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OFF THE SCENE: Freedom Sunday

April 1, 2011
Sunday, March 13, was Freedom Sunday, an effort by many faith traditions, and denominations within, to draw attention to slavery, human trafficking and bondage. In Keene, Milton Dudley, the pastor of the Keene Valley Congregational Church, asked Martha Swan and me to lead a service based on that theme.

Martha, a school teacher at Newcomb Central and resident of Westport, is the founder and director of John Brown Lives!, which has been instrumental in reviving the once annual gatherings held at John Brown’s Farm on his birthday, initially led by the Philadelphia branch of the NAACP. Author Russell Banks, who has a home in Keene, launched that effort, which was especially moving for me; I remember when I was a child the busloads of African Americans filling our motel, and those near us each May, and going out to the Farm with them, listening to the speeches and hearing Placidian Charlie Walker sing.

A year ago Martha and I along with Bob Bullock, director of the New York State Archive Partnership Trust; Brendan Mills, site manager of the Farm; Jim McKenna, and ably assisted by the ROOST staff, organized the 150th commemoration of Brown’s death — an event that brought home to us that slavery was far, far from over. Indeed in the past 20 years it is resurging and has become the fastest growing form of civil rights abuse in the world with over 27 million living in slavery, nine million of whom are children. We also learned that 15-18,000 people are brought in and sold into slavery in our own country each year, and that New York state, along with Florida, Texas and California are where slavery is most present in the United States.

The reading we selected for the service was from the New Testament Matthew 4:1-11, the Temptation of Christ; it describes how after 40 days and nights of fasting in the desert, when he was very weak with hunger, the Devil tempted Christ in three ways, all of which he resisted. We tied in how our own temptations for cheap goods, food out of season and, for some, sex with prostitutes and young people, has resulted in, and is, driving slavery worldwide. The point being our actions fuel this illicit trade of human degradation, but on the other hand that same approach can be used to stop it.

Our demand for cheap goods causes major chains to put pressure on suppliers to reduce costs forcing distant manufacturers to cut corners to meet low purchase demands. What makes it possible for them to supply very low cost goods is cheap labor — in increasing numbers —slave labor. Millions of men, women and children around the world are forced to lead lives as slaves. Although this exploitation is often not called slavery, the conditions are the same. People are sold like objects, forced to work for little or no pay and are at the mercy of their “employers.”

Easter being soon on us, Martha and I decided to raise the issue of chocolate, which is nearly synonymous with this annual joyous celebration. Seventy percent of the world’s cocoa beans come from West Africa, and 43 percent from just the nation of Cote d’Ivoire, where young boys whose ages range from 12 to 16 have been sold into slave labor and are forced to work in cocoa farms in order to harvest the beans, from which chocolate is made. Most of the boys come from neighboring Mali, where agents hang around bus stations looking for children that are alone or are begging for food. They lure the kids to travel to Cote d’Ivoire with them, and then the traffickers sell the children to farmers in need of cheap labor.

The children work 14 to 18 hour days. They do not receive wages, adequate medical care, clothing, and food, and are often the recipients of corporeal punishment. The existence of misery in one part of the world and joy in another part are no longer divorced as nations are connected together in a globalized web of trade.

We are not, however, powerless. Many major corporations, like McDonalds, Starbucks and Home Depot, have used their purchasing clout to improve conditions for distant workers or reduce the destruction of the environment. In this instance, simply look for the Fair Trade seal on the chocolate you purchase, and support those manufacturers.

Write to Hershey’s, Mars, Dove, Nestle and other major firms and demand that they only purchase Fair Trade cocoa — cocoa that has been traced to its source to be free of slave labor and where farmer’s are paid a fair price for their products. Locally, the Candyman products meet this standard.

“We find that once children know the truth about where their chocolate comes from they want to do something to change the situation,” said Swan.

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