I have been an Arborist, a keeper and pruner of trees for 45 years. "Living Tree Care". I am also an artist, creator of "Merferd and the Treetoons." I am more interested in saving people than trees, but will continue to prune, save or remove trees, so I can save people, created in the image of God. "Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter." Proverbs 22:11
I’m in layover in Abu Dhabi, before I land in Pakistan Christmas morning, to free some slaves with help from some friends. A buddy of mine who details cars called me up a few weeks ago to let me know he’d be available with his pick up truck if I could use a working hand over the winter doing tree trimming. “It’s not like I even need to work”, Barry explained, “my girlfriend works, and she’s ok with me taking a break in January and February. It’s just that, as a man I feel I need to work. If I don’t work I feel less of a man.”
I know the feeling. I’ve known the feeling for too long. It’s in our manly macho make up to work, to a pressure fault and then pass that pressure on. We take it as a blessing or we can take work as a curse. A man or woman in business in America is their own worst task master. I know because I was one. None of us in the USA can rightfully look at work as a curse. The poorest among us lives better than the rest of the world. And yet we are in a different kind of bondage, to ourselves.
The men and women in the brickyards of Pakistan, the fathers of their subjugated families, bonded laborers, bound to a lifetime of long days, slave days, don’t get to come home with good gifts for their family. They only get to walk a slow sore stroll together to their 15 by 15’ hole in the brick yard wall. And then they will use the little energy they have left to make a meal over a dried cow dung fire of roti bread without oil, potatoes and a few old vegetables.
The Indentured servant father fears one thing only, that he will pass on before his debt is paid, and that his wife and children will grow old in the hell hole of a brick kiln without him. He has worked hard, day in and day out. He’s always hoping that God will deliver them, and they eventually DO get their freedom, in heaven, risen from the brick yards graves, leaving their grown sons, forced to carry on the unjust debt, now having been increased, for their father’s burial, for the rest of their lives as well.
The fathers of the brickyards will never ever get social security. The women in Pakistan don’t get very much of anything whether they are in bondage in a brick yard, or in bondage in a male dominated country such as Pakistan, where a certain religion treats themselves as an upper class, and the minority one as the lowest caste, and the women, lower still.
As stated before, the sons born in the brickyards, now fathers themselves of children also born there, take on their father’s unjust debt and work until they also leave their family this side of life before eternity. Their widows must then borrow from the brick master for the burial. One by one, sons, daughters, wives, grandfathers and mothers, are buried in the patch of earth cordoned off for families to bury their generations, in the clay ground they spent their existence working with bare hands; except for the few we get to free.
The only hope for a daughter, is that a man outside of the brick yard marries her. But single available guys aren’t exactly sauntering through the 18,000 kilns of Pakistan looking for the gift of a wife.
One of the most amazing things I saw when I visited several brick kilns was faithful hard work, fast work, steady exhaustive work that the men and their wives and their children perform. There is absolutely no incentive to work as hard as they do. Their debts only increase, even with the hundreds of thousands of dollars they procure for their brick masters. It’s something that I cannot wrap my own brick hard head around.
In my decades of building a successful tree trimming, tree preserving, tree removing business, I was able to attain repeat customers. I paid my employees Christmas bonuses. I could take breaks and drink sports drinks when fatigued. I am able to have fresh fruit in summer, and drink hot coffee in winter. I have layers of clothes, and gloves, and a warm home to lay down to rest. I was a able to build a name and reputation. There is a proverb that says a good name is better than riches.
But a man who spent the same 45 years I’ve spent in trees, in a brick yard has nothing to the end of his days to show for himself. And what kind of trade to pass on to his son or others? Making a thousand bricks a day by hand for one or two dollars, enough for the family to share a meal, the size of what a single American among us consumes. They have no movie to relax in front of, nothing fun as a family that they can go out and do. The word vacation or birthday isn’t in their understanding. Each family does have a large very rickety old fan that they sit in front until they pass out on the one or two beds that they share. I once asked the brick master why a certain family’s debt had increased 10 times over 30 years of bonded labor. Part of their increase was electricity. For the fan I asked? Yea he said.
As for the few old men we’ve been able to free, MY age or older, their belongings fit on a small donkey cart. My possessions fit in the several rooms of the house and work vehicles I own. When I pass away I’ll have an inheritance to pass on to my children. The fathers and mothers of the brick yard have two sets of garments, a hand woven bed, a blanket, three pots, a pan and the wheel barrel and grub axe they had to buy to perform the business of the brick kiln and the family’s slavery.
I was able to pay into my Social Security. And now I’m able to be semi-retired, and collect a decent check every month, so that at age 65 I don’t have to work as hard as I once did. My wife knew something I didn’t when she told me to wait. Because until I reach 66 there’s a ceiling to how much I’m allowed to make. My conscience lets me go to bed, because everything that I’m making over this pay ceiling has been going to free families. So now my reason for working is different. I AM laboring as hard as I once did as a younger man, still no where near as the 65 year old man in the brick yard.
My once made in America working man mind is messed up. The only incentive I have now to work until Good and sore is to free fathers and mothers and children from their own aching thankless useless existence in the brick kiln favorites of Pakistan.
I have asked several couples locked in decades of never being allowed to pay off a one hundred or two hundred dollar loan, what keeps them going. “Hope in God” was all they’d say, as if there was a routine answer. But in their routine, it was the only answer.
