Meatpacking America | John Turner


Sometimes it seems Americans are exceptionally good at hating themselves. Red / blue, secular / evangelical, vaxxed / anti-vaxxed, name it, here we go. Media of all kinds encourage feeding these tropes and stoking these fires. And although I mainly use it to discuss new college books, everyone tells me that social media is a cesspool of hate and abuse.

And even. Most of us are not full of hate, even those with different opinions about masks and vaccines. Most of us are not that bad at getting along with our neighbors, or at least coexisting peacefully with them. There are many reasons to be hopeful and optimistic.

And qualify. Scholars love nuances, but others should embrace them as well. I recently presented Nicholas Pruitt’s book on Protestants and Immigration in the Twentieth Century. In addition to documenting the wide range of shifting views White Protestants had on immigration and immigrants, Pruitt presented key ministries that took Jesus’ command to welcome the stranger seriously.

What’s new today? In his thought and moving Meatpacking America, Kristy Nabhan-Warren scratches beneath the surface of Red State, a small American town, to tell a story that is both depressing and encouraging. She takes two groups of Americans seriously. First, the refugees “who have migrated and settled and who persist, despite many obstacles, in many lives for themselves in the Midwest Corn Belt”. A necessary point of clarification. It refers “to all brown and black women and men who come to America for a better life as refugees, whether or not they have officially been granted refugee status from the US government. They are fleeing poverty, violence and death. His other subjects are “people who have been overlooked and stereotyped by the mainstream media: the white Iowans.” Indeed, the two groups are the frequent subjects of caricature and derision.

I particularly like the way Nabhan-Warren frames the “sticky window of whiteness”. Many of his white subjects tolerate “The presence of refugees in their community”, but at the same time, “wish things could be what they imagine to be“ as they were before ”- white and predictable”. As she puts it, this kind of racial nostalgia coexists with the “belief that whiteness is superior,” but Nabhan-Warren concludes that the perspective of Midwestern whites deserves more attention. They voted for Donald Trump and others who espoused hateful rhetoric, but themselves “are not the angry white racists their votes would suggest.”

Meatpacking America is not for the faint of heart. Nabhan-Warren – who reveals she’s been a vegetarian for thirty years – spent a week observing workers at Iowa Premium Beef in Tama, Iowa. This fieldwork produced the most moving and heartbreaking chapter of the book. His observations began with the inspection of newly arrived live cattle and their slaughter:

It was like a sacred moment. I found myself whispering a sweet prayer of thanks to this creature, whose life was taken to feed people. Tears rolled down my face and I felt my throat tighten in sympathy and empathy for this animal. His meat would end up on a plate somewhere, and I pray that whoever tasted the meat of that steer or that heifer would give thanks too.

Nabhan-Warren’s discussion of the factory’s blood, guts and stench is heartbreaking, but his assessment of its workers – white, Latino, Congolese, Vietnamese – is inspiring. The workers “look like ninja warriors of the meat – sawing, slicing, cutting and packing to precise and clean measurements.” In particular, it corrects the idea that the conditioning of meat is “unskilled labor”. “This is highly skilled work,” she says. It is also very hard work. “Most of the professional white-collar women and men I know,” she notes, “would have a hard time doing the work that is done in factories like IPB. It’s a shame that many Americans don’t like and appreciate the immigrants and refugees who do this hard work.

Nabhan-Warren also spent time visiting churches in rural Iowa. She attended St. Joseph’s Parish in Columbus Junction for a year. This is a snapshot of Catholic parishes in many parts of the country: a decreasing number of worshipers at Mass in English and a booming crowd at Mass in Spanish. Joseph Sia, an American priest of Filipino descent, chairs the two groups, which rarely intermingle. (One of my favorite details in the book is about a white American priest, Bernie Weir, who, after struggling to communicate with his Spanish-speaking parishioners, spent two weeks at a language school in Guadalajara run by the Sisters of humility). Latino Catholics are the salvation of these parishes, but salvation sometimes feels like a displacement for white parishioners who were themselves religious outsiders in largely Protestant communities.

But Nabhan-Warren also finds and analyzes religion outside of church buildings. It is in the homes of Latino refugees who pray to Our Lady for the safety of their families. It’s in a small corner of a meat-packing factory where two Sudanese women lay their prayer rugs five times a day – when supervisors allow – and turn “a horrible place into a beautiful place.” She also attends the evangelical ‘servant leadership’ and paternalism talk embraced by the Meat Wrapper leadership, where CEOs, supervisors and chaplains urge their employees to ‘celebrate their faith’ at work. She portrays Joe Blay, a Congo-born AME chaplain at Tyson Fresh Meats in Columbus Junction. Tyson employs 115 chaplains in his many factories, who “work hard to make a place that is deeply profane… a place that is sacred”.

At the beginning of Meatpacking America, Nabhan-Warren shares that her book “began as a focus on White Catholics and Latino Catholics and has grown into a more complex and complex story of women and men seeking refuge in Iowa.” Yet I wonder how an ethnography of Corn Belt evangelism would be both similar and different from the largely Catholic stories it tells. Do Evangelical White Iowans have different views on immigrants and refugees than their White Catholic counterparts? Nabhan-Warren spent time in parishes in which white and Spanish-speaking parishioners shared buildings, even though they attended separate masses. How often do white and Latino – or African – evangelicals share sacred spaces? Or worship together?

Meatpacking America ends with the author’s fervent hope “that we may come to a point in our country where whites are not only becoming tolerant or even comfortable with the new demographic realities, but accepting the new American pluralism and all the beauty and the joy it brings to our communities. The communities where refugees live owe much of their prosperity to the hard work these women and men do for rural America and America’s economies. Instead of vilifying them, we should be grateful for their presence and for the many ways in which they enrich our places of worship, our schools and the community at large. Amen.

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