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Religious denominations aid Smithfield workers



North Carolina may have a reputation as an anti-union/work-first state, but support for workers rights' is strong among most of the state's religious denominations.

They've turned out in force in recent years to support some of the state's lowest paid and most exploited workers, ranging from housekeepers on Triangle college campuses to the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. When Smithfield Foods' employees looked for help to improve working conditions at the company's Tar Heel plant, the workers found a majority of the state's Christian denominations ready to support them.

Barbara Zelter of the N.C. Council of Churches says all 16 of the council's member denominations have formally backed the Justice at Smithfield campaign since 2003, when the council's executive board unanimously passed a resolution of support. The council also sent a letter to the Smithfield Foods' CEO affirming that the NCCC "stood with the workers" and asking the company to respond to workers' demands.

Both Raleigh's Pullen Baptist and Fayetteville's First Baptist, an African-American congregation, hosted public hearings on Smithfield workers' grievances. Raleigh's Community United Church of Christ has actively supported the Smithfield workers, as have several Presbyterian and AME Zion congregations. During a March 31 Day of Action at a Chapel Hill Harris Teeter store, religious leaders from several local denominations were on hand to pressure the grocery chain to stop carrying some Smithfield products.

The Revs. Maria Palmer and Dale Osborne of Binkley Baptist Church co-led the public witness outside of the Harris Teeter store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. The Revs. Jill and Richard Edens, co-pastors of the United Church of Chapel Hill, the Rev. Gene Hatley of Barbee's Chapel Missionary Baptist Church, and the Rev. Mark Davidson of the Presbyterian Church of Reconciliation also backed the Chapel Hill Day of Action effort.

Zelter represents the NCCC with the leadership of the Greensboro-based Southern Faith Labor and Community Alliance, a black clergy-led group that is backing Smithfield workers.

The council also offers pastors background information to use during sermons about the Smithfield struggle in its "Acts of Faith" lectionary series. The NCCC sent a brochure about why people of faith should support the Smithfield campaign to its mailing list of 2,000, Zelter says. "The Council of Churches sees all this as part of our decades-long alliance with worker and union initiatives based on the biblical vision for dignity for all and the liberation of the oppressed," she said.

Activist Lloyd Tyler dies

Longtime Raleigh peace and justice activist Lloyd Tyler died April 9 in Maryland. Tyler, 91, died just 14 months following the death of his wife, Phyllis. The pair, who were married 65 years, moved to Raleigh in 1952 and were among the area's most ardent backers of numerous causes from civil rights to nuclear disarmament.

An e-mail sent out by novelist Anne Tyler Modarressi, Lloyd and Phyllis' daughter, announced her father's death: "He died very peacefully as he was sitting over a newspaper after supper, and for that we are grateful, although we will miss him more than I can put into words."

The Tylers, who raised four children, were longtime members of Raleigh's Community United Church of Christ and the Raleigh Friends Meeting. They led interracial groups on outings to Raleigh restaurants to make sure blacks would be served after open accommodations legislation passed. In the 1970s, the Tylers accepted an American Friends Service Committee offer to work for more than two years managing preschools for Palestinian refugee children in Gaza.

"My father worked harder than anyone I've ever known to leave the world a better place than he found it," Modarressi wrote in an e-mail. "He was tireless, and fearless, but always so matter-of-fact about it. Even in the face of all that's going wrong with the world today, he maintained his optimism.  I don't expect to see his like again."

Imprisoned women

When Debbie and Dave Biesack researched statistics about women's incarceration for a Good Friday prayer service in front of Raleigh's N.C. Correctional Institution for Women, the information they discovered was unsettling.

More than 1,900 women (the largest population of any prison in the state) are incarcerated in the women's prison, well in excess of its 1,300 capacity. "North Carolina imprisons women at an alarming rate," the Biesacks wrote, noting that the state has the third-highest growth rate for incarcerating women in the country. From 1986 to 1996 alone, the number of women sentenced to state prison for drug crimes increased tenfold.

