Magazine article The Christian Century

Mission in Missouri

Magazine article The Christian Century

Mission in Missouri

Article excerpt

IN 1994, things began to look up for Milan, Missouri, a remote, rural community of 2,000 that had been struggling for years with a declining farm economy and weak job market. Premium Standard Farms (PSF), the second-largest pork production company in the U.S., opened a state-of-the-art packing plant in Milan's rural enterprise zone. Today the company raises 2 million hogs annually on 38,000 acres of rolling northwest Missouri hills, then brings them to Milan for processing.

PSF workers slaughter over 7,000 hogs a day. It's one of the most dangerous industries in the nation. Most of the workers earn $21,000 per year. After a decade of PSF operations, 22 percent of Milan's population lives below the poverty level, and the median household income is less than half the U.S. average.

Area churches have struggled to accommodate the influx of immigrant workers, hundreds of whom found jobs at the plant. Congregations began to provide for the basic needs of newcomers and challenged a local landlord who was exploiting them. This was no easy task. In the Milan area, few of the dozen scattered congregations have full-time pastors, and pastor turnover is high. Cooperation among congregations is difficult. There are cultural and racial differences--an Anglo Baptist church ended up forcing out a fledgling Hispanic congregation that it had once nurtured. There is competition for newcomers, complete indifference to them, or a tendency to offer only Band-Aid ministries that fail to address systemic conditions of poverty and low-wage employment.

Still, there have been signs of progress. From 1998 to 2004, Milan's United Methodist Church recruited a Hispanic missioner to the community and converted a residence into a "wait house" for newly arrived immigrants.

In 1995, congregations in nearby Trenton created the Renewing Rural Missouri (RRM) project, and its leaders--Hispanic and Anglo laypeople, part-time pastors and paid staff determined to take on social and economic issues. When many Hispanic residents were unable to get a driver's license because of their work schedules, RRM secured a commitment from the Highway Patrol to provide bilingual driver's license exams in the community. RRM began developing immigrant leaders, providing interpreter support in the health care system, and helping the local hospital find ways to improve interpretation services. RRM leaders are busy with other challenges: they are trying to secure transportation for immigrants who have no vehicles, addressing education issues for immigrant children in an' underfunded school district, and building relationships between all those who are affected by the environmental impact of PSF hog operations. …

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