mob folk dancing when Cotton Eye Joe is played… Before the end of my sermon, just jot down the number of times you think camp will be mentioned tonight. If at the end of the night, you are the closest without going over, you will win an all expense, paid trip on a cruise with the newlyweds on their honeymoon.

But seriously, it is my privilege to say a few words about the vows you are about to make to one another. There are only a few places in the life of the church when we ask people to make vows. In each case, the vows are a part of a vocation – a calling from God – to love.

There are the baptismal vows, which were made on your behalf and renewed at your confirmation. In those vows is the calling, a vocation, to love God and love your neighbor.

There are the membership vows you made in joining this church. In those vows is the calling, a vocation, to resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves, and to support the Body of Christ with your prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness.

And in just a few moments you will make the vows of a marriage covenant.  And what is the calling of marriage? Marriage is a call to love one particular imperfect human being as Christ loves them.

There is no ideal life of Christian love free from visits from in-laws, noisy family meals, sex, paying bills, karaoke, and watching TV. Everything about your life together can be a sacrament of God's creative love: your bodies, freedom, feelings, work, play, or prayer. You will experience God's love in your love of each other, you will experience God's call in the challenge of your life together, and God's creativity as you grow, and change together.

Your love and faithfulness makes Christ visible. In the same way your relationship has been centered around loving children and youth, your marriage is a ministry for the world—a sign of that perfect love God wants to show the world through you both.

And this is why the church asks you to make these vows publicly. We need you to make and faithfully keep this covenant of marriage to help us all see and understand God’s faithfulness and love for all of us. You won’t be perfect in that, but we are all called to go onto perfection, to keep trying, to keep forgiving and asking for forgiveness, to keep offering and receiving love, to keep being faithful to one another – just as God has already so done for you.

So, I invite you now to prepare your hearts, minds, body, and souls to make your vows to one another before God and the community of the faithful.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

#LGBTQequalityfail: An Open Letter to Commissioner Edie Yates

The 4-3 vote denying healthcare benefits to same-sex couples by the Lakeland City Commission was a victory for the LGBTQ community. Yeah, you read that right. That wasn’t a typo. The vote actually will do more good in the long run for equality than had it passed. Why? Because now we have a reason to fight. This vote gave a face to discrimination. And that face looks like Edie Yates, Phillip Walker, HowardWiggs and Mayor Gow Fields. Over the next week I will be writing a series of letters to the City Commissioners. If you care about equality, I encourage you to join me.

Dear Commissioner Edie Yates:

Your reasoning for denying equality to LGBTQ city employees was a copout, plain and simple.

You argued against offering benefits because there was not “a groundswell of support”. Your job isn’t to do what is popular, especially when that which is popular involves denying people equal protection under the law (see the 14th Amendment). Your job is not only to listen to the majority, but it is especially to look out for the rights’ of the minority, protecting those rights from being infringed upon. Our representational democracy is what sets us apart from countries like Syria, and from failed systems like the Bowl Championship Series, where the little guy never has a shot.

You said you couldn’t vote for it since the request didn’t come from LGBTQ city employees. Just wondering, if you were part of a minority group that only had 15% of the rights that heterosexual couples had, and you faced legal institutional discrimination from everything to being looked over for a promotion to being legally denied service in a restaurant… if you had to walk in those shoes, would you want your name on a list to be made part of the public record in Lakeland, Florida? 

Another argument you made was that there would be a surge of people pretending to be gay or lesbian in order to gain health benefits… really? I can think of a lot of easier ways to get health benefits, one of which involves going Denzel from the movie John Q. You said the safe guards to prove a partnership were too easy to get around. I find that hilarious, since if my wife and I were a same-sex couple, we would not qualify based on the requirements. Thankfully, all we have to show is a marriage license… actually, no, we’ve never even had to show that. We just have to say we are married on a form. Thank you for protecting taxpayers against all those who would pretend to be gay if they got sick. There are enough sham-marriages in the heterosexual community. We wouldn’t want to extend that right to LGBTQ partners as well.

You also claimed that you didn’t want to spend taxpayer dollars on same-sex benefits. Discussed in this same meeting was spending taxpayer money on a lot of projects… like tree trimming. You didn’t raise an objection to any of the other expenditures because fiscal responsibility. We were talking about very few people and very little money. By your logic, in order to be fiscally responsible, the City of Lakeland should hire more LGBTQ persons. Please don’t pretend this was about money… Money conservatives will give to your campaign? Yes. But money wasted on same-sex partner equality? No. (Note: LGBTQ persons pay taxes too).

Commissioner Yates, you told me that you just didn’t see a “groundswell of support”. This letter is a heads-up that I will make it my personal mission to make sure you do see many groundswells between now and next November. A groundswell to take away your seat. A groundswell for your opponent. A groundswell against discrimination. A groundswell for equality.  


Rev. Andy Oliver