I’m in layover, in tree-less luxurious, multi millionaire, Abu Dhabi. When I up and land on Christmas morning in Lahore, my hosts, the James family will take me to one of the brick yards they minister to. And there, I must make a choice, as I will in several different brick yards, what family to free. And then I will have to look at the longing eyes of the rest that will be left.
But this time I will be speaking to the souls of the brick masters, one on one, man to man, me, the master in heaven and he. And I expect the Holy Spirit who searches the minds and hearts of poor and rich, brick masters and men to be the mediator.
On January 1, when I speak to several thousand precious brick yard people, who have off on Friday afternoons, the only day they have off, the Islamic brick masters personal holy day off, I will preach about the Creator of the universe, who chose to be born in a stable, in a cattle trough, in a room resembling theirs. And to the fathers, I will loudly let them know; that they are not less of a man.
“An example of an American Sense of Privilege and Entitlement”.
Just last week my friend Phil and I stopped into a tavern restaurant in Alton, Illinois on a rainy afternoon for a beer and a bite to eat. It helps to know that Phil is of Greek/Scottish stock and I am an African-American, or whatever we’re calling ourselves this week.
Two guys were at the bar looking ‘at home’, and after saying hello to them, we introduced ourselves and engaged them in conversation. We were keenly aware of being on a different turf, as Phil and I were city dwellers and I had never lived in the rural US, although I had lived in Europe and for thirty five continuous years in Canada. We knew better than to let the conversation drift into US politics, but we did talk about our Christian faith connections, COVID-19 and how divided people are in the US. although I had lived in Europe and for thirty five continuous years in Canada. We knew better than to let the conversation drift into US politics, but we did talk about our Christian faith connections, COVID-19 and how divided people are in the US.
My friend Phil, Christian, Arborist, cartoonist and lover of people from all kinds of places, cultures and backgrounds had recently discovered the plight of virtual slaves in Pakistan who worked-sometimes for generations- in brickyards in that country, unable to pay back their nominal debts to the Brick masters. The debts are not exorbitant by US standards, but keep whole families in bondage for decades so that their children and even grandchildren are born into slavery at the Brickyard’s, working an average of 10 hours a day 250 days a year, and earning the Brickyard owners hundreds of thousands of dollars, over the family’s lifetimes.
Phil had recently traveled to Pakistan where, with the help of Christian language interpreters he was able to hear the stories of those in bondage and with his own money and some contributions from other Americans, was able to buy thirteen families out of bondage at one particular brick yard.
I thought that a discussion about a philanthropic effort that took the discussion away from US politics and US anything was a good way to direct the conversation and would keep things somewhat neutral with our new acquaintances. I was wrong!
We will call the guys Bob and Rob. Bob in the baseball cap and Rob with no cap at all had spent much of the time talking to the young waitresses at the counter using the F word and other four letter vulgarity’s so often that Phil, the young ladies and I, became Anesthetized by (if not comfortable with) their raw discourse.
When we brought up the subject of Phil’s humanitarian work in Pakistan, and I stupidly suggested that Phil show Bob and Rob on his iPad some pictures and video of people he had freed in the brick yards, Phil and I became quickly aware of the extreme discomfort that our new friends were displaying-they were far more uncomfortable than we had been because of their foul language.
Bob physically Stiffened and was so repelled by the pictures that he looked away. Rob seemed strangely embarrassed and both became offended that Phil had even told them about his efforts to help people in Pakistan. Bob was so turned off that he wanted us to leave and said so with veiled threat in forced humor. The Christian element of our conversation was bad enough, but the suggestion that there were people in other places whom we considered worthy of identifying with and worth helping was far too much for both of them.
Unable to take it any longer, they tried to explain to us that we are all Americans: we have a good life; other people in other places don’t have what we have and that’s just the way it is. They could not deal with the suffering in this world and the idea that Phil was trying to alleviate others’ plight left them offended, in excruciating mental anguish and completely turned off. Their spoken or conveyed message to us was: “We don’t care and why are you suggesting that we should? And why do you think that it is within our power or responsibility to make things better for people in foreign lands who don’t look like, talk like or think like us; and who don’t really deserve better than what they have—and certainly don’t deserve what we have —because, after all, we are Americans and they are not! Why you get it!
As Barry Pugh and I were driving back to our homes from the tavern on the River Road in Grafton Illinois that night, I told him of the area of southern Illinois that Barry Tonsor lives in, and that few, if any of the towns folk have a black friend. I shared something with black Barry that happened to white Barry, who having come close to dying, could have made him the most racist white guy on this side of his side of the Missippi. It is something that white Barry purposefully does not share. And yet he is among the least racist ones in rural town USA.
I visited many brickyards while in Pakistan. And since my return, Shokat is sending me an endless amount of needs. I am torn in my heart and in my limbs. I’m torn in heart not knowing which families to begin with and whether to take time to do the fund raisers or just keep slamming out tree jobs. That’s where the sore, torn limbs come in. Also, my business costs and taxes are sucking it up almost as fast as I can make it. It’s not the same cash flow as summer, but the labor is much easier in the fall. The good news is that I’ve FINALLY got a non profit up and ready to receive donations, to help free more families.
I had come to Pakistan to finish buying freedom for 13 indentured servant/slaves. But the first night in Kasur, Pastor Shokat told me I would be preaching. I wasn’t prepared, but was willing.
