As a seminary president, seldom a day passes that someone doesn't come to my office to either recruit me for a cause or offer me an opportunity I can't refuse. This was precisely the case last month when two students and a faculty member came to let me know of a problem and an opportunity.
The problem was the plight of day laborers who unload cargo trucks at a large distribution center under contract primarily to Walmart. My visitors explained that the trucks bring merchandise from nearby docks to these warehouses to be redistributed to Walmart stores throughout the U.S.
In the summer months, for woefully low pay, warehouse workers unload boxes -- from blenders to big screens -- in stifling hot, unventilated conditions and, by their testimony, suffer an unsafe working environment where there is little access to clean drinking water, basic health care or regular breaks from the heavy lifting.
To make matters worse, my visitors reported that the warehouse workers must carry out their backbreaking work using equipment that doesn't function properly. They pointed to a study from the University of California at Riverside indicating that warehouse workers suffer a higher rate of injury than those in logging, mining and construction as a result. To add insult to injuries, the workers are employed by temp agencies and are never assured that they will have a job the following day. It all depends, they say, on their performance the day before.
The awful situation they described to me wasn't in an impoverished south Asian shipping hub or an inner city "sweat shop." This was happening in an industrial park not 15 miles from my office, in a large suburban region in Southern California known as the Inland Empire.
There we sat, around a big conference table, overlooking the campus quad in my air-conditioned office on a hot August day. What was I to do? Little did I know what lay ahead.
The request they brought to me was simple enough. They explained that three dozen of these warehouse workers had walked off the job in order to make a 50-mile pilgrimage from nearby the warehouse to downtown Los Angeles in order to raise public awareness of their plight and that of 114,000 fellow warehouse workers in the region. Their destination at the end of the first day's 12-mile walk was the Methodist church adjacent to our campus. The group asked if I could provide some words of encouragement to the protesters at the end of this first leg. So I agreed to speak.
But sometimes opportunities include challenges; this one certainly did. I wondered what I could say and what credibility I would have to speak to these warehouse workers. I also wondered if the description of their working conditions could be true. Would a company as big and profitable as Walmart allow workers to be treated in such an unethical and inhumane manner? And if it were happening virtually in my own backyard, what could I do about it?
So I cleared my schedule to walk with the workers that first day, which would allow me to get to know some of them, hear their stories directly, and give me a better sense of what I might say to them.
For someone who sits most of the day, walking 12 miles in temperatures that surpassed the 100-degree mark made for a long journey! But I met some wonderful, dedicated individuals who have been suffering conditions worse than I imagined. I learned that walking in the hot breeze was by far more comfortable for them than lifting heavy boxes in an unventilated, sweltering cargo container. I caught no hint of exaggeration or fabrication in their stories, only a tired determination to stand up and say, "no more."
By the time we reached the church, I knew something about these warehouse workers. From the youngest (Catherine, 18 years) to the oldest (Rubin, 69 years), they had by their action become leaders -- spiritual leaders who know that the situation is wrong, who have the courage to stand up for change, and who become symbols of hope for their fellow workers. I limped to the microphone with nickel-sized blisters on each foot and shared this thought with them: Whether or not they had intended it, they each had assumed a mantle of responsibility for their peers.
The following day and the day after, those blisters reminded me at every step of the stories these brothers and sisters told and the burden they carried. But they also reminded me of the hospitality and camaraderie I had experienced walking with them. I wondered if by walking beside them if I too had assumed a mantle of responsibility to work for change. Situations like the one they suffer are possible only if the rest of us look away.
As my feet healed, it occurred to me that I need to get a few more blisters.