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Alex DukalskisAlex Dukalskis

Mixing God and Politics: Willamette Student Explores Little Talked About Issue

There are two issues you're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table - politics and religion. Alex Dukalskis, a Willamette sociology and philosophy major, decided to take them both on. He conducted original research to find out how the Oregon Farmworker Ministry uses religion to further its political cause of helping farmworkers. What he discovered changed his view of both politics and religion.

Mixing religion and politics isn't new, says Dukalskis, who was raised Catholic, and describes himself as "non-religious." "Religion and politics are both such powerful influences," he says. "Churches are some of the most organized entities in the community so they're going to be political. Religion and politics influence one another so much that we have to talk about them."

To fund his research, Dukalskis applied for and won a prestigious Carson Undergraduate Research Grant, a $2,500 stipend that encourages Willamette undergraduates to study subjects they normally don't cover. He spent several months with the Oregon Farmworker Ministry (OFM), an interdenominational group that helps farmworkers organize for better pay and improved working conditions. He went to political meetings, rallies and protests, visited farmworkers' homes and interviewed OFM members. He says he chose OFM because they "don't push their religious views on anyone."

"Many religious-political groups have a Jesus-first agenda," Dukalskis says. "Before they'll help, you have to put up with their religious views. At one of the soup kitchens I looked into, people have to listen to a sermon before they can have a meal. The Oregon Farmworker Ministry isn't like that. In fact, they don't evangelize, talk about religion or try to convert people at all."

The Oregon Farmworker Ministry was formed in 1985 by a group of farmworker activists who had worked with Caesar Chavez in California in the 1970's. OFM members represent a variety of religious faiths, including Methodist, Catholic, Presbyterian and Unitarian, among others. They work closely with PCUN (Pineros and Campesinos Unidos del Noroeste or United Treeplanters and Farmworkers of the Northwest), the farmworker union headquartered in Woodburn, OR, and see their mission as "educating faith and justice communities to stand with farmworkers in their struggle to organize."

Dukalskis says that while OFM doesn't preach religion, it uses its status as a religious organization to further its secular cause of helping farmworkers. One of the problems that unions and others seeking to help farmworkers have is that growers can deny them access to worker camps or picketlines located on private land. OFM uses the farmworkers' right to religion to give them access to to talk with farmworkers. If asked why they are there, they say they represent a religious organization. Local authorities are reticent to arrest religious leaders for tresspassing.

OFM members are often involved in protests, which can become heated or even violent. Many of the members wear religious collars or garments as a way to lessen the threat of violence. Their religious clothing also tells onlookers that community members other than just farmworkers are involved in the marches and protests.

A typical farmworker cabin, Dukalskis explains, might be a single 12 by 20 foot room that houses 20 men, women and children. Instead of a shower, there's probably a cold water spigot outside. Workers are charged $100 a month to live there. For incredibly squalid conditions, the grower earns $2,000 a month. If workers protest, especially undocumented workers, the grower threatens to send them home.

To spread the word to the community at large, Dukalskis says OFM uses its interdenominational contacts with other churches. OFM members contact leaders in churches and arrange to talk with congregations during church services or during Bible classes. Once there, the members don't talk religion, they talk about the plight of farmworkers.

"They tell congregations about the poor conditions at farmworker camps," says Dukalskis. "Once people see the conditions and hear about the low wages, they get concerned. By letting the different congregations know what' s going on, OFM gets more people involved."

Dukalskis says his work has changed his views on religion and politics. "I came to this project with the preconceived notion that any religious group involved in politics must be conservative," he says. "OFM isn't conservative and they gave me a sense of a quieter side of religion and politics. It's softened my ideas about religion and politics coming together. Now I see using religion to further a political cause as a natural thing. Both conservatives and liberals see their work as manifesting their religion. They both see what they do as good."

The project with OFM has also made Dukalskis more interested in farmworker rights in Oregon and in human rights internationally. He plans to continue his work with the farmworker community and, after graduation, work with a human rights organization abroad. "This project has sharpened my career goals," he says. "I'd like to continue bringing my two interests - politics and human rights - together in my work."

For more information about the Oregon Farmworker Ministry, call (503) 991-0611 or email them at ofwm@earthlink.net