I had not come Pakistan dressed to preach. One suitcase was filled to the brim with the rest of my Merferd shirts and coloring books to give out, and the second suitcase toted worn jeans, on that I had planned to work in a couple Brickyard’s to get a feel for it. That was not going to happen on THIS trip. There were gifts of large bags of M n’ Ms for my hosts. There was underware and socks filled with thousands in cash, the rest of the redemption money for the families in slavery. My hosts had to dress me up to preach.
I did not feel spiritually ready to to open my mouth and speak, for who was I to give these subjugated sacred souls something, anything. I felt less than holy, as I starred at the wall of precious subjugated Pakistan peasants. Shokat told them what I had come to do. If they had come to hear a deliverer ‘deliver’ a message, then God Himself, would have to deliver. I began to speak and don’t remember what I said. Afterwards Shokat asked me to pray for people. I was even less prepared to do that. But God took that over also.
Shokat’s daughter, Sundrella, in the red dress in the photos, led me through the audience, telling me what sicknesses and ailments different ones had. There were numerous issues; stomach ailments, back pains, hurting knees, and aching backs.
After I had prayed for the last person, Sundrella was holding an arm full of my Merferd’s T-shirts. She had gone into my suitcase and found them. She began to give them out to certain young men. They were her brothers, a couple cousins, and a couple of shokaut’s evangelists.
After spending several days with Shokaut and Rihanna and their tribe, I left Kasur and came to Okara where I spent a couple of days with Pastor Jame’s family. We visited several brick yards and prayed over families. Suzyanna reported to me after I returned to America, some good news about the healing of several we had prayed over, including a young woman with Diphtheria.
After spending an intense few days of brickyard hopping and praying with Suzyanna, her mother Parveen, Pastor James, and sons, Saraam, Shanza, and Somerose, I met up with Obaid Karamet.
We visited brickyards where Obaid ministered during the day and we preached and prayed over the sick in villages by night. A compassionate man, Naveed Tariq, set up medical camp at the brick yards we visited.
There was a day with Adeel Warris, his father and brothers and his new wife, Sonya. We drove quite a distance to a village where an entire brick yard of families came for the word and for prayer. We hope to free that yard August of 2021.
While most churches have a raised place and a pulpit, there’s something about being on the ground level with the people.
I had a chance to pray with precious ones with Tahir Younas, who brings food to the Brickyards that are laid on his heart. He has a burden for teaching the children, that they will not grow old without an education in these places of lack.
As I boarded my flight from Pakistan back to Ferguson, my head was full of information, my soul singed with the eyes of dim hope in the old men and the longing in the eyes of the old women enslaved in the brick yards.
My iCloud storage, on the iPhone, of videos and photos of the suffering human beings in the brickyards of Pakistan was filled up. I met a man, Rizwan, while waiting for a connecting flight out of Abu Dhabi. He was a Pakistan as well as an American citizen. Although he and his family have spent their lives passing by the brickyard towers, they, as most Pakistanis, were unaware of what the brick kiln towers, surrounding their city of Lahore, held in debt bondage, inside their brick walled compounds. He thought that they were a legitimate way of making a living. And for many Pakistanis, it is. They get to come to a brick yard to work, and return home with a few bucks. But for many more, it’s a lifetime of bonded labor. A more accurate, non-polished, non-politically correct, brick rough word, is slavery.
Rizwan owned a ‘Subway’ business, sold it, and now works for American Airlines. He told me that when he returns to Pakistan, he personally is going to begin to do something about what I told him exists in his country. He bought me a cup of coffee, and I hope we can remain in contact. The last thing he told me, was that some in the government of Pakistan are wanting to do away with the present method of making bricks, because of the pollution. I let this register; That the brick kilns could one day close. NOT because of the heart break, the body ache, hunger, suffering from hot and cold elements, sickness, disease, rape and death, and the cruel human user masters, but because of the pollution that the brick kiln furnace towers emit. Is this not the present politically correct band wagon/rickshaw to ride? To save the environment from people? How about rather, saving these families from the environment that has been using them up? But HEY! if not having to smell the stench of the sin of a nation is what it takes, oh God, let it be. A transition like this, producing bricks without the furnaces and the towers would take years. The emaciated families I saw, don’t have years. They ‘PAID’ their debt toward freedom a long long time ago. They’ve sucked in the smoke and stench of this system long enough.
This is my friend, Pastor Shaukat Gill, with the Sadique family, a few weeks before their freedom. The Roshan brick kiln was on his and his wife, Rehana’s heart. All five daughters of this bonded labor ( slave) family were born in the brick yard. Here where they toiled as a family, locked in bondage, working under the hot Pakistan sun, forming 1,500 bricks a day, six and a half 12 hour days a week. They were led into thinking that they were working off a nominal loan, but in reality, it would never have been paid down. These beautiful girls would have grown old making bricks. I know, because I’ve visited a dozen more brick yards during the second half of August, 2020, in Pakistan, interviewing several much older daughters , who were once like Sadique’s younger daughters, but now old; Brick Yard Old. No one ever knows what’s in the brick master’s black accounting books. For the Sadique family, a $200 loan twenty eight years ago, sinisterly crept up to 198,158 Pakistani rupees ( $1,239 US ). This is interest from hell.
Shokat and Rihanna are the real reason Sadique’s family is now free. The brick master, although he was wrestling with letting the rest of 13 families go, spoke of how he watched Shokat and Rihanna, come over twenty times to minister to the Christian families in his brick yard.
