Commentary by Dr. Whitesel: I tell in my “Growing the post-pandemic church” seminars about a congregation I coached in Illinois. While the town was decreasing in size among its historical Anglo inhabitants, this rural town was growing with people from Africa who were coming to work in the meatpacking plant.
The pastor I coached followed my advice to reach out to the immigrants in the community and a new congregation developed within the aging Presbyterian Church. The pastor later became the Presbyter of the southern region of a nearby state. This was in part because of her success in reaching out to a new demographic in her community and helping these immigrant meatpacking families save this aging church and continue its missional legacy.
In this article you will find a reminder that growth is happening in some of the more unlikely places. Churches must open their eyes and see that the fields are ripe.
How Meatpacking Work and Faith Intersect in the Heartland by Eric C. Miller, Religion & Politics, 11/16/21.
In the Heartland, things are changing. Over the past century, the expansion of the meatpacking industry in rural areas has created high demand for workers willing to perform difficult and dangerous jobs. In recent years, these positions have been filled mostly by migrants, asylees, and refugees seeking some measure of stability and security in the United States. As they have arrived, the longtime residents have also had to adapt, resulting in a story of survival, change, resistance, and religion. In her new book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, Kristy Nabhan-Warren documents this transformation. It is driven, she writes, by “the conjoined passions of religious faith and desire to work hard for one’s children and grandchildren in order to achieve a slice of heaven on earth.”
… (the following is an interview with the author)
… R&P: What goes on in these plants, and who does the work?
KNW: When I started this project, the working title was Cornbelt Catholicism. I was really focused on parishes in rural Iowa and how these places are changing with the arrival of migrants from Africa, Asia, and Central America. When folks think about Iowa, they probably imagine a population of White farmers. But what’s really fascinating—and what ultimately changed the course of my project—is that meatpacking plants, specifically, have become an engine of diversification in the Midwest and on the Plains. When you walk into one of them, you hear a variety of languages being spoken. The first time I walked into the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, the first thing I saw was an enormous sign stating “welcome” in fifteen languages. It is obvious, right away, that White folks are a minority in that building. The majority are Brown and Black folks from Central America and Africa.
… I learned in the course of my research that the rural Midwest is much more complicated than most people assume. When we put in the time and do the work—and I should note that I did my fieldwork over more than six years—we can see that these are dynamic places where refugees, migrants, and asylees from all over the world are coming together to find work and provide for their families. Their presence is changing the face of the Heartland.
… R&P: How have the Protestant and Catholic descendants of past European immigrants reacted to the influx of religiously and racially diverse immigrants in the present?
KNW: In many ways, they’re vexed. They’re pleased that their formerly crumbling downtowns are being revitalized, but they’re not necessarily happy that the revitalization is driven by Latinos, Africans, and Burmese people. I start the book with a deep dive into the biography of Corinne Hargrafen, who is now in her 90s, of Irish-German Catholic ancestry, has lived in Iowa all of her life, and is typical of a lot of older, White Iowans in that she is pretty fearful of going downtown now that so much of the population is Brown and Black. And yet, she tries hard to engage in some intercultural dialogue at her parish. With her story, I try to paint a portrait of the White Midwesterner who goes to church, who tries her best, but who no longer really feels at home in the new Midwest. I also offer portraits, through the stories of several recent refugees, of the immigrant who comes to America to escape poverty or violence, is grateful for safety and opportunity in Iowa, but who doesn’t quite feel at home either, because the locals seem so suspicious and unwelcoming. Those refugees coming from Latin America, especially, have become a dominant presence in Catholic parishes, but they are constantly being reminded by White parishioners that the Whites are in charge.
Again, it’s easy to portray the Midwest simply as an overwhelmingly White, unrepentantly racist, overtly Trumpy place, and that is certainly part of the story. But when you take the time to sit and talk with these White folks—the descendants of migrants from Germany, Ireland, Czechoslovakia—you come to understand that they really do appreciate what the more recent migrants have done for their towns, even as they continue to struggle with the scale of the change. I try to draw out the flawed, complicated humanity of that story.
Read more at … https://religionandpolitics.org/2021/11/16/how-meatpacking-work-and-faith-intersect-in-the-heartland/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=How%20meatpacking%20work%20and%20faith%20intersect%20in%20the%20heartland&utm_campaign=ni_newsletter