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Church bells ring in boycott

Some religious leaders say efforts to ease the plight of migrant workers is akin to Jesus reaching out to the downtrodden. Their target: Taco Bell.

Published December 1, 2003

DUNEDIN - It's a five-minute walk to Taco Bell from Mitch Webb's home in Dunedin. He used to eat there a few times a month. But he stopped going to America's version of Mexican fast food 21/2 years ago, when he joined the boycott.

Many of Taco Bell's diced tomatoes are picked by farmworkers in Immokalee who activists say are paid substandard wages. People like Webb turned to Taco Bell, a major buyer of the tomatoes with a big name and a big interest in public image.

According to U.S. Census Bureau statistics, the median income for farmworkers in 2001 was about $10,000. (Some statistics put it lower, at about $7,500.) The workers have no health benefits, overtime pay or vacation time.

Webb and his pastor, the Rev. Joe Carey, explained this recently inside their church, Faith Presbyterian in Dunedin. They pointed to bumper stickers and posters on display in the sanctuary, a few feet from a communion table draped in white tablecloth.

"Let Freedom Ring," the poster read. "Boycott the Bell!"

The Presbyterian Church (USA) adopted the boycott last year, encouraging its 3.5-million members to join in. The United Church of Christ, with 1.4-million members, has signed on, along with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) with 800,000 members.

Last month, the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida, with 39,000 members from Brooksville to Marco Island, called on its members to boycott. The National Council of Churches, an ecumenical group of 36 Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox member denominations, also joined the boycott. The council will encourage its 50-million affiliates, including Lutherans, United Methodists and Episcopalians, to boycott.

The Taco Bell boycott has garnered more religious support than perhaps any social activist cause in recent years.

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Social action is gaining steam in religious circles as believers embrace a theology that says Jesus was a peaceful activist who fought for the downtrodden.

Some churches have preached "Boycott the Bell" alongside the Gospel. A church in Minnesota took members to Immokalee for a mission trip this summer. A class of fifth- and sixth-graders in New York studied the farmworkers' plight. Churches in California joined farmworkers in a hunger strike and rallied at Taco Bell headquarters in Irvine.

At Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, students learned about the boycott recently when a group from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the organization that represents tomato pickers, gave a presentation on campus. Students have since written letters to Yum Brands Inc., the company that owns Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver's and A&W All American Food. Brian MacHarg, director of service ministry for the college, is organizing a spring break trip to Immokalee. And he has resisted his favorite Taco Bell burritos and beans.

MacHarg said he was keeping up with the different religious groups supporting the boycott. "It shows that the leadership of the churches are concerned about this issue," he said.

In the Gospels, you find Jesus mingling with society's outcasts, the lepers, the despised tax collectors, the shunned woman with "the issue of blood." Today, they would be the equivalent of people with AIDS, homosexuals and the farmworkers in Immokalee, Webb said.

Carey nodded. Jesus "started his ministry by proclaiming that he came to bring good news to the poor," Carey said. "He didn't do it like Jesse Jackson, but he said, "You are somebody!' "

The idea has taken hold nationally. Believers should act when they see injustice, said the Rev. Mari Castellanos, minister for the United Church of Christ's Justice and Peace Action Network.

"Churches have been involved in justice work since the beginning of church work," Castellanos said. Like Webb, she once worked with California labor activist Cesar Chavez in support of farmworkers' rights. The United Church of Christ once chartered a plane and flew 98 members to California for a protest in support of farmworkers, she said.

About three years ago, when Castellanos was ministering at a church in Coral Gables, representatives from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers visited. They asked for support in getting higher wages.

Castellanos was eager to join the battle, picketing Taco Bells in South Florida. Since then, she has changed jobs and now works at United Church of Christ headquarters in Washington, D.C.

The boycott is in its infancy, Castellanos said. Actor Edward James Olmos and Ethel Kennedy, the widow of Robert Kennedy, recently attached their names to the movement. But Castellanos expects the fight to last several years. Boycotts of lettuce and grapes in the Chavez era lasted years, she said.

According to the farmworkers coalition, tomato pickers are paid 40 cents for a 32-pound bucket. Taco Bell could almost double that rate by paying 1 cent more per pound for tomatoes it buys from growers, a statement on the coalition Web site says.

"We believe that Taco Bell . . . can easily afford to pay one penny more. But even if they passed the cost on to YOU, the consumer, it would still be less than 1/4 of 1 cent more for your Chalupa," the statement says.

Taco Bell and Yum Brands have met with worker representatives but have not come to a resolution, said the Rev. Noelle Damico, who heads boycott efforts for the Presbyterian Church (USA). Boycott supporters are asking for higher wages and a code of conduct to ensure laborers' rights. Taco Bell and Yum executives did not return calls from the St. Petersburg Times.

Damico said the boycott has gained steam. She traveled to Washington, D.C., recently for the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award ceremony, in which three leaders of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers received the award and $30,000.

Julia Gabriel, Lucas Benitez and Romeo Ramirez helped free more than 1,000 workers held against their will by employers. The coalition's work led to convictions on slavery charges for several farm owners and operators.

Supporters, including Kennedy, marched outside a Taco Bell the day after the ceremony.

People are studying the issues and feeling compassion for the farmworkers, Damico said. "This is such a grievous situation."

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But for many denominations, support doesn't extend beyond resolutions issued by national headquarters. Local ministers are not obliged to tout the boycott from pulpits. And some don't. They have other agendas, or they don't think a boycott is the church's role.

But Faith Presbyterian looks like part sanctuary, part social activist hall.

An "action table" is next to the Taco Bell boycott poster. It is covered by newsletters and pamphlets about health care, civil rights, global security, hunger and ecology.

A display of $5 bags of "fairly traded" coffee stands nearby. The church buys the coffee and sells it at cost, taking no profit. This way, a greater percentage of the returns gets back to small coffee growers.

Carey said his church has about 60 members. "In this area, that's about what you get with a social action church," he said.

Some Florida Christians are too conservative for his style of Christianity, he said. Visitors walk into the sanctuary, see the banners, the action table and coffee display, and some never come back.

That's okay, Carey and Webb said.

"These are people who are picking food that you and I and every person eats every day of our lives in order to sustain us," Webb said. "Part of the Gospel call is to take care of the widows and the marginalized."

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