I had the easy part, hopping on a plane with three socks filled with cash. In total, we paid the ransom of 13 families. Four were freed prior to my coming. I sent money to shokat every fifteen days, to free one family at a time. Once Shokat asked if we were going to buy the freedom of the three Muslim families in the Roshan Brick yard. There wasn’t any question in my mind. Jesus came to free all. For the first time, now that I’m back in the USA, several freedom loving people have sent over funds to keep freeing human beings locked in debt bondage. I’m very grateful, for I have a goal to empty a second and third brick yard on Christmas Eve, and Christmas, and then a third one at Easter. ( possibly three on Easter) I was given honor everywhere I was led. And massaged over most of my head and body everywhere I went, wether I wanted it or not. One night, we were in a courtyard, and a couple guys and a couple gals were massaging me, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man from the brick yards sitting on the cot next to us and watching. I had him lay down, I excused myself from the others, and massaged him. He needed it much more than I, for he had been hunched over, working 10 hours that day, making bricks.
Oh God, who sees all, knows all, and hears all, Let this joint freedom cry strike force, provoke those who have the power here to enforce the law (never enforced) against this bonded labor. Pakistan is an amazing and beautiful country. The people love much. They give much of the little they have. The hospitality I’ve received I can’t describe, because I would cry. I have been massaged enough for ten life times by all the sons and daughters and security men of my hosts. The brick yards would not have to be disbanded. I really wouldn’t even mind working in one, if I lived here, and knew I’d get the minimum wage of $6 a day, and not a buck for a thousand bricks a day, and never get to leave.
The first day in Pakistan, my pastor friends, Shokaut Gill and his wife Rihanna, took me to visit Gulshan and her two girls. They are living in a small room in a city in Kasur. Gulshan now has a part time job working on shoes. It had to be hard, being a mom and not getting aid, abandoned by a husband who fled the brick yard two years ago, leaving her and the girls. We’re going to get them a big fan ASAP. We prayed with her and encouraged her. We brought them icecream.
We visited the Anwar family, His wife Sugra, had succumb to the heat and had to be hospitalized their last days in the brick yard. The young people had to continue making bricks, while Anwar was with his wife at the hospital. He had an initial loan for $400, that 11 years, and 700-1000 bricks a day later, had never been lessened. Rather, it had more than tripled to $1,300. There is exorbitant interest, that bonded laborers in subjection to powerful Brick Masters never get to ever about know or question.
We met with the Shazahd Family. All five daughters were born in the brick yard. Two hundred and fifty US dollars had been borrowed from the brick master for their wedding, and a thousand bricks and 15 years later, instead of a debt that should have long been paid down, by the thousands of dollars of bricks produced. their debt increased THREE FOLD. I asked him if he would have borrowed from a brick master if he had it all to do over again. He put his hands to his head and said never, that he repented every say his family was stick there. His wife said there were days that they all went hungry. The only food that they got to eat 99% of the time was flatbed, cooked without any oil and days OLD, vegetables. Shulzan works part time for a trucking firm now, and they have a low rent home with much more space than the 14 by 14 ft hut, built into the brick yard wall, that they lived in for 15 years.
I was beginning to have double minded doubts, that my plan for Pakistan, freeing some families from bonded labor, was nothing more than a wood chip on my shoulder. The profit margin in tree work isn’t high, and only once in my life was I able to save this much money, and that’s when we put ten grand on our house in Ferguson. The closer it came to leaving, operating costs were swallowing my ‘freedom from slavery money’. Then one morning as I walked with masked face hung low into Walgreens, I heard; “Phil, I want to help the brick yard families.” Derk Klaesener greeted people like he owned the place he’s worked at for years. His cheerful greeting always lifted a weary day anyway. “HELLO! WELCOME TO WALGREENS!” But on this certain morning, there was more. “HELLO! WELCOME TO WALGREENS! PHIL, I WANT TO HELP THE BRICK YARD FAMILIES. PLEASE TAKE DOWN MY MAPLE TREE.” I prided myself that I never removed a tree unless a customer had good reason. I was a preservationist. But now, if a removal means I get to purchase freedom for a family and their children on the far side of my land of the free, urban forest world, I won’t change their mind. I had talked Derk out of cutting down his big beautiful Silver Maple once before. This time I didn’t exclaim it’s value. “I’ll give you a bid Derk, thank you.” It took us three days to dismantle and haul his towering tree next to his house, and it was the last amount I needed to do what I had to do.
An estimated two million children in Pakistan, work for up to 10-14 hours a day, six days a week in brickmaking kilns, lacking basic rights and access to school or social security. I’m buying the freedom of all 13 families, in one such brickyard.
Arboriculture is all I’ve known for 44 of my 64 years, from back when we were called tree surgeons. I’d tried to leave the trade when I came down to Missouri in 1988, having already climbed and trimmed tall elms for a dozen years in the city of Elmhurst, Illinois. In the 80’s, I coordinated saving American Elm’s from Dutch elm disease (DED). The Elmhurst Forestry division was chosen to field test a biological cure for DED. I watched it save trees, as the bacterium stayed alive in the sap wood for the life time of an Elm, walling off the deadly DED fungus. A large chemical company bought the rights from the botanist/biologist who developed it. They put a cost ceiling on field testing and then they shelved it. My liaison told me, it wasn’t ‘marketable’. It made no sense to me. Presently, the only products we have to inject and protect trees from diseases and insects, are chemicals that wear out within a year or two. It took me a while to realize, it was because it worked too well, that it was dropped. God’s own natural remedy, that would have saved millions more of the native American Elms, is on a shelf somewhere in a basement in St Louis. Because Ortho bought Chevron. I got to personally meet Dr. Gary Strobel, at the foothills of a mountain range in Bozeman Montana where he was a professor of biology. I spent an evening with this eccentric scientist who developed the cure for Dutch Elm disease. He told me he was done saving trees, and now saving people, developing cures for things like malaria, for the poor, in places like PAKISTAN.
