You may have seen them as you drive east, west or north of Toronto: Old Testament-like scenes with hundreds of foreign workers labouring in fields and orchards to produce the summer’s bounty of fruits, vegetables and flowers.
These seasonal agricultural employees arrive in May and June from Latin America, the Caribbean and Asia and remain separated from their families until they depart in November. Living in barracks on farms, they were once isolated and unsupported with little access to transportation, counselling and other services. But now, innovative Anglican outreach ministries in the diocese are helping to change that.
At the forefront of collaboration with the Durham Region Migrant Workers Network (DRMWN), the Rev. Augusto Nunez, the Rev. Canon Ted McCollum and the Rev. Kit Greaves are among those leading a comprehensive outreach to visiting field workers.
The Peruvian-born Mr. Nunez is the new priest-in-charge at St. Saviour, Orono, about 90 km east of Toronto. Thanks to a Ministry Allocation Fund grant from the diocese, he’ll be able to split his time between serving at St. Saviour’s and conducting an itinerant ministry across the communities of Northumberland County in aid of seasonal workers. “I came to Canada at age 12, and I can relate to living in a strange land and culture and leaving everything you know. You need support,” he says.
Mr. Nunez’s group kicked off the 2017 season with a health fair on July 16 at St. John, Bowmanville, where Mr. Greaves is the incumbent, and celebrated St. Saviour’s first Spanish service on July 23. Last year, Mr. Nunez served in the seasonal workers’ program based at St. John’s, and before that he spent three summers doing the same in the Beaverton area. In collaboration with a growing number of other groups in the DRMWN, his ministry tends to a broad swathe of spiritual and practical needs – from worship services for workers in Spanish and English to psychological counselling, medical and dental care, safety and transportation. Distributing reconditioned bicycles to workers is a key element of this program.
The health fairs include not only consultations with doctors but also nutritional advice stressing the importance of a good diet. “Some workers tend to drink a lot of sugary pop,” Mr. Nunez says. Depression can be a problem, too, and the program has brought on board a psychologist to help with that. Local doctors have begun to offer their services as well.
“We even have a friend who comes over to give free haircuts,” says Mr. Nunez. “And we’re also networking to bring in English as a Second Language. Knowing English can help workers get ahead in their positions and maybe become supervisors.”
Mr. Nunez loves soccer, and as a registered soccer coach, he enjoys organizing pickup games with the workers. He’s also well acquainted with the music, special holidays and food of Latin America and the Caribbean, and he knows how to throw a party. All that serves to cement relationships. “Over the summer, friendships are formed. In November, we say goodbye to friends; then in May, they’re back again and we’re here to support them,” he says.
For Fernando, a 35-year-old worker from the central Mexican city of Guanajuato, it’s his second summer in Canada and his first in Northumberland County. “I’m very grateful for this ministry and what it’s doing personally for me. I really appreciate the support,” he says, echoing the feelings of many other workers.
Adds Delroy Smith, who hails from historic Spanish Town in Jamaica, and is in his second year of working on an apple farm near Bowmanville, “It’s a really good ministry where we can come together as one and unite and feel loved as family.”
One thing that’s made the six months of separation a little easier for workers like Fernando and Delroy, says Mr. Nunez, is the advent of cheap cell phone plans that allow them to connect frequently with their families back home.
As for Canon McCollum, who started a small program at St. Paul, Beaverton in 2009 after noticing large numbers of Mexican workers on the town’s streets, he’s gratified to see this caring work steadily expand along the Highway 401 corridor. “I’m over the moon that other parishes have taken up this kind of ministry and that the diocese supports us in a ministry that reaches over a thousand workers,” he says. “These are workers who previously had no connection to any church or health services, and I’m really excited to see what started as a small group grow to where we’re serving so many people.” St. Paul’s held a health fair and welcome dinner for Beaverton-area seasonal workers in June.
Looking ahead, Canon McCollum would like to see Mr. Nunez’s ministry become a full-time one, with perhaps another person brought in to help with the demands of dealing with both the men and the farm owners. And he hopes more parishes will jump on board. “Open your front doors and see the people who need help and get on the bandwagon,” he says.