The Summer of 1969
It is hard to describe the conditions of migrant workers and their families who worked in the fields picking tomatoes the summer of 1969.
The heat of the Charleston sun is unbearable. The workers began at the crack of dawn and worked until late in the day. The families lived in cinder block rooms with 8-10 women, men and children. The team leaders kept most of the earned wages for themselves, saying they would provide some food and other necessities while robbing the workers of not only their earnings, but also of any agency or self-determination. The children spent their days in day care centers.
Along with other high school students from Methodist, Lutheran, and Roman Catholic church groups, I made my way to John’s Island, South Carolina, to serve with migrant families. It was this summer I began an early chapter of my own journey into the prejudices, discriminations and complexities of the rural south.
A few days into this sojourn, I and another of the oldest girls were asked to go with a counselor to a little shanty where a young woman was pregnant. The staff had heard that a young woman was in labor. Other than knowing a few stories from my mother, who was a nurse anesthetist, I knew nothing about helping babies come into this world.
In the dusk of the sweltering Charleston evening, we arrived at the little backwoods hut. There, on a bare mattress, was a beautiful, young, brown woman drenched in sweat. She was clearly in the last stages of labor.
In the spartan room stood a grimy four burner gas stove in the middle of the room, a single dim bulb hung from the cracked ceiling, and one aluminum saucepan sat in the sink. We boiled some water for the light cord to be “sterilized” to tie the umbilical cord.
All in all, we were pretty useless.
She did the work, and we did the best we could. After the first little cries of a beautiful baby boy, we found something in our car to wrap her baby in to take them on the hourlong drive to Roper Hospital. The night was breathlessly hot.
On this summer night, as the four of us arrived at the hospital emergency room, we were met by a white triage nurse, who, after hearing the story, said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t take those people.”
I was astounded but remained calm, asking why that was the case.
The nurse explained that the mother could not be admitted, but that the law required the hospital to keep the baby overnight. Unable to explain the situation in Spanish we did the best we could to tell the new mother that we would take her with us, but the baby would be cared for in the hospital for the night. She was terrified, exhausted and had no real choice. We took her with us and tried to comfort and assure her we would bring her to get her baby the next day.
It was a night of lessons, fears, seeds of dreams, racism, discrimination. It was a moment that I began to think about ways I would dedicate my life to relating in new ways.
What is even more shocking than the raw realities of that June night in 1969 is that 50 years later, we see not only one mother separated from her child; we find that hundreds of parents are separated from their children for weeks, months or even forever. In cages, children are malnourished, neglected, abused by government practices, living in unsanitary conditions, isolated and lost.
What have we become? What will we do?
United Methodists across the U.S. calling on Congress and President Trump to end family separation and child detention now.
Take action now and help young people send letters and drawings to Congress and the White House (and send your own).