Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of five columns written by Ron Byler, Mennonite Central Committee U.S. executive director, to mark 100 […]
Police arrested nine protesters on April 5 at the Cargill poultry plant in Dayton, Virginia. The protesters chose the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination to attempt to take a petition with hundreds of signatures to Cargill management. The protesters, referred to as the Cargill Nine, had an agreement to deliver the petition to company management, but the company backed out at the last minute.
The petition asked Cargill to give jobs back to three workers who the protestors say were unjustly terminated. Ten folks from my home church, a Virginia Mennonite Conference congregation, signed the petition. Four of those arrested and released from jail are members of Mennonite Church USA congregations in the Harrisonburg area.
When the nine appeared on April 27 in Rockingham County Court, the judge found two of them guilty and ordered them to pay a $50 fine and court costs. The remaining seven, including my 25-year-old son, were required to pay court costs, put on probation and ordered to stay off the Cargill property for a year. After they complete probation, the case could be dismissed, the judge said.
The Cargill Nine are helping many in the Shenandoah Valley learn more about the difficult working conditions in poultry factories and the company’s resistance to any kind of organization by workers, who are often recent immigrants.
Part of the significance of the Cargill Nine for me is that my extended family has been reflecting on the story of our grandfather, John J. Yoder, who refused to wear a uniform and cooperate with the U.S. military during World War I.
In March 1918, John was drafted. He was among some 2,300 Amish, Mennonite, Brethren and Hutterite men who refused to cooperate with the U.S. government. John was beaten and placed in a sweatbox in order to break his will. An Amish farmer with an eight grade education, John had learned the way of peace, and he stood firm. After the war, John and Emma had a dozen children, one of whom is my mother. John and Emma’s sons, my uncles, were conscientious objectors in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
In reflecting on the meaning of John’s story 100 years later, it dawned on me that my son’s courage to step off the sidewalk at the Cargill factory, with the police waiting in force, was somewhat like the courage of his great-grandfather John in World War I. Both resisted the powers, and while John J. Yoder’s life was at risk from the officers’ brutality and his great-grandson’s life was not at risk, it also took courage for the petitioners to step off the public sidewalk, confront the powers and speak for voiceless workers in a giant corporation, knowing they would be arrested for doing so.
Menno Simons used an ancient metaphor in his Foundation Book that describes the body of Christ as being made up of many grains of wheat. Most conscientious objectors 100 years ago cooperated with the U.S. government, though a small group of men kept the grains of absolutism alive in the bread loaf of Anabaptist community and refused to cooperate with the U.S. military. My grandfather John bequeathed to me the courage to resist the powers when necessary.
My son and the Cargill Nine have given me new resolve to speak up for the marginalized in the Shenandoah Valley. For what purpose do the grains of resistance in the Anabaptist tradition serve but to speak on behalf of strangers in our midst. As the gospels instruct, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me in.”
 John J. Yoder’s story of conscientious objection during WWI can be read in Through Fire and Water, Herald Press, Loewen and Nolt, 2010, pages 15-17.
 Complete Writings of Menno Simons, Herald Press, 1984, p. 145.
Elwood Yoder teaches history and Bible at Eastern Mennonite High School, Harrisonburg, Virginia, and attends Zion Mennonite Church, Broadway, Virginia.
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