Monday, December 30, 2019

A Conversation With Marlena Graves

Marlena Graves
Marlena Graves is the author of A Beautiful Disaster: Finding Hope in the Midst of Brokenness (Brazos Press, 2014) and her next book is The Way Up Is Down: Finding Yourself by Forgetting Yourself (IVP, July 2020). She writes about formation, faith, culture, the church, and justice--and on the intersections of each of those. In addition to writing and speaking, she works for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), fighting for the human rights of migrant farm worker members and nonmembers who put the food on our tables. She has published widely from Christianity Today to devotional Bibles to Our Daily Bread. In the past, she has been on staff at several churches in the areas of teaching, preaching, pastoral care, and discipleship. Marlena serves as an adjunct professor in the area of discipleship/formation at Winebrenner Theological Seminary. She is a bilingual Puerto-Rican who lives in the Toledo, Ohio area with her husband and three daughters.

Could you tell us a bit about your work with the Farm Labor Organizing Committee? What did you learn from this experience that informs your position on migrant labor in the US? On the issue of social justice?

I am the Director of Communications for the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. FLOC is a labor union for agricultural workers. Ninety-nine percent are Mexican. Our message is that when you eat, consider the hands that picked and harvested your food or cultivated the plants that you have in your yards. What kinds of conditions do they live and work in? Don't bite the hands that feed you; seek their human rights of which their labor rights are a part. We empower and encourage them to speak up for themselves when they are being mistreated and when their wages are being stolen. We see assault, human and labor trafficking, child labor, and squalid living and working conditions. The act of eating requires us to think of the conditions agricultural workers are living in. However, we consider ourselves a movement, too. 

The migrant workers who pay my salary through their dues have stipulated that we seek the flourishing of the local communities and regions where our offices are located: Toledo, OH, Dudley, NC, and Monterrey, Mexico. So, we are involved in each of these places seeking the flourishing of the community. For example, we have forged a good relationship with the Toledo Police Department (TPD) and have signed a Code of Conduct with them. That means that we teach our members in Toledo, most who live in the city and are not farm workers, how to conduct themselves with the police. The police department has also agreed to conduct itself with respect around us. So if one of our members is pulled over, they are to conduct themselves in a certain way. If they get pulled over for a traffic violation, they can show the police their FLOC membership ID and not get reported to ICE. One of the agreements we have worked out with the TPD is to not have the TPD be an arm of ICE.

What I have learned working here and in terms of seeking justice and human rights, is that we have to speak up in a collective voice and that we cannot wait on the government for justice or to help us out. We use our bodies too. We have to push them and others in a non-violent way, of course. Also, I have learned that this sentiment expressed by many is true: Oppressors, even nice Christian ones, don't give up power on their own. A business or corporation may have to be boycotted or protested against to move. And it can take years for movement towards justice to happen. But let me tell you, working for FLOC, I have seen how we historically as an organization have been David amongst many Goliaths. Things that were deemed impossible have happened. An example from the 80's is when Campbell Soup Company signed an agreement with us. We were told it would never happen. Our farm worker members were able to raise their wages and the farmers' income and get medical insurance. I've also learned to never hate an enemy. Love your enemies. Look for their flourishing when you seek your own.

Another thing I learned is that people don't want a handout. They just want a fair day's pay for a fair day's work.

Finally, we can change our draconian immigration policies by crying out and being relentless and strategic in our protest and pressure. Christians, in particular, can push this issue. I imagine we will have to start pressuring the pastors and churches who are for draconian policies. Pressure doesn't have to be harsh or even mean. Advocates can call their attention to what is going on--let them see for themselves and give them a chance to understand the situation in context instead of being far removed. 

How about your spiritual formation work? What did you learn from this experience?

For me, the most important thing is the incarnation of what we say we believe. The Christian world is filled with Christians who are fluent in lots of God-talk but who live godless lives. Like Jesus, we have to embody our message. In that way, we earn the right to be heard. When our lights shine before human beings, when we live lives that are so much like Christ, while people may not ultimately agree with us, they can say, "That person is like Jesus, and attractive." The incarnation is of ultimate importance. Thus, it is important we live the message we communicate with our mouths. We can only do that by a life of prayer, being steeped in Scripture, and service, all through the strength of the Holy Spirit amid healthy Christian community. We cannot do it alone.

When you spoke as the plenary speaker at Northeastern Seminary's B.T. Roberts Symposium you gave a detailed history of immigration, both in the US and worldwide. And you asked the question: "Who is my neighbor?" What is your own answer to that question?

