By Rev. Enrique Martinez
We do not have to imagine the good work we are doing in some far-off place – they are coming to us, in our country and our communities.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.(Mt 5: 6-7,9)
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
To be a priest for the immigrants, one must leave the comfort of his/her parish in search of the “lost sheep”.
This is my experience since I began to minister to the thousands of migrant farmworkers who live and work in our farms in Haldimand-Norfolk.
For me, it is a unique calling and vocation, as well a privilege that God has granted me to serve the humble workers, who for the most part, are invisible members of our communities. I say invisible because many in our society are not aware of their presence and contribution in our midst.
Almost two years ago I arrived at the parish in Long Bay – a parish comprised of five churches: St. John’s (Port Rowan), St. John’s (Woodhouse), Memorial (Port Ryerse), St. Andrew’s (Turkey Point), and Christ Church (Vittoria). Aside from serving the parishioners whose families extend back generations, I also saw that the Lord gave us a wonderful opportunity of evangelization and hospitality through attending to the needs of the migrant farmworkers.
Being an immigrant myself, I understood the challenges these workers faced because of different barriers such as language, culture, discrimination, and expressions of faith. Nevertheless, it was a ministry that I embarked upon with the blessing of my parish and diocese in order to provide a space of welcome as mandated by the Gospel: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” (Matthew 25:35).
Our Canadian society is blessed to have these workers who leave home and country to work in our fields doing work most Canadians are unwilling to do. They are a vital part of our agricultural industry and food security. They allow our farms to flourish, as well as our economy, by providing important agricultural products both here and abroad.
The Seasonal Workers Agricultural Program (SWAP) has been around since the 1960s. It is a federal program that was meant to be a temporary measure of employment but has become a permanent solution for the agriculture industry.
While the program has benefits for both workers and growers, there is always room for improvement.
The living conditions and labour rights of workers vary from farm to farm. There are exceptional employers who treat their workers with care and respect. There are farms where workers enjoy fair working conditions and rights (with room for improvement) and sadly, there are still numerous farms where workers are exploited and abused.
The program mandates that a worker be extended the same rights and privileges as any other Canadian, the only exception being that when the season ends, the worker returns home until he or she is called back for the following season. In my experience, those who face undue hardship, discrimination and/or abuse rarely speak out for fear of reprisal, i.e., immediate dismissal and the loss of future employment. Recent deaths of migrant farmworkers during the pandemic brought to light some of the weaknesses and cracks in the program.
As a parish, we felt impelled to respond to this pastoral challenge and opportunity. And through the support of our diocese as well as individuals such as Rev. Archdeacon Janet Griffith Clarke, our Dean, Rev. Paul Sherwood, and the generosity of countless parishioners here and throughout the diocese, we were able to establish the Huron Farmworkers Ministry Centre based in Delhi.
Our outreach extends to all the surrounding areas of Haldimand-Norfolk. We also partnered with the Centre for Migrant Workers Solidarity in Simcoe, Ontario that is led by Rev. Peter Ciallella and Ms. Fanny Belcoski. Up until recently, our partnership also included KAIROS, an ecumenical social justice organization of the United Church of Canada.
In just over a year, the Huron Farmworkers Ministry has assisted over 1,000 workers monthly, with clothing, food, kitchen supplies, translation services, child benefit applications, PPE, bicycles, and products for personal hygiene. While the ministry covers hundreds of square kilometres with a migrant worker population that exceeds 5,000, we are able to reach many.
Aside from our social care and assistance, a very important part of the ministry has been spiritual and moral support.
With the assistance of Rev. Paul Sherwood of Trinity Anglican Church, we provide spiritual gatherings and weekly meals each Thursday in Simcoe. We also distribute donated clothing which has proven to be very important as the workers often lack adequate clothing for the diverse temperatures of our Canadian climate. But most importantly, the weekly gatherings provide the workers with a welcoming space for fellowship and recreation. Since the workers spend most of their time on the farms (often 7 days a week), there is minimal opportunity for social interaction, which can adversely impact their mental health.
One of the highlights for me as a missionary priest is the celebration of the Eucharist with the workers in their native language of Spanish.
Faith is a vibrant aspect of the lives of the Spanish-speaking workers from Mexico and Guatemala. In our spiritual encounters, the workers understand through their encounter with the Kingdom of God, that the risen Christ is with them in a very real and palpable way. Christ walks with them, through their struggles, pain, and accomplishments. Moreover, the faith of all our communities is strengthened so that we can help transform the injustices that the disenfranchised face each day. Our goal of peace, healing and reconciliation is ongoing.
Today the Anglican church in Huron is in a unique position of continuing the good work the Lord has entrusted to us by extending our pastoral care to the migrant workers who live among us. We cannot sit idly by. Scripture itself challenges us to move from concern to action: “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” John 3:17.
Beginning in October, funding opportunities with KAIROS have ceased. We continue to seek new partnerships and grant opportunities to foster our work. In the meantime, we turn to the generosity of the good and faithful people of our parishes for any support they can provide.
Ministry of the Huron Farmworkers is missionary in nature. The difference between our missionary work to other missions is that we do not cross borders to serve our brothers and sisters in need. They are coming to us, in our country and our communities. We do not have to imagine the good work we are doing in some far-off place, but rather see the seeds of the gospel firmly planted here. Moreover, we invite anyone to join us for our weekly gatherings. While we do this ministry for no personal gain or reward, the smiles on the faces of these workers and their expressions of gratitude bring much warmth to our hearts knowing that our efforts are making a difference in their lives.
In closing I wish to leave you with some final food for thought. At the Last Judgement we will all need to give an account of our actions and answer the question, “when Lord did I see you hungry and fed you, naked and clothe you, in prison, visited you, a stranger and welcomed you? And the Master will answer, that which you did to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did them unto me.” (Matthew 25).
I thank you for the opportunity to share our wonderful ministry and may the words of Scripture inspire all of us to continue the good work: ‘
The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.(2 Corinthians 8:13-16)
Rev. Enrique Martinez is the priest of Long Point Bay Parish and the director of the Huron Migrant Farmworkers Ministry Centre.