"This has a destructive impact on families," they wrote, adding that approximately 36,000 minor children, about 2 percent of the state's children, have a parent in prison. "Tragically, North Carolina has no special facilities for pregnant inmates, nor does it provide in-prison accommodations for newborns, infants, or young children.

"Imprisonment takes a disturbing toll on mental health. Seven of 10 women in prison show clinical depression," they wrote. "Two of every seven with depression meet the criteria for major depression. Studies show that women in prison need frequent visits from family and friends to maintain positive mental health. However, under normal circumstances, the women in this prison are allowed no more than one visit per week."

Activists honored

Jim and Jane Hunt protest an execution outside Central Prison. They were given an enlargement of the photo when honored last month by N.C. Peace Action. - PHOTO BY SCOTT LANGLEY
  • Photo by Scott Langley
  • Jim and Jane Hunt protest an execution outside Central Prison. They were given an enlargement of the photo when honored last month by N.C. Peace Action.

Longtime Unitarian Universalist peace activists Jim and Jane Hunt and activist Bill Towe were honored April 25 by N.C. Peace Action for "their commitment to the cause of peace with justice."

A former Shaw University professor, Jim Hunt is a retired UU minister who wrote several books on the life of Indian peace activist Mohandas K. Gandhi and was a founder of Raleigh's Amnesty International chapter. The Hunts are members of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh. Jane was honored in part for her work spearheading the effort to expose North Carolina's connection to extraordinary rendition. She founded N.C. Stop Torture Now.

The Hunts "day by day really live their lives with integrity," Cheryl Johnson said in her introduction of the couple. "Gandhi said, 'You must be the change you want to see in the world.' That is what the Hunts live."

Towe, who is Peace Action state coordinator, was honored for "being a workaholic for peace." A native of Wilson, Towe passed up an opportunity to join his family's thriving insurance business to work for civil rights and against the Vietnam War. In his acceptance speech, Towe decried nationalism and the U.S. empire.

"Nationalism ... I just have a hard time accepting it," he said. "I'm a citizen of the universe. Nationalism and religion are a dangerous mix....The American empire is on a climb, and it will fall. Your responsibility as peacemakers is to minimize the damage it does."

Upcoming events

Longtime civil and human rights activist Mahdi Bray will be the headliner June 2 for a panel discussion that will examine U.S. Middle East policy and its impact on U.S.-Muslim relations. Bray is executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Muslim American Society's Freedom Foundation (MAS Freedom) and former president of the Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations.

The public event will be at the Herbert Young Community Center (101 Wilkinson Ave., Cary) from 1 to 4 p.m. Also on the panel will be peace activist Ibrahim Ramey, who previously served as the non-nuclear proliferation chief of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, one of the United States' oldest peace organizations.

"We are calling for a faith and freedom convocation with the focus being extraordinary renditions, torture, secret prisons, hearsay evidence, indefinite detentions, elimination of habeas corpus and denial of counsel," says Khalilah Sabra, head of the N.C. chapter of MAS Freedom. For information, contact

  • The Iron Wall by Mohammed Alatar will be the featured film Saturday, May 12, for the monthly dessert potluck of Triangle Tikkun, the Jewish social justice group. Dessert and a havdalah service (marking the end of the Sabbath) are at 7 p.m. with the film at 7:30 at 1013 Green St., Durham. National Tikkun and the Network of Spiritual Progressives also offer an ethical end to the war in Iraq. For more info, call 688-0077 or visit the Triangle Tikkun Web site at

  • Life as Art Productions (LAAP) will offer a concert of African Spirituals Freedom Prayers on May 18 at St. Joseph's Performance Hall at the Hayti Heritage Center (804 Old Fayetteville St., Durham) at 7 p.m. Cost is $10 adults, $5 children. Info: African Spirituals Freedom Prayers will also perform at the Bimbe Cultural Arts Festival on Saturday, May 19. Info:

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