By Trudy Wischemann
This past weekend I found myself telling my washer woman story again to a small congregation in Porterville. I was hoping to find at least a few people who could identify with the redemption of washing a clogged-up hummingbird feeder (not to mention the sin of sloth that left it dirty in the utility tub all winter and spring). I was hoping to find people who might welcome the chance to identify with the adjective “rural,” at least in the past tense. I was hoping not to be run out of town on a rail for bringing up the valley churches’ sins of omission on agricultural issues. And, by Sunday morning, I was just hoping I could get through my sermon in the allotted time without embarrassing myself and the pastor who’d invited me into his pulpit.
It probably helped that we prayed first. But after the worship service, it was clear as the Star of Bethlehem this was yet another pearl in a long string of Grace. The gems to be gathered were the life stories of the people in the pews who came up to me afterward with their rural sides shining.
One was a farmer who remembered the destruction of congregations who supported the UFW’s grape boycott in the 1960s. “The issue was so divisive,” he said, letting the rest of the sentence drop. He was a grape grower, so the impacts on him were also stored in his memory bank. “There were people pelting them with rocks,” he said of the grape pickers and perhaps the organizers, the ones receiving the blows. “I remember standing in a line with some other growers, forming a line between them as protection. We even moved in some bin trucks, but it didn’t help. The pickers had to keep moving around – it was awful…”
Another was a woman who had worked in Lindsay at one of the Sunkist packinghouses for 25 years. Recently retired, she started by telling me how much she missed some of the growers, who had become like family to her. In the past, packinghouses have been a primary social organization as well as an economic one for small, family orange growers, something I’ve learned from my friends since moving here. So it was not hard to imagine her grief when she began telling me about how difficult it’s become for those growers to make a living. “At the end, I just couldn’t stand doing all this paperwork for the regulations that kept making it harder and harder for them to survive,” she said, her eyes growing moist.
Another woman came to tell me about a homeless man she’d just met on her way to the store. He’d been sleeping behind a dumpster in one of the shopping centers to protect his bicycle and few possessions. He was 77, just a couple of years older than she is, and had lost his home when his wife died and her meager social security check stopped coming. “We’re all so close,” she said, meaning to that edge. “My mother lived with me until she died, and now without her check, I’m having a hard time…”
“Porterville has no homeless shelter,” she went on, “except for the Battered Women’s place…” Other people countered her assertion with one derelict church on Olive, but she was undeterred. In her mind she’d seen a vague possibility, a hazy vision of turning their large church campus into some kind of shelter for the homeless, which seemed to me a brave and creative imagining. I don’t know if she’d heard in my sermon that one of the side effects of concentrated landholding and corporate takeover in agriculture is increasing marginality and homelessness, but it is. I was just grateful for the encounter with someone whose vulnerability had made her open to others’.
Trudy Wischemann is a neophyte rural preacher who writes. You can send her your gems c/o P.O. Box 1374, Lindsay CA 93247 or visit www.trudysnotesfromhome.blogspot.com and leave a comment there.
This column is not a news article but the opinion of the writer and does not reflect the views of The Foothills Sun-Gazette newspaper.