I was a passionate environmentalist. But then, my soul changed. I began loving human beings more than trees. One day I was inspecting a stand of Elms; deciding which would stay, and which would be sacrificed to save the rest, when I heard an almost audible voice say; “You should be saving men, not trees.” A few years later I uprooted from middle class America with my wife and our first two little girls, and moved into a trailer in Hillsbro Missouri, so that I could attend a bible school. I’d be climbing for mean tree boss during the day and attending the small seminary at night. One of those years, the persecution at a certain tree service, by some bullies who I call ‘tree gods’, was hotter than the Missouri sun. Bringing my bible to work revved up the angst. I got solace coming home to my girls. On a particular day, my car didn’t make it out of the trailer park. I called the boss to let him know I’d be hitching a ride to work. He answered and said that three of the tree gods were in his office refusing to work on my crew, and he had to let me go. He shot himself in the foot, because I made satisfied repeat customers. A week later, the main king pin tree god, who had made my tenure there miserable, fell from a tree, shattered his ankle, and sued the boss. I have never been closer to God than at that job. I’ll be able, to a small degree, to relate to the subjugated Pakistan man, working for a cruel brick master, enslaved in perpetual hot asian sun, in the brick kilns’ barren outdoor factories of burning mud.
I was ready to never climb again for another tree boss, especially one who’d never left the ground himself, or knew less than me. Besides, I was going to evangelize the world, I thought. That’s until a neighbor from another trailer, prophesied that I was anointed to climb trees. I didn’t want to hear that, but I knew it. It hit me in my heart-wood. It made no sense, that I had quit climbing in Chicagoland, had uprooted, moved down to Missouri for ‘ministry’, and was being called back into the trees. Unless it’s an obvious call, ministry life doesn’t pay the bills. A friend, whom I had left my pick up truck with, phoned and told me that “God’s told me to give you back your truck.” I didn’t want it back, but I came up and got it. Theresa, who I call “Tree’, heard the name we’d call our company, “Living Tree”, in a dream. A few years into the thick of it, we helped save a historical black cemetery, “Friends of Father Dickson”, from commercial interests. Walls of impenetrable over-growth, we chopped down, dead and dying trees we removed, and new ones we planted. Living Tree Care won an ‘Excellence in Arboriculture’ Award for it. No bonded labor brick yard worker has ever won an ‘Excellence in Brick Making’ Award.
For a small tree company, we had some big contracts, including lightning protection installation of the Heritage Oaks in Forest Park. We were hired by the Department of Natural Resources for protection of the oaks in the prestigious park, against Oak Wilt Disease. We beat out larger companies. Forester, Jamie Frank told me, “This is the first time politics were not involved, or that we took the lower bids. Your company has been hired on it’s merits.”
In 2004, an orthodox Jewish customer sent my family to Jerusalem. Marc and Sarah Hermelin had us over on their Shabbat, under their two magnificent tree houses before we departed. Marc handed me a wad of 500 Shekels to spend, presented each of us with an itinerary, and said; “the first week you will be visiting Old Testament sites, and the second week, you will be visiting sites of your faith.” We were to have our own personal tour guide every single day. He tilted his full face of weathered beard, like an ancient olive tree, still leaning in the garden of gethsemane, and announced; “Girls, this trip is because of your father taking good care of my trees.”
I might have been anointed to climb and care for trees, like the trailer court prophet had said, but I had no such anointing for being a business man. When we lost our house and farm to Bank of America in 2010, after two decades in operation, I had to let my good tree guys go, one at a time. I held onto our precious secretary, Wendy, as long as I could. The solace I did retain, are the many guys I trained in the Arboriculture trade, where most of them make a living with.
We had built a good reputation, having taught municipalities in chainsaw safety and tree preservation. Yet all those years, I had remained in the ‘red’, never missing a payroll, but remaining deep in the red. I lamely reasoned, that if the USA can remain trillions of dollars in debt, and still be open for business, that this must be life in business. We held house church in our long farm house. My wife and I gave much to missions. Toward the last year with Gospel Outreach, based in Hillsboro, we were sending a thousand dollars a month, to rescue orphans in India, while loosing our house and farm to Fanne Ma, and Bank of America. BAC had been bailed out by both Presidents Bush and Obama, under the auspices that it would modify home loans. All I wanted to do was get back to my thirty year note. I had borrowed money for good equipment for good men. But after the bailing of the likes of greedy Bank of America, they became the largest robber barons the world has ever known, as money hungry as a thousand brick masters. I never listened to my accountant, and probably should have. “Phillip, you need to cut payroll”, Verlin would warn me. “Take care of your own.” But how was I going to let men go, who had stayed with me faithfully, for years? Tree work is high risk, and low profit margin; with equipment, workers comp, and other high overhead costs. The last straw, or stick, came when I had grossly underbid a government contract to remove hundreds of storm damaged ‘widow makers’ along the National Scenic Riverways in southern Missouri, twisted and toppled from a deadly Derecho. I had hit the bottom of the barrel; the bottom of a thousand half fallen white oaks that MAKE the barrels. I ran out of funds, dry as a shattered spar, left to weather down to dirt; richer than brick yard dirt. I had to let my good men go, one at a time, left standing alone in those wasted woods, with a heavy chainsaw in my hands. As spent as I was, in America, I could still eventually climb back up and out. Not so, the hard working slaves, in the bonded labor camps, across the rest of the third world earth.
