Workers trim beef at the Tyson Fresh Meats plant in Dakota City, Nebraska, in 2012. (Keith Myers/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)

In the Heartland, things are changing. Over the past century, the expansion of the meatpacking industry in rural areas has created high demand for workers willing to perform difficult and dangerous jobs. In recent years, these positions have been filled mostly by migrants, asylees, and refugees seeking some measure of stability and security in the United States. As they have arrived, the longtime residents have also had to adapt, resulting in a story of survival, change, resistance, and religion. In her new book, Meatpacking America: How Migration, Work, and Faith Unite and Divide the Heartland, Kristy Nabhan-Warren documents this transformation. It is driven, she writes, by “the conjoined passions of religious faith and desire to work hard for one’s children and grandchildren in order to achieve a slice of heaven on earth.”

Nabhan-Warren is the V.O. and Elizabeth Kahl Figge Chair of Catholic Studies at the University of Iowa, where she teaches in the departments of religious studies and gender, women’s and sexuality studies. She is the author, previously, of The Cursillo Movement in America: Catholics, Protestants, and Fourth-Day Spirituality. In her latest book, she examines the changing demographics and dynamics of the Midwest and the Plains states during the present era of immigration. Eric C. Miller spoke with Nabhan-Warren about the book over Zoom. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Religion & Politics: How important is the meatpacking industry to the economies of Heartland states like Iowa?

Kristy Nabhan-Warren: Incredibly important. In the 1960s and 70s, the meatpacking industry moved from urban bases like Chicago out to small towns and rural settings in states like Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska. They did this for a number of reasons, from cutting costs to preventing unionization among their workers. In Columbus Junction, Iowa, where I did a lot of my fieldwork, the meatpacking plant is the economic lifeblood of the community, for better and for worse. The plants have revitalized towns that once were struggling, but they have done so by polluting the air, the water, the land, and the bodies of the people who live there, all while killing tens of thousands of animals every day. It’s a complicated story. I didn’t intend to demonize the industry, but I didn’t want to let it off the hook either.

R&P: What goes on in these plants, and who does the work?

 KNW: When I started this project, the working title was Cornbelt Catholicism. I was really focused on parishes in rural Iowa and how these places are changing with the arrival of migrants from Africa, Asia, and Central America. When folks think about Iowa, they probably imagine a population of White farmers. But what’s really fascinating—and what ultimately changed the course of my project—is that meatpacking plants, specifically, have become an engine of diversification in the Midwest and on the Plains. When you walk into one of them, you hear a variety of languages being spoken. The first time I walked into the Tyson plant in Columbus Junction, the first thing I saw was an enormous sign stating “welcome” in fifteen languages. It is obvious, right away, that White folks are a minority in that building. The majority are Brown and Black folks from Central America and Africa.

Refugees—and in the book I refer to all of the immigrants as refugees, regardless of their legal status, because they have all fled a certain kind of violence—perform all sorts of jobs within the plant. On the slaughter side, also called the “hot side,” they cut, slice, and trim fat before the carcass goes to the chiller. Some jobs are gendered as trimmers who use whizzer electric knives tend to be women. The sawing of carcasses tends to be done by men. They are “hide rippers,” “kidney poppers,” “de-jowlers,” and they burn the hair from the sows to give them the clean pink piggy look. In short, they do difficult, dirty, dangerous jobs and at a very fast pace. Refugees who work on the fabrication or “cold” side dissect the de-hided carcass into the various cuts of meat that we find in supermarkets. Others work in the distribution centers, or as translators. Refugees literally run the plants, and without their labor, meat would not be served on tables across the United States and around the globe.

I learned in the course of my research that the rural Midwest is much more complicated than most people assume. When we put in the time and do the work—and I should note that I did my fieldwork over more than six years—we can see that these are dynamic places where refugees, migrants, and asylees from all over the world are coming together to find work and provide for their families. Their presence is changing the face of the Heartland.

R&P: How are religious traditions tied up in this work?

KNW: One of my goals with this book was to demonstrate how workers in meatpacking plants bring their faith to work with them—often in the form of material objects like rosaries and scapulars, or inscribed in their bodies through tattoos, and many of them incorporate prayer into their work routines because their jobs are very dangerous. At Iowa Premium Beef, another site where I did fieldwork, there is a group of Sudanese Muslim women who have cleaned a small area in the locker room where they go a couple times during a shift to pray. They perform ablutions in the sink, they cleanse themselves, they unroll their prayer rugs, and they say their prayers. In these ways, individuals are able to craft meaning in a really violent, bloody, profane place.

Another thing that fascinated but also troubled me was that Tyson has the largest chaplaincy program of any company in the United States. Every one of their plants has a chaplain, whose responsibilities include counseling workers, taking them to the doctor when they get hurt, and serving as a sort of spiritual guru. That program is part of a larger effort at companies like Tyson—Bethany Moreton documents this really well in her book about Wal-Mart—to implement a corporate religious lexicon from the top down. I try to show how religion permeates the plant from the grassroots, originating with a diverse group of workers, as well as from the CEOs, CFOs, and the managerial class, who promote a business-oriented version of evangelical Christianity.

