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Farm workers gain some ardent allies

These are no rabble-rousers, these people out to help farm workers and their unions. These are classic churchgoing women.

Yet these folks, most of them retired and some over 80 years old, are out there on the picket lines and lobbying legislators for progressive action.

They are members of the Clearwater Support Committee of the National Farm Worker Ministry, which tries to make life better for the people who pick fruit and harvest vegetables across the country. The members say their faith sustains them.

"Sometimes it's like beating your head against the wall, because it's not always a popular issue," said Frances Steward, 83, who founded the Clearwater Support Committee in 1983. "But if there is any group of people who need assistance, it is farm workers."

The Clearwater committee has about 200 members countywide; more than 50 usually attend the monthly meetings, said Erma Ellement, a steering committee member. Clearwater's chapter is the most active of six such groups in Florida, said Roberta Perry, state director of the National Farm Worker Ministry.

Arturo Rodriguez, national president of United Farm Workers, the nation's largest union of farm workers, spoke to the Clearwater committee this week as part of a fund-raiser.

So what gives? Why all the attention to the farm worker issue by a group in urbanized Pinellas County?

The answer, the women say, is religion.

"Our Christian belief is that we should help people who are in need," said Mrs. Steward, a member of First United Methodist Church in Clearwater. "And very few of them get a wage in any way comparable to what our lowest-paid workers get."

The group grew out of the Central Pinellas chapter of Church Women United, an interdenominational organization with a history of helping farm workers. Mostly, the help involved donating food and clothes.

But it became clear over the years that farm workers had a greater need for power than for beef stew, Steward said. The National Farm Worker Ministry tries to empower farm workers by helping them help themselves.

So now _ responding to the wishes of workers themselves _ the Clearwater Support Committee writes legislators to try to change a state law to give farm workers better information about pesticides used in the fields. And they raise money to fight for contracts for workers in Central Florida citrus fields. "My religion teaches me I have to do what is necessary to be done to help people," Steward said.

While that approach may help farm workers, it is, by its nature, political. And some churches prefer to stay out of politics. Others see the farm worker issue as too radical for their congregations, Perry said. "Some of the fundamentalist folks we'll never get as supporters."

It was and still is a controversial and painful transition between donating clothes and active advocacy, Perry said.

About 10 denominations are involved in the Clearwater committee, among them Catholics, Presbyterians, Lutherans and Catholics.