Tree (Theresa) and me lost much, but kept our marriage. Marriage counselors have worked… all four of them. We also kept “Living Tree Care”. It says in a proverb, that “A good name is desired above riches”. We still had the one, but did not have the other. We began at the beginning again, older oaks of righteousness, still strong, slower, and humbler. I cut, and we both dragged brush, and lugged logs. Then two of our grown daughters joined. A few years beyond, and the gals grew understandably weary of sweat and wood chips, and I was working by myself one more time. But the ladies of my life had recharged their husband and Tree-Pa. The life of the bonded labor families in the Brick yards, at least are BONDED families.
For the first time in my life, I had saved $10,000. How did that happen? I suppose there was less overhead, no payroll, no Worker’s Comp, fewer break downs, and fewer taxes. I experienced what the words; ‘In the Black’ meant; not the black sooty mold that drips on cars and makes tree trunks black. But money-in-the bank-black. We put that ten grand down on a house in Ferguson. We were going to be ‘peace makers’. We shook the wood dust off our boots, off onto the judges and politicians who were in the pockets of Bank of America, the Jefferson county cop who told my daughter, that we were squatters on our own land, and became white flight, moving INTO Ferguson, minorities for the first time. I had participated in a prayer tent there, and washed the feet of Michael Brown’s uncle,Pastor Charles Ewing. We’ve since become good friends.
Tree and me, found ourselves in the midst of the infamous, Ferguson uprising’, the prayers, the riots, and the boarded up businesses. And then a spontaneous thing was born, that had never happened on the earth before; an unorganized organic movement that became known as ‘Paint for Peace’. Hundreds of busted and boarded up store fronts were being painted many colors, by hundreds of people of many colors, with themes of justice, love, forgiveness, butterflies, rainbows, mountains and Merferds. There was a character I had made out of wood, a “Tree Toon”, that I would occasionally install in trees that we trimmed. A one of a kind contractor sign. His name was “Merderd”.
My tree guys and gals were long gone, but I had a garage full of Merferds. Another prophecy had been given me twenty years before, by a different prophet, in Larry Leonard’s mobile hone court. “One day you will take the city”, a pretty Tennessee classmate told me. I didn’t take the city, but Merferd did. I painted and placed him everywhere I could get away with, tired of seeing the non descriptive graffiti.
St Louis was loving Merferd. He ended up on the front page of the ‘River Front Times’, and before long, every television station in St Louis was tracking me down for a story. Josh Herum filmed an award winning documentary, “The Man Behind the Merferds”. He’s become a symbol of brotherly love.
While going from tree guy to being a local artist legend with Merferd and the Treetoons, I basked in the ease of no employees, working trees only eight hours a day, every two or three days to pay the bills, and doing my ‘famous’ art after hours, and not getting paid. Life was fun, and fame is fleeting. I had a new tree team, Bebe’ and Christopher. We interspersed tree work with Merferd making. Bebe preferred living life ‘homeless’ and in a tent, and Christopher rode his bike to our work sites.
I recently organized another ‘Paint for Peace”, after our businesses, police station, and mainly black and a few white cops, were assaulted again by riotous protesters, who could care less about the George Floyd’s and Michael Brown’s of the world. I got to paint a mural on the Ferguson Police station with St Louis muralist, Linton Lovelock.
The rest of the people on our planet, do not see us as white privilege, but as red and yellow, black and white, American privilege. My 95 year old mom would often quote this from Jesus; “Phillip”, she’d look her rambunctious boy in the eyes and say; “To whom much is given, much is expected.” I had no reason to build up the tree care business again…until now. I have the freedom and ability to make filthy lucre into holy dough, to rescue others, who are far less free than me. This time around, I have a passion to do tree work, harder than ever, and save families from bonded labor. I’m back to long tree cutting days. Men need a goal and purpose higher than ourselves, even into my mid sixties. I’ve begun to purchase the freedom of human beings in bonded labor in a certain brick yard in Kasur, Pakistan, every fifteen days. I’ve freed four families so far. Their average debts, began many years prior, from nominal loans. And even after making a thousand bricks a day, in barely livable conditions, the exhorbitant interest the brick masters pile on, makes it impossible for a loan to ever be paid off. The couples and their children remain trapped in their dirt floored brick yard huts for life, working 12 hours a day, 6 1/2 days a week, mixing water, and dirt into muddy clay, and in the hot Pakistan sun, the bricks are then baked in ovens, the size of football fields.
It’s going to be $9,013 US dollars to free the remaining ten families in this forsaken place, out of thousands of such enslavements. I’m wanting to start something, a drop in a bucket that sends ripples across Pakistan. During this ‘COVID’ crisis, any Pakistani government assistance never trickled down to the minority Christians. Besides the 10 minority families, I’ll be freeing the three Muslim families as well. I could not free just one without freeing all. My Pakistan pastor friend, Shaukat Masih Gill, has notified me; “The brick yards people are calling you Moses.” I told him to let them know, I’m not Moses. “Tell them a tree cutter from America.” A tree cutting Moses tell them”. This is serendipity to me, because tree cutters in Pakistan are the bottom of the caste, on the lowest societal level, at the bottom of the brick yard mud pile, with brick yard workers. Pakistanis are interested in American holidays, and for July 4th, Shaukat asked for me to make and digitally send an illustration of a ‘Freedom Merferd’. I didn’t know he was going to take the money I sent him for his own ministry, and make several banners for the remaining families.