Of course, my neighbor is the person right in front of me. My closest neighbors are those under my roof, or family members, and next-door neighbors. Those in my place of employment. But, I like to think of neighbors too in reference to Jesus's Great Commission: Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth (Matthew 28:16-20). So, I have local, statewide, continental, and international neighbors. In my life, I try to concretely be a neighbor to each. I can't just talk about it, I have to put my money and my life where my mouth is. And of course, I cannot forget that we need to be neighbors to all of creation: the animals and environment. That has to do with ecological stewardship. And finally, even my enemy is my neighbor if I pay any attention to who God is and the Parable of the Good Samaritan. We cannot do everything, but we can do something in our spheres. 

In your opinion, what would just immigration reform in the US look like?

Huge question!  Well, President Reagan gave amnesty in 1986. But I would say that we absolutely cannot criminalize asylum seekers and refugees or mistreat them anymore. My boss, Baldemar Velasquez, is an advocate of giving those who are waiting for their asylum cases guest visas so they can work and earn money and pay taxes instead of us paying taxes to house them in criminal and evil for-profit detention centers. I agree with that. I think we should also make the wait timely, and reasonable, so that folks don't have to wait years. Many farmers want to give farmworkers citizenship because they know how dependent our food system is on foreign agricultural workers. I think we should make it as easy as possible for vetted foreign workers--most from south of the American border, to cross and work here and then go back to their families. Most people don't want to move. They want to stay, but there are conditions that make living where they do impossible. I know I would do whatever it takes for my daughters' safety and survival. Those already here should be given a clear and short pathway to citizenship and perhaps pay a small fine for their misdemeanor of not having papers. They are already pumping so much into our economy and supporting Social Security without benefitting from it themselves. What those without papers are doing is a misdemeanor. Most aren't felons, but our current treatment of them should be considered felonious. Of course, there could be snags, but what we are doing to those seeking asylum and those invited to work here is the real criminality and immorality. 

On your website, you mention that Mary Oliver is your favorite poet. I'm curious, could you give us a sense of why?

I love Mary Oliver because of her eye for and absorption of nature and the gratitude in which she lived. Her poetry displays beauty, goodness, truth, and wonder and draws my attention to God. The heavens and creation declare the glory of God and we do well and good to our souls to steep ourselves in it. Part of living like Christ and living a life of integrity entails being as close to the earth as we can-even in a crowded city. 

Your book A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER: finding hope in the midst of brokenness, is amazingly thoughtful and contemplative. I love what you say about maturity. "We know we are maturing when we become more and more content with God alone." Would you care to elaborate on this? 

I think that we have everything we could possibly need and want in God, but we just don't see it or know it. I am fascinated by how Jesus was born in complete poverty but grew in wisdom and contentment and trust in the Father. Even though Jesus is fully divine, he is fully human. I think that as we mature in our faith, in our trust of God, in union and communion with him, the superfluous will fall to the wayside. Like the Levitical Priests of the Old Testament, our inheritance will be God. Like the old song goes, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of his glory in grace." Also, finally, we grow in union and communion with God as we keep our gaze on Jesus, do whatever it takes to keep our gaze on Jesus. That is what the ancient and ever contemporary spiritual disciplines are for--again with the help of community and trustworthy spiritual mentors. 

In your book you describe a childhood that was fraught with hard times and anxiety Yet, you give hope when describing what you learned from those experiences. You note that "suffering doesn't have the last word in our lives..." And that as an adult, "I am growing younger because the fear and anxieties that were weighing me down, those elements that were wrinkling my soul, are dissipating." Would you like to add anything to that observation?

Only that I really take seriously these words by Jesus in Matthew 18:3: "Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." I am trying to learn with that means. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner! I am so far from being like Jesus. But I have observed that I am becoming younger and younger in simplicity of trust. Although, I do have my days when this is not true! But, the older I get in the faith, the more I am convinced of the beauty and goodness of God, Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I can trust his intentions and that all will be well, as Julian of Norwich discovered, because he is trustworthy. 

I understand you're working on a new book, tentatively titled The Downward Descent of Up. Would you like to give us a preview as to its theme?

I have an official title now! The Way Up Is Down: Finding Yourself by Forgetting Yourself (IVP, July 2020). Along with others, I find myself disgusted by a Christianity that is no Christianity at all: a malignant mutation of the gospel in which we are grasping for money, power, and status. These were Jesus's temptations in the desert. But Jesus is not that way. He said the greatest in the kingdom will be the servants of all and embodied servanthood. Kenosis. He offered himself up on behalf of his father and neighbor. My book is about what such a life might look like now; a Philippians 2 life. 

Is there anything else you'd like to mention?

I want to thank you for reading my book, and for this interview. These have been good, hard questions.

To take a look at A BEAUTIFUL DISASTER, click here.


  1. So very thankful for your life and light, Marlena. May God bless the work of your hands.

  2. Hi Susan! Thank you for your comment! Feel free to spread the word about Marlena's book by retweeting and/or sharing her interview!


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