Thursday, April 2, 2009

Shock and Awe and Its Aftermath: Postville as Metaphor for the Smaller, Purer Church

On 12 May last year, in a huge shock-and-awe operation designed to strike fear into the hearts of illegal workers across the land (here), hundreds of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials swept into tiny Postville, Iowa, to round up undocumented foreign workers at the Agriprocessors meatpacking plant. Officials arrested 389 workers, most of them Guatemalan and Mexican—nearly a fifth of the population of the entire town.

Following the raid, Postville experienced an exodus of hundreds more Latino citizens who were frightened of further reprisals, and did not want to live in an area doomed to economic tailspin by federal harassment. These citizens had done what generations of new Americans have done throughout the history of the country: arrived in family units to take whatever work was available to them, worked hard, contributed to the life of their community, built their families, educated their children.

They were harming no one. They were certainly not depriving anyone else of work. And now they are gone, and Postville is suffering—tremendously, according to an account of the raid’s aftermath by Marcelo Ballve at today’s Alternet website (here). Ballve interviewed Postville’s former mayor Robert Penrod, who says it’s as if the town is now living in a Twilight Zone episode: "Before, it was all hustle bustle, and you'd see people walking up and down the streets and driving and listening to music. Then all of a sudden, boom! I mean nobody was walking the streets."

For a number of decades, Postville attracted national (and scholarly) attention as what Ballve calls “an unusual multicultural experiment in America's heartland.” In 1987, Lubavitcher Jews reopened an old and then defunct meatpacking plant in the town, turning it into Agriprocessors, the largest kosher meat-producing facility in the nation.* Initially, Agriprocessors employed many Eastern European and Russian immigrant workers, most of them undocumented. Gradually, a shift occurred and the workforce of the plant became largely Latino.

As Ballve notes, the influx of families from Mexico and Guatamela and other areas of Latin American revitalized the town, whose economy had taken major hits from Reaganomics, which ran many small and medium-sized family farms out of business. The local Catholic church had to add a Spanish Mass to its liturgical offerings, and implemented Hispanic ministries, as did several other Postville churches. Throughout the downtown, new businesses opened: a Mexican grocery and restaurant, a Guatamelan restaurant, a kosher deli, a store selling a wide range of Hispanic products including videos in Spanish, prayer candles, and Mexican delicacies.

With the influx of new students into the local school, the school district had to develop bilingual programs and expand its facilities, even as schools in other areas nearby were shrinking. These developments benefited everybody in Postville. The expanded school needed new teachers, contractors and builders to put up the new buildings, cooks and janitors, an array of support staff. Rents skyrocketed in the area, and new apartment complexes sprang up. Property values soared.

On the whole, Ballve thinks, the long-time residents of Postville welcomed the new immigrants, and were grateful for what these new citizens contributed to the community. The priorities of the new neighbors—family, work, and religion—meshed well with the traditional values of the community. Jeff Abbas, operations manager at the local radio station KPVL, notes that the newcomers brought "a taste of the good life" to Postville—stability and even moderate prosperity to a community that had previously lived on the economic margins.

And now? Since the May 2008 raid? Empty storefronts similar to those of the 1980s. The Mexican and Guatamelan restaurants are gone. The town’s new Latino bakery is about to close. Agriprocessors has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The town is headed back to its 1980s ghost-town status, as with so many small rural communities in the Midwest whose livelihoods have been decimated by voodoo economics with their bogus claims of trickle-down benefits to all of us if we let the rich become richer. While many residents of these communities have voted Republican because they have been informed that the Republicans represent "values" . . . .

And as I read about what is happening to Postville, I cannot avoid thinking of what Benedict and the U.S. Catholic bishops are doing to the Catholic church. We are Postville, we who in any way continue to claim affiliation with the Catholic church. Empty storefronts, shut-down restaurants, and, above all, everywhere around us, the ghosts of those who only a moment ago were in our midst, contributing their gifts, completing our community. And now vanished. Gone. Driven from our midst.

The Bush administration raided Agriprocessors to impress a rabid clique of right-wing fanatics who insist that illegal immigrants disrupt our economy and rob American citizens of jobs. All sound evidence flies in the face of the dogmatic Know-Nothing tenets of that rabid clique.

But shock-and-awe demonstrations like the Postville raid are not about sound evidence. They about preaching to the choir, playing to the amen corner.

Just as is the insistence of some American Catholic bishops in recent weeks that Notre Dame University should be punished for inviting President Obama to be its commencement speaker in May. That insistence is every bit as much about shock-and-awe and strongarm muscle tactics as was the Postville raid. And it is every bit as much about pleasing a minority of rigid dogmatic fanatics who prefer to believe what they believe, no matter how little what they believe reflects social, scientific, or moral reality.

The Postville raid has decimated a small heartland American town—to prove a point. To uphold the dogma of a few true believers.

Benedict and the bishops are rapidly decimating the church entrusted into their hands as pastoral leaders. To prove a point. To uphold the dogma of a few true believers.

In both cases, gifts the whole community sorely needs simply vanish—as the bearers of those gifts vanish. I suspect that if any citizen of Postville aided and abetted the feds in removing those undocumented workers and their families last year, they are now sorely regretting their foolishness. And their cruelty. And their immorality.

I’d like to suspect that at least some of those centrist Catholics who keep aiding and abetting the bishops and Benedict as they continue their drive to turn the church into a rabid minuscule sect of true believers by driving away one group after another—theologians, Democrats, liberals, gays and lesbians, women, the young—may soon be wondering about the wisdom of the current agenda, as the churches become ever emptier and ever more full of silence.

Well, perhaps not full of silence—full of raucous shrieks about the true way and the right path, a truth and a rightness known only to the gnostic handful left in the true and right church. And meanwhile, gifts in abundance sit right outside the doors of that dark, closed church, left there by those of us who have walked away after we’ve been told we are not wanted, and our gifts are not needed.

But perhaps Newt will make up for the loss of those millions of brothers and sisters and their abundant gifts? (here and here)

*It's important to note that a valuable discussion has developed, following the revelation that the plant's labor practices may have violated core tenets of Jewish teachings about social justice; this discussion centers on the question of whether a plant can be kosher when its labor practices violate the tradition's teachings re: social justice—see here and here.