Reverend David W. Havens

Editor’s note: San Benito High School History Teacher and San Juan Bautista native Frank Perez wrote the following piece about a former Hollister minister who became an agent of change in his work with the National Farm Workers’ Association. This is the first in a multi-part series.



In October of 1965, Reverend David W. Havens of the California Migrant Ministry became the first casualty of the pitched battle being waged between powerful grape growers of Delano, Calif. and Cesar Chavez’s fledging National Farm Workers’ Association (N.F.W.A). Armed with a copy of the N.F.W.A’.s self-published newspaper, El Malcriado, Havens read aloud to the ubiquitous strikebreakers dotting the vineyards, “Definition of a Strikebreaker.” In the eyes the local sheriff, Rev. Havens had violated the law, and he was arrested. His crime—disturbing the peace. For the young minister, speaking out against the injustice permeating the California fields came naturally. 

As the son of Christian missionaries, Rev. Havens was taught the value of service to others, especially those whose voices were muted by inequality and inequity. When he was a teenager, he witnessed the segregated policies of the South, an experience that later resulted in his participation in the civil rights movement. An intrepid soul, Rev. Havens traveled to Cuba during his years in seminary and captured in black and white the revolution ushered in by Fidel Castro. Ignited by a renewed sense of purpose, Havens returned to the states, completed seminary and then arrived in Hollister ready for any challenge that came his way. He spent two years as minister of Hollister’s First Christian Church—a time that was life-changing and which Havens stated defined his “whole professional career.” With the experiences he learned while ministering to San Benito County’s residents, Rev. Havens and his young family entered the arid Central Valley at time when the bastion of California agribusiness was under attack by those subjected to its unjust labor practices.

Through his work with Chavez’s union, Rev. Havens learned the intricacies of community organizing, a skill that he refined and polished over the years. After leaving Delano’s vineyards, he headed to Florida. From there, it was on to New England, then Wisconsin, and to the hinterlands of Kenya. The thousands of miles traveled and countless hours of wasted sleep hasn’t dampened the passion and will of Rev. Havens. Today he resides in Jensen Beach, Florida, though one will never catch him playing rounds of golf with other retirees. Instead, one might see him speaking to local residents or politicians about the plight of the area’s tomato workers or carrying a picket sign outside of a local Wendy’s restaurant. From a self-described agent of change, would one expect anything less?


An intense, Midwestern snowstorm ushered in David Ward Havens’ first day on earth. It was Dec. 17, 1935. After a decade serving as Disciples of Christ missionaries in the Belgian Congo, his parents, Virgil and Sue, had decided to settle in Indianapolis, Indiana—the headquarters of the Disciples of Christ Church, where Virgil was employed. The young Havens joined his two older sisters, Eleanor and Rosalind, in completing the Havens brood. 

The Havens’ children were raised on a steady dose of love and understanding. The philosophy and teachings of the Disciples of Christ Church also became an integral fixture in the Havens’ household. As a Protestant denomination, the Disciples, as the church is often referred to, is “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world”, welcoming “all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed” the Disciples. Of his religious education, Havens recalled that “the whole training of our church was for social action…you were out to change the world…” It was an ethos that later shaped the trajectory of his life.

In 1948, tragedy struck the Havens’ household. While on a speaking tour, Virgil died from a cerebral hemorrhage, most likely the result of a head injury suffered while serving on the Western Front during World War I. For 12-year-old David, his father’s sudden death was both heartbreaking and life-changing. When discussing the loss, Havens recalled resigning himself to fate, stating that as a boy he had “to roll with the punches” as he “didn’t have any choice about” his father’s death.

A widow who was now responsible for raising a growing son and putting two daughters through college, Havens’ mother Sue took a job at Midway Junior College, a Disciples-affiliated institution located in Midway, Kentucky. Moving from the manicured neighborhoods of suburbia in 1949 to the segregated South, replete with tobacco plantations, was a culture shock for Havens. 

For starters, the young boy and his mother, who was hired as dean of women at the junior college, lived in the women’s dormitory. A teenage boy living among college coeds made David appreciative of the move and popular among his new male classmates. 

Back in Indiana Havens’ educational experiences were marked by diversity, but Kentucky was a different. During the day, he attended an all white school, where he struggled because of his undiagnosed dyslexia. He spent afternoons playing baseball and basketball games with African-American teenagers.

Havens quickly saw that the lines of white and black were sometimes obscured. And although he witnessed racism, prejudice, and discrimination through the prism of youth, the clarity of injustice was not lost on his youthful eyes. The experience in Kentucky would soon fuel his involvement in the civil-rights movement.

After completing high school, Havens attended Bethany College in West Virginia, where, on his mother’s checkbook, he spent four years partying his way through school and chasing coeds. Tired of her son’s antics, Sue stopped paying Havens’ tuition. Faced with the prospect of being sent to the war raging on the Korean Peninsula, Havens got a job and returned to class—this time more studious, and eventually completing his degree at the liberal arts school. 

A college graduate, Havens still lacked a career path, and once again faced the possibility of serving in Korea. With little options available and calling upon resources within the Disciples, Havens decided to return to Kentucky and follow in his father’s footsteps as an ordained minister.

Like a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, Havens found life at the Lexington Theological Seminary difficult. Theology professors taught the gospel of a poor, unconventional, and disheveled carpenter’s son, while expecting their students to be model, suburban middle-class proselytizers. For a self-described radical, this was conflicting.

As Havens sought balance between who he was and what others expected of him, the emerging civil-rights movement captivated him. Here was an opportunity to make a real difference and right the innumerable wrongs suffered by African-Americans. Against the wishes of many of his seminarian professors, Havens participated in the sit-ins that sprang up throughout the segregated South. Sitting along side both white and African-American students, Havens endured insults and physical harassment at the white-only lunch counters. Havens’ experience validated his belief that he could “be a change agent in society.”

Such realization came at a cost. Havens felt like an outcast among his fellow seminarians. He even considered dropping out of seminary, until a supportive professor said, “ ‘when you get arrested and go to jail it’s good to wear a collar’.” Despite the advice, David did drop out, though only temporarily. In the Caribbean the flames of revolution were engulfing Cuba, and Havens, disillusioned with his current path, made a detour, traveling to the island nation to chronicle the conflagration.

Armed with a 35 millimeter camera, Havens arrived at Havana’s airport posing as a photo-journalist. He quickly made friends with the communist rebels responsible for maintaining law and order throughout the capital. From the back of a Jeep and on foot, Havens captured the ebb and flow of revolution, focusing his camera on the euphoria of social liberation that gave way to spontaneous celebrations or photographing the extrajudicial killings of individuals suspected of criminal activity. For Havens, these images underscored “the reality of being in the midst” of a revolution. 

On the day Fidel Castro was triumphantly paraded through Havana’s streets, Havens asked Castro if he intended to use his rebel forces to claim political power. Castro sheepishly denied his thirst for politics, and according to Havens stated, “‘I am going back into the mountains to raise the finest tobacco in the world…’ “ Havens took Castro’s response as sincere. Only later did Havens realize his naiveté, as Castro’s omission belied the fact that he also wanted to create and maintain an economic system that gave him and his acolytes complete control of the island-nation. Out of film and money, Havens returned to the U.S., where he sold his photos and stories to newspapers in Ohio and Kentucky. Havens then headed back to seminary and served as a student-minister with the Alton Christian Church of Alton, Kentucky. With his theological education and training complete, Havens became ordained minister, Rev. David W. Havens.