One day, a month ago, a distant relative called, and told me that she was going to send me $10,000 to free the remaining families from that brick yard. I pulled my tree rig over, because it’s dangerous to drive when the eyes get filled with tears . But a few days later the same relative messaged me that she could not send the money. She believed it’s all staged. “PHIL. Their clothes remain clean. I think it’s a scam Phil, I’m sorry but I can’t help.” I had wondered myself, how these modern day slaves stay so clean. Two hours on my knees making bricks, and I’d be mud, head to toe. But these workers SQUAT. I found out that they own two sets of clothes, and in a communal hand pump for a shower, they wash themselves at the end of their long out hot day with the clothes on. When the potential donor pulled out, it was anti climatic, for but a few minutes, I knew that this feat was something I alone had to pull off. As I get closer to leaving the verdant green of America, to the dry as a bone brickyards of Pakistan, I know why I must travel to Pakistan in person. I need to work in that 100 plus degree heat for a couple days, before leaving, side by side, with the remaining families, emptying the place OUT. Pastor Shokaut’s told me the Brock master’s heart is softening some, and he’s leaving the industry. My families and friends will have no more doubts, that this isn’t real, perhaps. They may even want to invest. Some will consider that the dividends from rescuing the poor and weak are eternal.
With a coupe weeks to go, with set backs, and equipment break downs, I’m watching money that grows on trees, wash down drains. With August’s humid heat bearing down and rain slowing us, doubt and exhaustion were seeping in. On a land clearing job at a St Louis non profit, they wanted it to look excellent for a special day, where media and the who’s who, of St Lou were going to be showing up. All were showing their best. As I pulled my pick up and chipper out, i got hung up on a ledge. I was so very weak, on that hot humid day, more from the pressure of having to be done in time, for the mayor’s entourage. It was embarrassing, as several well dressed lady’s with masks on stood, waiting for the mayor, and starring at me. My mind traveled over to the brick yard, wondering if any one important ever visits there. Al Jazeera world news did, several years ago, when they did a documentary on bonded labor. But no mayors ever visit. The brick masters, in their fiefdoms, hold power over mayors.
God doesn’t use the wealthy, he uses the willing. There is a man, a simple and quiet man, a gentle man, who I would occasionally observe walking to his job at Walgreens, a lunch box in his hand. It’s Derk Klausner. Last week when I came in to get ice for the crew, he said “Hello Phil, I want to help free the brick yard families. Please cut down my Maple tree.” It is a huge beautiful Silver Maple, towering over his house, a tree that I had talked him out of removing twice before. I didn’t talk him out of it this time. He also let us trim everything else in his large yard. There was one condition to the job; he wanted a Merferd shirt, a Merferd button, and a Merferd painted on the trunk. Because of Derk, I’ve almost reached my goal. A few more days of chopping trees through the chipper, with my motley crew of Popeye, Stephen; and me, I’m trying hard to not be pressuring, and becoming a tree/brick master myself.
I intended to be done with this lengthy blog, and to be done with Derk’s trees. But I spent a chunk of the day, answering a brother-in-law’s texts, with his concern for my safety going to Pakistan. Another brother-in-law called me yesterday also concerned, and sent me some information from the U.S. embassy. I had seen it. All I know is I do have my visa from the Pakistan government and I do have a ticket to fly.
These are some of the messages people have sent me;
“I think it’s great what you’re doing because that’s what you have in your heart to do, But _______and others believe that you’re looking in the wrong direction and you should help the people in your and own neighborhood before people in another country.”
“I just worry about the families that you pay to get out and truly wonder how quickly they get put right back where they were before you helped them.”
“Phil, I really think this is an unwise decision for you to go to Pakistan. I don’t think God wants you to go. I’m going to be praying for you. But because I’m praying for you does not mean I approve of you going.”
“What if you’re kidnapped? What about your family? Is your wife ok with this? You have a grandaughter now.”
“Now is not the time for you to go to Pakistan. Cv19 ( COVID virus) is a game changer. You’d serve best if you waited.”
To this last ‘concern’, I answered that COVID hasn’t come to the brick yards, for no one comes and goes from them. However, malaria, skin cancer, tuberculosis, hunger and rape exist there, but no ‘CV 19’. “
Some of the only persons who have encouraged me, were three women who have suffered in different ways. Charlotte, has LIVED way beyond what doctors expected, with muscular sclerosis. Her prayer group is already on task for my trip. Bridget was shuttled from foster home to foster home, telling me it made her the person she is. And Tonya has had a double mastectomy. And as I update this morning, my dentist wants to know everything when I return. “You need to DO YOU”, She said. I feel as if she extracted more than a couple bad teeth this morning.
After being held up with a loaded 357 Magnum, experiencing road rage, COVID rage, riot rage, litter bug rage, and the millions of American “Give Me” rage, in this land of the free, when I land on Pakistan, I’m dropping to my knees, kissing the sad, brick sick dirt, and freeing poor, but peaceful families, one brick yard at a time.
After Derk wrote the check, that would free half of the rest of the families, he walked out to the treetoon and said, “Phil, how much to CARVE the entire head of Merferd? I want to help the brick yard families.”
