While the national debate rages on about immigrants in the U.S. illegally, two Oak Parkers are working to defend immigrants against employers who use illegal methods to exploit them.

Rev. Jean Darling lives in Oak Park, two blocks from the Austin neighborhood, which might be a metaphor for the way she lives her life. She is, on the one hand, a highly educated woman with a seminary degree and lives in what could pass for a Frank Lloyd Wright home in Oak Park. On the other hand, she ministers at The Peoples Church in Uptown and is the 2nd Vice President of the Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues’ (CICWI) board of directors.

She inherited her lifestyle from her parents. “My dad came from a middle-class, educated family,” she said. Both his parents went to college before World War I.”

The problem for Darling was that, to her childhood eyes and ears, her father “held her mother’s parents-who were working-class folk-in some contempt. He did not really respect them.”

The interest in social and economic justice born of her childhood experience eventually led Darling to the position of volunteer producer for Labor Beat television (CAN-TV) in the late 1980s and early 1990s. In that position she first came in contact with CICWI while helping them produce a video on the Biblical underpinnings of worker justice.

“I admired many of the religious leaders we interviewed for that project,” she said. “Perhaps this was part of what moved me later to enter Meadville/Lombard Theological School.” That admiration moved Darling to invest herself in a major way as a volunteer at CICWI.

No one is ‘illegal’

Rev. C.J. Hawking, an Oak Park resident and ordained United Methodist minister, also integrates her religious beliefs with a life of service to the working poor. Responding to the national debate on illegal immigrants, Hawking declared, “No one is ‘illegal’ in the sight of God. We serve all of God’s people. The sacred scriptures of all faith traditions address God’s command to welcome the stranger and extend hospitality and assistance to all.” As the executive director of CICWI, she is in charge of overseeing the organization and fundraising.

Not everyone served by CICWI has just gotten off the boat, but the organization’s statistics reveal many are immigrants (CICWI does not ask about their clients’ legal status). Eighty-four percent are Latino, 62 percent are male, 36 percent work in manufacturing, 14 percent in landscaping, 14 percent in hospitality and 10 percent in food service.

CICWI implements its goal of addressing worker justice issues through three core programs. Darling is most involved in the Building Bridges Project. She serves on its steering committee and has edited the textbook for the pre-apprenticeship classes that comprise a key element in the program.

CICWI recognizes that low-income neighborhoods produce a large number of people without the skills to pass the math portion, in particular, of the exam to gain admission into a union trade apprenticeship. Pre-apprenticeship classes are a lot like the classes high school students take to pass the SATs. Mentors are provided to supply the emotional support and guidance that transform good intentions into productive action.

Building Bridges also organizes communities to advocate for the use of union labor in neighborhood construction sites, so that jobs are available near where they live when they complete their apprenticeships. The program, in other words, equips workers to find jobs which pay a living wage.

More than a bandaid

“It feels like more than a bandaid,” Darling said. “I like the work of CICWI, because it is practical, real and helps actual people achieve justice or gain a toehold in improving their lives in a major way. It’s really transformative.”

She cites the example of a young man who had done time in jail for drug offenses. While on probation, he completed the Building Bridges program, got an apprenticeship and is now a spokesperson for young black trade unionists.

A second CICWI core program, the Interfaith Worker Rights Center (IWRC), helps them keep those jobs and their benefits when employers abuse their workers’ rights. According to the mission statement, IWRC is a community resource for low-wage workers, both immigrant and native-born, to learn about their rights, meet other workers, partner with advocates to solve workplace problems, and strategize to improve workplace conditions.

Ann Marie Castleman came to the IWRC as an intern with Dominican Volunteers USA, the headquarters of which was until recently housed in the Dominican Priory in River Forest. She loved her work so much that after completing her 10-month commitment, she stayed on board for a second year. Her role is essentially that of a case worker, “whether that’s consulting an attorney, navigating the various government agencies that handle workplace violations and complaints, or contacting an employer directly.”

She told the story of two men who had been working 40-60 hours a week for a year and a half at a factory in Kilbourn Park, just north of the Austin neighborhood, but had never been paid overtime and only had partial records of their time sheets. Castleman responded by calling the owner, explaining that what he was doing was against the law and set up an appointment to meet with him in his office.

“A delegation of workers, staff and volunteers accompanied us to the factory officer,” said Castleman, “where the employer handed over his records, and we calculated the unpaid overtime right there in his office! He cut two checks on the spot.”

Darling said the center tries to be pastoral in its attempt to correct injustices. Often a phone call or a visit like the one Castleman described will resolve the issue. If persuasion does not work, she said, “assistance from a bunch of volunteer lawyers” helps. To date CICWI has gotten almost $2 million in back pay for workers.

Castleman said workers come to the IWRC with five basic complaints:

Wage and hour violations – Not being paid for overtime or time worked, checks that bounce. Unscrupulous employers exploit immigrant workers because they think the workers will not report them for fear of being deported.

Workplace injuries – Many employers expose immigrant workers to dangerous conditions. Latinos are three times more likely to suffer an accident or death on the job as Caucasians of African Americans.

Discrimination – This one is hard to prove.

Retaliation – Although firing employees or threatening them with a call to INS is illegal, some employers use this stick to keep workers in line.

Termination of employment – Unless discrimination can be proved, U.S. law does not now provide any recourse for workers who are fired. What the IWRC does in that case is try to determine if the employer has broken other laws.

A third core program, Faith and Labor Solidarity, coordinates support for worker-led campaigns, drawing media attention to workers’ struggles for justice.

Hawking said the “interfaith” in her organization’s name is evidenced by the variety of denominations involved: Jewish, Catholic, United Methodist, Lutheran, Spiritualist and Unitarian.

Economic justice

Darling acknowledged that CICWI sometimes doesn’t get much traction with people living outside the city. “In my conversations with some other suburbanites, there seems to be some hostility to unions, and some hostility to immigrant labor,” she said. “Economic justice seems to be just about the hardest thing for middle class people to look at. So a lot of education needs to happen.”

The way the CICWI tries to integrate spiritual values and politics is more compatible with the theology and values of the religious left. If the religious right stands for personal morals, the religious left tends to focus on social justice. Jim Wallis (God’s Politics) takes the religious left to task for what might be termed a religious taboo against mixing religion and politics by saying that until recently, “too many Democrats still wanted to restrict religion to the private sphere and were very uncomfortable with the language of faith and values even when applied to their own agenda.” Clearly, CICWI, founded in 1991, is one liberal group that is not afraid to bring God out of the closet.

Or as Hawking puts it: “We treat others the way we would want to be treated.”

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Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...