An outreach program for migrant farm workers in the diocese of Huron is drawing in interest both from the migrant workers themselves and from members of the community who want to be involved in the church’s charitable work.
The Rev. Enrique Martinez, priest for the parish of Long Point Bay and the director of the Huron Farmworkers Ministry says it started last year with a budget and a plan to provide weekly meals and support to 100 workers each month, but quickly grew to serve 1,000. This year the program, sustained with funding from non-profit The Neighbourhood Organization (TNO), ministers to up to 1,500.
Coming out of the pandemic, Martinez says, he and the parish’s wardens were working on identifying the needs of the community when he made a trip to Simcoe, Ont. for groceries and saw that the local Food Basics and Walmart were gathering places for migrant workers. At the time, he says, most Anglican churches in the area were made up almost entirely of people who spoke only English.
“We never imagined that the need is there [for] Spanish language ministry,” he says. “We never imagined that so many brothers and sisters from another country who come to our country are in need of different things. Not only food, they need support, they need mental health, they need spirituality.”
In response, Martinez began work on a program that now provides weekly meals, fellowship, donated clothing and supplies—plus a mid-week Spanish language church service that attracts 120 people, mostly migrant workers.
He says a common theme in his preaching is the need to take care of strangers in need, which he sees commanded throughout Scripture. And living up to that calling has had unexpected benefits to the parish, he says.
Not only do the workers themselves often want to give back to the church—some have applied their green thumbs to helping the parish’s community garden flourish—but the program has also drawn interest and donations from the surrounding community. Neighbours have heard about the ministry to migrant workers and reached out asking how they can contribute to the work or even to other projects the parish is working on, says Martinez.
“I receive calls from people who are not Christians. I have one guy who is Muslim who now wants to become an Anglican. He just came to me and he said, ‘I want to be a minister like you someday because I see what you’re doing and I want to do it.’ ” The numbers at their Sunday services haven’t increased, he says, but that’s not what’s important for the moment. Aside from the 120 people coming to the Spanish services, the impact on the community is showing itself in their interest in its charity work. “I think the only reason the people are going to come back to the church is if they have a reason to fight for the church. And that’s what we’re trying to do here.”
Many of the migrant workers who come to harvest fruit and vegetables in southern Ontario end up feeling isolated and lonely, says Eliud Jimenez, one of the workers who regularly visits the outreach program. Speaking to the Journal with translation help from of one of the program’s Spanish-speaking facilitators, he says being away from friends and family is depressing for him and other workers he knows. As a result, the outreach program has been a blessing, he says, offering a place to feel at home while he works to send money home to his family. He says he would want Anglicans across the country who might consider starting a similar outreach in their own parishes to know what a difference they make.
One of Jimenez’s co-workers, who refused to leave the farm he was working on or socialize with the other migrants, ended up getting so depressed he had to go home. Jimenez said that was a wake-up call that he needed to take better care of his own mental health, so he accepted the invitation to visit the outreach program. It made a big difference in his outlook, he says, from offering him chances to laugh and spend social time with other workers to helping him feel a meaningful connection with God despite being away from his home church in Mexico.
That’s why it’s important that rather than waiting for migrants to find it, the program sends facilitators out to the farms where migrant workers are and to the places where they shop when they come into town, says Martinez. Some are hesitant when approached, fearing Canadians might not welcome temporary workers from outside the country. But it helps to speak their languages—Spanish, for some, Caribbean dialects of English for others. And they respond well to his priest’s collar.
“They see the collar, they just come to you. You don’t have to go far to find people who trust in the ministry, who trust in the priest.”
Though many people ask him whether workers, especially those from Mexico wouldn’t be more at home with the Roman Catholic church rather than the Anglican one, he tells them, “No. As soon as the people are here, they are people of God. That’s all … They want to make a connection with Jesus Christ who rose for everyone no matter [their] religion.”
Some of the farmers they work for, Martinez says, are hesitant to invite visitors on-property lest they stir up discontent with the workers. But it’s vital, he adds, that churches send volunteers out to tell them about the ministry.
“The mission is out there. It’s not in here,” he says. “We send people out like Jesus Christ and the disciples, two by two. And as soon as ten people know, it’s like, boom, everyone knows what’s happening and people are starting to come.”
In May, they started another outreach location in Tilsonburg where the first week, one person showed up, then five or ten the next. “The third week was around 60 people,” says Martinez. “So the numbers grow exponentially.”