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.