Indentured Servitude


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When I was in Kuwait I had a tough experience that still troubles me. I was sitting in the chow hall in Camp Doha, eating breakfast with some other soldiers from my Battery. The chow hall was a converted warehouse that featured a big screen television. On this particular morning in the late spring of 1998, the Utah Jazz played the San Antonio Spurs in the NBA playoffs, and the game was on the TV. Thrilled that I would be able to see the Jazz play, even though I was half a world away, I grabbed a quick plate of powdered eggs, hash-browns, and Parmalat milk, and sat down at the table in front of the TV. I was engrossed in the game when I noticed a dark skinned man in his late thirties, about 6 feet tall, with a square jaw, and a weathered face and physique, working in the chow hall. He was next to the table where I was sitting, replacing the plastic bag in a garbage can he had just emptied. He wasn’t looking at his mundane work – instead his unfocused eyes were staring somewhere far away. His every angle was pointed downward. His unfocused gaze, his bent head, and his square but slumping shoulders were pointed slightly downward. As he automatically replaced the plastic bag, he talked quietly to whomever or whatever he was envisioning. Like every chow hall worker I had talked to in the past, he was an indentured servant.


I have met and spoken with many men like him, but I did not talk with this one. These men are called TCN’s, third country nationals. Third country means that they weren’t Kuwaiti, nor were they American. He was probably from Pakistan or Sri Lanka, like most of the TCN’s that worked on the bases who I had spoken with before. These men had been lured away from their families for the promise of higher paying jobs than they could find at home. Sponsoring companies regularly funded their voyage to the Middle East and then held the workers’ visas until they repaid the cost of their transportation. The U.S. Army contracts with these companies to provide soldiers with food, latrine, and laundry services. There were no checks on the power the companies exercised over their workers’ lives. Several of the men I knew hadn’t been paid in nine months, but the indentured servants had no recourse.

I suppose he was thinking of his family thousands of miles away, and about how he ended up being conned into his unfortunate—almost slave-like—conditions. I don’t know what he was thinking for sure, but he wore at least this much on his countenance: he wasn’t thinking about the here and now, and almost as sure, he was lonely, and wished he wasn’t in Kuwait. To a limited extent, I could relate.

Just then a song about Jesus, who I profess to worship, burst into my mind. “Making His home with the lonely, spending His days with the poor, bringing hope to their hearts, giving man a new start with his cure…” I suddenly became aware that if I wanted to be true to my claim of discipleship, I needed to leave my table and help this man. I needed to leave my peers and powdered eggs and offer to help this lonely man, who almost definitely was entirely alone as an indentured servant in a foreign land.

Looking back, I cannot make any sense of what happened next. Something inside me knew that Sergeants did not offer TCN’s help with their labor. That something, whatever it was, knew that helping this man would invite ridicule from my fellow soldiers. I knew that for someone in my position, such an action would be considered socially insane. I looked at my fellow soldiers who were watching the Playoff game on the TV. I reminded myself how much I love basketball and tried to ignore this human being occupying my visual periphery and mental center-stage. Karl Malone, who was posted up down-low against David Robinson, took a pass from John Stockton, turned to the inside, and scooped in a three-footer. I tried to cheer inside, and reminded myself that this was happiness. The Spurs responded quickly with Tim Duncan hitting a turn-around bank-shot. I in turn grimaced and told myself this was sadness. This was sanity. This was acceptable. All the while I was aware of the square jawed man dutifully clearing trays from the table next to me, placing the half eaten meals in his freshly lined garbage can. I knew that the moment was slipping me by. He would soon be done clearing the tables around me and would move on to other work. I tried to banish him from my thoughts, but had to settle with forcing him out of my sight. With my head down, facing directly into my plate, I finished my breakfast and left the building without looking up to check the score of the game or to see where this stranger was now.

During a break from my duties later that evening, I found myself with the privacy and silence to reflect on this emotional experience. I wrote down the event through tear-filled eyes. Given the many experiences I’ve had with such men, all of whom I knew better than this man—who I never spoke to—this experience is puzzling for why it moved me so much. I still do not understand it.

When speaking on the parable of the Good Samaritan, Martin Luther King said in his last public address,

You remember that a Levite and a priest passed by on the other side. They didn’t stop to help him. And finally a man of another race came by. He got down from his beast, decided not to be compassionate by proxy. But with him, administering first aid, and helped the man in need. Jesus ended up saying, this was the good man, this was the great man, because he had the capacity to project the “I” into the “thou,” and to be concerned about his brother. Now you know, we use our imagination a great deal to try to determine why the priest and the Levite didn’t stop….

It’s possible that the priest and the Levite looked over that man on the ground and wondered if the robbers were still around. Or it’s possible that they felt that the man on the ground was merely faking. And he was acting like he had been robbed and hurt, in order to seize them over there, lure them there for quick and easy seizure. And so the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”


That’s the question before you tonight. Not, “If I stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to all of the hours that I usually spend in my office every day and every week as a pastor?”

The question is not, “If I stop to help this man in need, what will happen to me?” “If I do not stop to help the sanitation workers, what will happen to them?” That’s the question.

Let us rise up tonight with a greater readiness. Let us stand with a greater determination.

And let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be. We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.


The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stopped to help the sanitation workers and because he did, he was shot on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. But he left us a better nation. If we want to “make America a better nation,” we need to find ways to care about our brothers and sisters, especially the hurt and exploited like this indentured servant I saw in Kuwait, and like the thousands of indentured servants we are so used to hearing called “illegal immigrants.”

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The Southern Poverty Law Center released a report yesterday, stating that the current system of exploiting undocumented laborers working in the United States is “Close to Slavery.” The article, which I encourage you to read, can be found here.

How did we end up with a system where some, based on citizenship (which is almost entirely a function of place of birth), can expect one wage while others cannot? It hasn’t always been the case. From 1776 until 1882, immigration to the United States was open. That all ended with the Chinese Exclusion Act. That Act ushered in an immigration system based on racism which still exists today.


From 1882 to 1965, our immigration laws were explicitly racist. They aren’t so overt now, but the same quota system that started in 1924 exists today – with the same intention and the same affects. Immigration restrictions are designed to keep people (specifically brown people) out, and that is exactly what they do.

For a detailed history of U.S. immigration law, click here.


Representative John Lewis speaking at an immigrants’ rights rally.And the leaders of the Southern Poverty Law Center aren’t the only ones pointing out the similarities between the criminalizing of immigrant workers and slavery.

Our civil rights heroes such as John Lewis, have said the same thing. For more discussion on that, follow this link.



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