Advocate, organizer, activist -- one priest's life

Posted: Friday, March 02, 2001

GEORGETOWN, Del. (AP) -- The Rev. Jim Lewis stands with an imaginary glass in one hand, the other hand shoved into the pocket of his khakis.

''This is the image so many people have of the Episcopal priest,'' he said. ''A glass of sherry in their hand, in the parlor.''

Lewis, a 65-year-old former Marine, is anything but that wine-sipping clergyman. And he hopes that his life's work will bring other clerics to the places he has been -- among the poor, the hungry, the desperate.

Soup kitchens, prisons and racially divided neighborhoods are common ground for clergy, but Lewis also has trod -- loudly -- where others have dared not.

Earlier in his life he drew fire for blessing gay couples in his West Virginia parish, and for battling fundamentalists seeking to remove textbooks considered blasphemous from public school shelves.

For the last seven years, Lewis has pitched himself against the poultry business, the most powerful industry in southern Delaware and the neighboring Eastern Shore of Maryland.

He has organized poultry workers into unions, publicized woeful working conditions inside chicken processing plants and triggered government investigations into the environmental and labor practices of major companies like Perdue Farms Inc. and Tyson Foods. Industry critics say he simply seeks publicity, but others praise him.

''Jim Lewis has been a longtime supporter and fighter for workers' rights in this area,'' said Al Vincent, poultry coordinator for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. ''Jim Lewis fights day in and day out.''

Lewis' explanation for his work: ''Where people are being crucified, that's where the church needs to be.''

The work has had costs for Lewis, who was born and raised in Baltimore. His life has been threatened, and he was once warned by a church elder that his phone was being tapped.

Now he is planning a return to Charleston, W.Va., where he started his life as a priest in 1974, and it is unlikely that the Sussex County Mission -- Lewis' ''church without walls'' here -- will continue after he leaves later this year.

''This kind of work, it's not like handing out free chickens or free turkeys,'' Lewis said. ''It's controversial work. I'm not talking about charity. I'm talking about justice.''

It was Lewis who proposed the seven-year mission and convinced the Episcopal Diocese of Wilmington that it needed to be done.

Judith Viar, business manager for the diocese, acknowledged, ''There's only one Jim Lewis, and the question becomes, once you know you can't replace him, where do you go from there?''

The mission's work will continue, she said, ''but not necessarily in the same shape.''

Equipped with seed money and the backing of the Episcopal church, Lewis set up shop in the county seat of Georgetown -- a small town surrounded by chicken houses -- and started talking to poultry workers who complained of poor pay, dangerous work and unpaid overtime.

He spoke to the family farmers, who raise the chickens under contract for the big poultry companies, and heard complaints of underweight feed shipments and sick hatchlings.

He looked at the waters of the rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay and the inland bays of southern Delaware, fouled with algae blooms linked to the nutrients in chicken waste.

''We're talking about systemic problems, economic justice issues, the corporate farming and agribusiness that just rolls over people here,'' Lewis said.

''I've learned that conflict is not only critical to making change, it is also important to my faith,'' Lewis said. ''The cross is a sign of conflict. Jesus was put to death, and it wasn't for handing out bread on the streets.''

Lewis made enough noise to draw the U.S. Department of Labor, which in a January report to the U.S. Senate listed wage, safety and child-labor law violations in the poultry industry.

He has been labeled a publicity hound by some, including his opponents in the poultry industry.

After Lewis refused to leave the lobby of the Mountaire Farms Inc. plant in Selbyville, Del., prior to a union vote among its workers, Mountaire executives called police and filed a criminal trespass complaint. Lewis was arrested.

''Jim came here seeking publicity, came into the building and wanted to have meetings or something with our employees,'' said Dave Tanner, Mountaire's human resources director.

''Jim was basically seeking publicity for himself,'' Tanner said.

Lewis denies it.

''The role of the church is to be out there with the folks to get their stories told,'' he said. ''I'll make as much noise as possible to get those stories told.''

End Adv for Friday, March 2

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