Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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‘Freedom Riders’ rally in Walla Walla for improved immigrant working conditions
by Scott Cooper, for the Inland Register
(From the Oct. 23, 2003 edition of the Inland Register)
Father Pat Kerst (left), pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla, holds the music for parishioners Jeannie Morefield and Paul Apostolidis during the Freedom Riders rally last month in Walla Walla. (IR photo from Beth Call)
Members of St. Patrick Parish, Walla Walla, did more than just learn about what justice means for immigrants; they opened their doors in welcome.
A busload of Freedom Riders traveled through Pasco and Walla Walla last month to draw attention to the poor working conditions of immigrants in the United States. The trip was part of a national tour of several such busses, a consciousness-raising event which concluded Oct. 4 in New York City. Two days before, the Freedom Riders stopped in Washington D.C. for lobbying efforts and a rally.
The Freedom Riders took their name from the civil rights activists of the 1960s.
The visitors to Eastern Washington represented such diverse nations as Jamaica, Iran, Bosnia and Guatemala, all working to improve workers’ rights.
The Seattle Freedom Bus first stopped Sept. 23 at St. Joseph Parish, Yakima, before traveling to the Tyson-Iowa Beef packing plant in Wallula, between Pasco and Walla Walla. The stop was an act of solidarity with the heavily immigrant work force there.
At Volunteer Park in Pasco that afternoon, the Seattle crew was joined by the Freedom Bus from Portland, Ore. Msgr. Pedro Ramírez, pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Pasco, blessed the riders and their mission, asserting the right of every human being to be treated with respect and dignity.
The two busses then headed to Walla Walla, where parishioners from St. Patrick Parish hosted riders for the night. A breakfast donated and cooked by parishioners was served to over 200 people the next morning in the parish hall under flags representing the 14 different native countries of the Freedom Riders. Father Pat Kerst, pastor of Walla Walla’s St. Patrick Parish, led the prayer.
The morning speakers’ calls for justice were met with “Si, se puede!” – Spanish for “Yes, we can!”
One immigrant worker shared the family’s struggle as a child’s kidneys failed, the result of exposure to pesticide while harvesting fruit. A Cambodian woman described the stress of separation: for many years, immigration laws prevented her father from bringing the rest of her family to the United States. An Iranian woman denounced the injustice of targeting all Arabs as terrorists. She cited the 1,200 Arab men detained without charges under the Patriot Act.
Maria Martínez told of finding herself in a leadership role among the workers at the Iowa Beef plant in the late ’90s after they had no response to grievances. She eventually called a strike to protest the dangerous and discriminatory working conditions at the plant. Still today, a high percentage of the plant’s employees are immigrants who often feel they have no workplace rights.
The sentiments and motivation among the hosts of St. Patrick Parish were summed up by Paul Apostolidis, a social concerns committee member, political science professor at Whitman College and son of Greek immigrants. Apostolidis said that the values of justice and compassion must begin in the family, be extended to the workplace, spread to the whole community and ultimately become global in vision.
The Freedom Riders ended their national tour at the Statue of Liberty in New York City Oct. 4 with a final celebration of the rights of immigrant workers: to be treated with respect and dignity, to safe working conditions with just wages, and to family unification within a reasonable time.