Filmgoers get up-close look at poverty

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Filmgoers get up-close look at poverty

By J.A. Buchholz | June 25, 2010 {1189}

LAKELAND — The lights were off, and members of the audience were captive in their seats as they watched stories unfold on the screen.

What’s that tomato or coffee bean worth? Members find out watching “Reality of Poverty in the U.S. and World Shared on Film.” Photo by Angie Bechanan. Photo #10-1489. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

They weren’t watching the latest summer comedy or action-packed thriller, however. Instead, they were being educated about an issue that affects billions of people and some right in their own backyards.

The film series “Reality of Poverty in the U.S. and World Shared on Film” was shown June 9 at the Lakeland Center as a precursor to the 2010 Florida Annual Conference Event.

The pieces were selected to make people think about the hands that picked those ripe tomatoes on that refreshing summer salad they had that afternoon or the high quality coffee beans that made that perfectly brewed cup of coffee they had that morning.

The Rev. David Berkey, executive director of the conference’s camps and retreat ministries, facilitated the film showing, which provided glimpses into the worlds of agriculture farm workers in Florida and coffee bean pickers in Ethiopia, people who must often survive on less than minimum wage.

Abuse in the fields

The first segment was a television report by the late CBS newsman Ed Bradley Jr. exposing the tactics one man used to recruit workers to toil in Florida’s tomato fields.

The men were not paid a fair wage, and many ended the workweek owing the corrupt camp managers money for purchases of beer, alcohol, cigarettes and other, sometimes illegal, pursuits.

Their living quarters were squalid. The shower was filthy, with only a board to stand on, instead of a shower floor. The board was so decrepit walking on it became a hazard. Bradley went through it during the segment.

The point of the film was to help people in the pews begin to connect their faith to their food. Brigitte Gynther wants church members to step back and evaluate their purchases.

Gynther, who works with Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida, told participants that loving their sisters and brothers includes using their voices to ensure that agricultural workers are protected from physical abuse, earn a fair wage and are not exposed to harmful chemicals used on produce.

After the film, Gynther asked the group to stand with farm workers by putting pressure on grocery store chains that purchase produce from farms that do not support fair wages or safe working conditions.

It’s just so much that we take for granted. It’s a terrible situation for those who pick the tomatoes and grow the coffee beans. They work so hard. I never knew they worked so hard to get the product to us.

Sharon Butler, First United Metodist Church, Sanford

Poverty of the bean

The next film, “Black Gold Wake Up and Smell the Coffee,” followed Tadesse Meskela as he works to help make the lives of 74,000 Ethiopian coffee farmers on the brink of losing their farms better.

While the farmers harvest and produce some of the highest quality coffee beans on the international market, buyers do not pay a fair price for it, forcing coffee bean growers to survive on 50 cents a day.

The film contends that large multi-national companies like Kraft, Nestle and Starbucks play a part in the difficulties remote villages face, such as having to close a school because residents are financially unable support it when the fair market value of their coffee is so low. Meanwhile, coffee lovers across the world pay a premium for any number of coffee derivatives from the 2 billion cups sold daily.

The film follows Meskela as he crisscrosses the globe on behalf of the farmers, who, as viewers learned toward the end of the film, are destroying their coffee fields in favor of planting narcotic producing crops that bring in more money for the village.

Many villagers were shown visiting a therapeutic feeding center because they could no longer afford to feed themselves.

Turning faith into action

One organization that lobbies on behalf of those living in abject poverty is Bread for the World.

Bread for the World helps churches, individuals and groups organize to change policies and programs that allow hunger to persist in the United States and abroad.

Following the film, a representative from Bread for the World encouraged viewers to send letters to members of Congress, speaking out on the behalf of the needs of hungry and poor people.

A representative with Imagine No Malaria, an initiative of The United Methodist Church to raise $75 million to eliminate malaria deaths in Africa by 2015, also spoke, sharing statistics about the disease’s effects.

Brigitte Gynther, with the Rev. David Berkey, asks members to take the unfair practices many workers endure into consideration when making food purchases and put pressure on large grocery chains to buy only from farms that provide safe working conditions and fair wages. Photo by Angie Bechanan. Photo #10-1490. Click on picture for larger photo or view in photo gallery with longer description.

Malaria is a leading killer of children in Africa, preventing one in five African children from reaching their fifth birthday. Ninety percent of the 1 million people who die from malaria each year live in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite those grim statistics, malaria is preventable, treatable and beatable.

The impact of the films wasn’t lost on the Rev. Fred Ball.

Ball, pastor at Memorial United Methodist Church in Lake Placid, said both films were informative, but the first one made a bigger impression on him because it reminded him of the family-owned farms in his community. He said those farms are better operated than the one depicted in the film.

“I think there should be better regulation,” Ball said. “I am in favor of family-owned farms. They use fair labor from sanctioned labor pools.”

Bev Rowe, a member at Christ United Methodist Church in Venice, said she had no idea about the conditions agricultural laborers experience on a daily basis.

“I think they should have decent living conditions and make the right money,” she said.

Sharon Butler was also shocked by what she saw in the films.

“It’s just so much that we take for granted,” said Butler, a member at First United Methodist Church in Sanford. “It’s a terrible situation for those who pick the tomatoes and grow the coffee beans. They work so hard. I never knew they worked so hard to get the product to us.”

In an interview with e-Review after the annual conference event, Berkey said he didn’t want people to feel guilty about their consumption, but to connect it to their faith by caring about the people around the globe who make products in sometimes horrible conditions.

If 11 million United Methodists stood together and demanded a fair wage, decent housing and living conditions, he said, the world would “truly be their parish, proving that every member of the human race matters.” By doing so, Berkey said, people of faith would not only ease the suffering of millions, but also stand on the principles of what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.

“There are things we can do by changing our lifestyles that can alleviate poverty in other parts of the world,” Berkey said. “The stories and films shown weren’t meant to overwhelm or make people feel guilty. We just wanted to show that even the smallest thing can make a big difference.”

Links for more information

Interfaith Action of Southwest Florida

Bread for the World

Imagine No Malaria

Coffee grower conditions

News media contact: Tita Parham, 800-282-8011,, Orlando
*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Buchholz is a freelance writer based in Seffner, Fla.

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