R&P: How have the Protestant and Catholic descendants of past European immigrants reacted to the influx of religiously and racially diverse immigrants in the present?

KNW: In many ways, they’re vexed. They’re pleased that their formerly crumbling downtowns are being revitalized, but they’re not necessarily happy that the revitalization is driven by Latinos, Africans, and Burmese people. I start the book with a deep dive into the biography of Corinne Hargrafen, who is now in her 90s, of Irish-German Catholic ancestry, has lived in Iowa all of her life, and is typical of a lot of older, White Iowans in that she is pretty fearful of going downtown now that so much of the population is Brown and Black. And yet, she tries hard to engage in some intercultural dialogue at her parish. With her story, I try to paint a portrait of the White Midwesterner who goes to church, who tries her best, but who no longer really feels at home in the new Midwest. I also offer portraits, through the stories of several recent refugees, of the immigrant who comes to America to escape poverty or violence, is grateful for safety and opportunity in Iowa, but who doesn’t quite feel at home either, because the locals seem so suspicious and unwelcoming. Those refugees coming from Latin America, especially, have become a dominant presence in Catholic parishes, but they are constantly being reminded by White parishioners that the Whites are in charge.

Again, it’s easy to portray the Midwest simply as an overwhelmingly White, unrepentantly racist, overtly Trumpy place, and that is certainly part of the story. But when you take the time to sit and talk with these White folks—the descendants of migrants from Germany, Ireland, Czechoslovakia—you come to understand that they really do appreciate what the more recent migrants have done for their towns, even as they continue to struggle with the scale of the change. I try to draw out the flawed, complicated humanity of that story.

R&P: You write that, while all of the immigrants you interviewed were thankful for their jobs, none of them wanted their children to work in the plants. What do you make of this?

KNW: That’s powerful. These are such difficult, physically demanding jobs. Most of the people I interviewed were quick to show me the scars that they had on their bodies, either from injuries suffered on the job or from surgeries to heal those injuries. These refugees have all led incredibly precarious existences. Economically, legally, physically, religiously, all of the above, life has been hard on them. They are here now in Iowa to work, and the work is at the meatpacking plants. The plants tend to pay better than other places, and the workers are thankful for the ability to save up for a home, to buy food and clothing, to send their kids to school, to envision a stable future for their families. But they don’t want to see their kids’ bodies broken in the ways that their own bodies have been broken. They want their kids to go to college, to have opportunities that they didn’t have.

One of the most constant refrains I heard from the workers during my six years of fieldwork was that “we don’t want anyone to feel sorry for us.” They work really hard, they know that very few people can do this job, and they take a certain pride in that. But every single one of them was saving money for college so that their children would not have to do what they do for a living.

R&P: In your view, is there a disconnect between the overt Christianity of the people who own and operate these companies and the harsh living conditions endured by the people who work for them?

KNW: Absolutely. I want to make absolutely clear that this book is in no way an apologetic for the meatpacking industry. It’s easy, when you’re White and privileged and making a six-figure salary, to tout this faith-and-family evangelicalism, to praise the work ethic of your employees and claim that they’re all part of a big corporate family, to reward them with small tokens of appreciation—baby blankets, toys, jackets, and things like that. A lot of the CEOs and CFOs do charity work in their communities. But of course they don’t live in the trailer parks or the multi-generational homes, they don’t run the physical risks of working on the line, and they certainly weren’t in the plants day-after-day during the Covid crisis when President Trump ordered them to remain open despite the danger. The workers had to go in each day without established Covid protocols or PPE or any sort of vaccination program. Those things only came along much later, after workers started refusing to show up and local media began to shine a light on the abuses. By that point, the leadership in these companies did not appear to be very pro-family or pro-worker. While Covid came along after my research had ended and is therefore not covered extensively in the book, I think it really exposed the disconnect between the corporate lexicon of faith, family, and values that these companies espouse, and the actual experiences of their workers.

R&P: What does your research in the Heartland teach us about the prospects for multiracial, pluralist democracy in the United States?

KNW: I think it’s possible, but it’s very difficult work. In Catholic studies, there has been a lot of great work done on shared parishes and how they operate, and, as one of my interlocutors, Father Joseph Sia, put it, the ministry can feel pretty schizophrenic. He is constantly trying to be a cultural broker and to keep everyone happy. One thing that success may require from White people is that they learn a second language. One of the astounding things that I noted is that most Spanish-speaking individuals are learning English and attending English-speaking masses, but most White English-speakers are not returning the favor. For whatever reason, most White Americans are irredeemably monolingual and unwilling even to try to become conversant in another language. To this point, they haven’t had to.

In the Midwest, multiculturalism arrived as a matter of economic necessity, driven by a demand for workers and a supply of jobs. And now that it’s here, its success will depend on a certain degree of buy-in from the White people who preceded it. Personally, I’ve been investing a lot of myself in these communities. The other day I spoke at a town council meeting advocating funding for excluded workers and for Covid relief money. I’m trying to use my status as a scholar to support these workers, and I hope that is one message that readers take away from the book. We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to make things possible for our more vulnerable neighbors, and our communities will be stronger when we do.