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Angels in Lakeland, FL

Lakeland will have some important visitors this weekend. The whole city - and especially the executives of Lakeland’s (and Florida’s) number one corporation - need to choose how they’ll be welcomed.

Who are these visitors? They are ambassadors of a sort.

They don’t represent a nation like China or Brazil or Greece. Nor do they represent a religion - Buddhism or Islam or Roman Catholicism. These guests to Lakeland, traveling 200 miles on foot as an expression of their desire to make meaningful contact, represent a group of people whom our nation - and our state - and key citizens of the city of Lakeland - have not, until now, treated with human dignity and respect.

I understand that the 1,342nd wealthiest member of the human race lives in Lakeland, but these guests are from the opposite end of the socio-economic spectrum, the bottom of the pyramid instead of the top.

On Saturday, March 16, these ambassadors will march down South Florida Avenue. They’ll be welcomed at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church by Bishop John Noonan.

From there, they will march by Subway, McDonald’s, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and Taco Bell - among 51 businesses in Lakeland whose top executives have shown respect to these honored guests. When you do business with these establishments, you can take pride in the fact that they have not turned away these guests in disgrace, but rather, have welcomed them with open arms.

On Sunday March 17, these guests will march to the headquarters of Publix. Publix is an important and beloved company in Florida, highly respected in many ways, but in this one way, Publix is an embarrassment to Lakeland and to Florida. On each of their previous visits, Publix has refused to meet with the guests who will come again in hopes of being welcomed on March 17.

Publix is widely praised for its charitable donations, as it should be. But Publix is widely questioned for its refusal to meet with the farmworkers by whose labor Publix, Lakeland, and the State of Florida realize sizable profits. It’s good to show generosity with a portion of your profits, but it’s even better to be sure that those profits are gained in an ethical and exemplary way, and that’s what the farmworkers - Lakeland’s guests on March 16-17 - will be asking.

Publix officials have repeatedly given three reasons for their refusal to meet with the farmworkers - all of which are either misinformed or misleading. If they meet with the guests this weekend, they will discover that the Fair Food Program advocated by these ambassadors perfectly addresses each of their concerns.

They would learn that the Fair Food Program is already working with many of retailers like theirs. In fact, over $8 million has already been distributed to workers, paid by retailers to the farms, who then in turn pass it on to workers as a bonus in each check. They would learn that far from being a “labor dispute,” the Fair Food Program is a kind of covenantal partnership between 90% of Florida’s tomato growers, 11 multi-billion-dollar retailers, and 30,000 of the state’s hardest working people. Through this partnership, without government intrusion, business leaders and workers are working together to reduce poverty and abuse - including recent cases of modern-day slavery. Why would a respected company like Publix want to miss out on that any longer?

Last year around this time, these guests came to Lakeland - I was with them too - to participate in a fast in front of Publix headquarters. Bishop Noonan shared these words of blessing and welcome with the guests:  "The challenge for all of God's people is to work to create the reality of the kingdom right here, right now.... We pray for Publix corporate leaders that God will inspire them to work in collaboration with the Immokalee Workers to advance the rights of agricultural workers. We pray for all who labor that during this season of Lent, justice will be achieved through just wages and that the dignity and rights of those who work to bring food to our tables be respected.  May we continue to build the Kingdom of God by satisfying the hunger and thirst of the many who depend on our compassion and action."

The Bible is full of stories of people not appreciating or properly welcoming visitors. In their welcome of visitors, the New Testament says, people have sometimes “entertained angels unawares.” Let’s hope that Publix, and all of Lakeland, will give these guests - who will arrive this weekend on sore feet and weary legs, but with full hearts and open hands - the warm and respectful welcome they deserve.