It’s our last day working, and having a last burger together; Popeye, Steve and me. The guys are helping me cut my grass and do a small job around the corner. The heat got to Steve one afternoon last week, and he was able to recover under a tree, with a replenishing energy drink. Today, Popeye had a rough time in the humid mid nineties, and I was able to bring him home to some AC, and shower. There are no shade trees, no cold energy drinks and no AC in the brick yards. I just found out my flight lands in Pakistan on August 14th, Pakistan’s Independence Day.
I continued down south on 55 with the windows open, “JOY FM’ radio streamin’, acceleration, and wide open road, exhilaration. I was Swooshing down a highway, on Sunday morning, hardly anyone here, and feeling fortunate. Minority Christians, in the Pakistan Brickyards don’t get their Sunday Sabbath off. They still must make bricks, hundreds of thousands of bricks, from the dusty dawn to dirty dusk. The only relaxation they have the entire week, apart from sleep, when they’re ready to drop anyway, is Friday afternoon, the Muslim Brick Master’s own holy day. I shut off the Christian pop.
I’m driving south out of The city, into the country of Jefferson county, to an artsy small church on a holy hill with a little seminary; the reason Tree (Theresa) and I had moved to Hillsboro Missouri, from Chicago land in 1988. I never did finish seminary. I bartered with the trailer court landlord, removing dead trees from over trailers for our pad rent. God had ‘called’ me back to trees. I’m pretty sure it was Him. It didn’t make any sense though. At least my wife got the name in a dream; “living Tree”. I had thought I was to be saving men. Now, almost three decades later, I’ve just saved a woman and her two little girls. They won’t grow old in that brick yard. They will get to go to school.
I am called down to look at their Sweet Gum trees and I’m going to catch church first. I stop for fuel, and sounds are assaulting me, as I stepped out of my pick up. I can tell it’s a sick song, blasting from another pick up. First the road-rager in north St Louis, and now this air-rager in the country. All I could think about was American privilege. Red, white, black and blue, fast and furious American privilege. “What’s the name of the band”, I shouted. “A bullet for my Valentine”, he loudly answered. “Life and death is in the power of the tongue”, I said. “They’re just words”, he said.
Fifteen minutes later I was standing in church, mouthing a worship song; “Redeemer, Deliverer, God sets the captives free.” Just words, I thought…until I get to Pakistan. Right then I decided I wouldn’t just free Gulshan, I’d free them all; Thirteen families, ten Christian, and three lower caste Muslim. I have will have to knock out more than my normal amount of tree jobs, between now and then. I could sell the second truck and chipper. Church service ended, and I walked out to look at the trees.
GULSHAN / It was the day before I would be paying the debt of my first brick yard family. Gulshan, with her daughters, Saba and Samra, were making 400-500 bricks a day, trapped in debt bondage. Gulshan had labored hard, eleven years, as good as widowed by her husband, who had fled the brick yard. I was pondering how much we’ve been given on ‘our’ side of the world, as I drove along. For the first time on this familiar stretch of lawless highway 70, in north St. Louis, I found myself going with the ‘flow’ of traffic”, well over the 55 mph limit. Out of the corner of my left eye, there came erratic motions in the left lane, a man pounding on his steering wheel, and hollering, seemingly angry because he was boxed in and couldn’t pass. The family in the van was unaware of the temper tantrum, being had in a car, mere inches from their bumper. At 75 american miles an hour, our eyes met and I shrugged at him in a gesture, of “WHAT”S THE MATTER?” He pointed his finger, back and forth, hard at the van, pounding with his hand, mouthing his torment to me, that they would not move out of his way. I flashed back to the brick yard families. They have no road ragers. The lucky ones have cheap motorbikes and bicycles, rickshaws, and the wealthier in the cities do have cars. Those in bondage labor, do however have cruel Brick Masters. And yet their lives have meaning, they must. I flashed back to my world, the angered young man, realizing I was boxing him in. I braked, and slowed down so he could swing around the family’s van, into my lane and speed his hasty life on. He angrily gunned his engine, and a large black puff of smoke spewed from his shining bright black car. It was Sunday morning, on my way to church, and here I was, sinning, gleeful that he had just blown his motor. I muttered “I’m sorry” to the Lord, and thought back to Gulshan, and the brick yard furnaces of Pakistan, that spew a puff of the amount of smoke of a blown engine, in a split second.
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Some Pakistan (minority) families have a debt of as little as $400.00 and some three times that much. But either way, they remain in ‘debt bondage’ for years, and decades. There are many reasons why they fell into or were forced into this debt. In Pakistan, the minimum wage is $3.20 a day. It does not go well for humanitarians in Pakistan. Money must be borrowed for midwives, medicine, and electricity. So there is a debt that never ends. I am planning on visiting Pakistan mid August, 2020, and purchasing the freedom of the remaining families in a certain Brickyard. The Brick Master is OK with this, and is going to leave the industry. There will be another brick yard and another. However, we are praying that the heart of a nation is changed, even as God is softening the heart of this one particular Brick Master. Before we move onto the next brickyard, we are going to be putting in place the ability for the freed families to make a living. We have begun doing this. $100 a month sustains a family, including rent and food. $150 was just sent for the Sohail family to start a fruit stand business. A majority of the families are lower caste Muslim or Christian and are hard pressed to get decent jobs, especially during this time of Covid, when factories are closed.