CANADA-UNITED STATESThe Eternal Stranger: Ministry with Migrant Farmworkers
Every spring, as monarch butterflies begin their long journey from Mexico to Canada, they are followed by tens of thousands of human migrants. They come, summer after summer, to harvest fruits, berries and vegetables, low paid work for which few Canadians are interested in applying. The migrants, mostly Mexican men, are part of the Season Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Their labour and low wages help keep Canadian agri-business competitive and Canadian produce relatively cheap.
One of these men is Antonio. Antonio had been coming to Canada every year for over 20 years, usually arriving in April and returning home in December – the maximum stay allowed under the program. He leaves behind his wife and family – only those who have wives and children are allowed into the program. Although Antonio spends most of his life in Canada, he will never be allowed to become a permanent resident or to bring his family.
Life in Canada is lonely and the work difficult. But Antonio hopes that, after paying his expenses in Mexico and Canada, he can put aside enough cash to pay for the education of his children. Others are saving to buy a little house or a small business – all depending on the quality of the harvest and the number of hours they are able to work. Over the years Antonio has learned a little English, but there is little opportunity to practice. Antonio and his co-workers live in a kind of barracks, 50 km from the nearest major town. The program does not provide for language classes; the work days are long and Antonio has little opportunity to interact with people other than his co-workers and bosses. The workers remain eternal strangers in the country where they spend so much of their lives. At the same time, those who stay in Canada for the full term of 8 months per annum become strangers to their families back home. Antonio has missed the birth of his children, their birthdays, their graduations and the funerals of his parents.
Oblates in British Colombia (Otto ROLLHEISER) and in Manitoba (Thomas NOVAK) have been part of ministries that befriend and support workers like Antonio. As a student at St. Paul University in the 1980’s, Thomas studied the liberating leadership of Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers. Chavez led many successful actions to improve the working conditions of Mexican and Mexican American workers who harvest the fruit and vegetables of California and Texas. Today Thomas coordinates a volunteer ministry to another generation of Mexican farm workers; it is based out of Winnipeg’s St. Ignatius Hispanic Catholic Community.
Thomas Novak with his guitar and members of the choir of SAWP workers.
During the harvesting season, Thomas organizes monthly celebrations of the Eucharist in Spanish for Mexican workers in Portage la Prairie and in the village of St. Eustache. The goal of the ministry is not just to provide religious services but to address the isolation of the men, to help them make some contact with the community and to give them a sense that they are cared for and that they are valued for more than for their labour. Thomas and other volunteers visit with the workers on Friday evenings when they are driven into town to do some shopping and their banking. The volunteers try to address any problems that the workers bring to their attention. Every year the ministry organizes special celebrations around Mexican Independence Day (September 15). The celebrations include a supper prepared by the parishes in Portage and St. Eustache and soccer matches between teams from the larger farms.
In 2009, Thomas co-founded the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network (MWSN). The MWSN is a more political coalition that educates Manitobans about the realities lived by migrant SAWP workers like Antonio. Its members also campaign for better working conditions for the workers. They have successfully lobbied Manitoba’s NDP government to assure that SAWP workers are covered by the provincial medical health plan. In 2015, MWSN volunteers began organizing language classes at two of the farms.
Choir composed of Mexican SAWP workers at a Spanish language Eucharist at St Eustache.
There remains much to do. Although SAWP workers pay the same taxes as Canadian residents, they receive few of the benefits received by other workers. They pay into the national Employment Insurance plan, but cannot collect benefits. Most provinces still deny them participation in provincial Medicare plans. In 2013 the Harper Government stripped SAWP workers of the possibility of applying for the child tax benefit. Workers in most provinces are subject to abuse by recruiters and may be removed from the SAWP program if they are suspected of communicating with a union organizer or otherwise stand up for their rights.
If you would ask Antonio what would be the change he longs for most, he (and many of his co-workers) would say that it would be the opportunity to bring his family here and to make Canada his permanent home. The MWSN is linking up with like-minded coalitions across the country to encourage the new federal government to provide a pathway to permanent residency for all temporary workers. The rallying cry is "Good enough to work here, good enough to live here”.
The volunteer work that Thomas does among migrant workers is another way that Oblate priests, brothers and associates of OMI Lacombe Canada seek to be present to those who have been pushed toward the margins and, like St. Eugene, to help them to appreciate their dignity as beloved children of the Creator. (http://www.omilacombe.ca/)
On Sunday, November 29, Bro. Thomas CRUISE of the Immaculate Heart of Mary community in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, was the recipient of the Cheverus Medal Award from Sean Cardinal O’Malley, OFM Cap., at Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston.
Brother Thomas Cruise with an auxiliary bishop of Boston and the Cheverus Medal Award
The recipients, who include lay people, religious and deacons, are chosen for their service to the Church for an extended period of time and in a quiet, unassuming and possibly unrecognized fashion.
In 2012, Bro. James LUCAS was a recipient as was Bro. Charles GILBERT in 2010.
This award was instituted by Cardinal O’Malley in 2008, the bicentennial year of the Archdiocese. The medals are conferred upon recipients annually on or around the Solemnity of Christ the King to those who are selected from throughout the Archdiocese.
The silver medal bears the image of Bishop Jean-Louis Anne Magdelaine Lefebvre de Cheverus. On the reverse side is Bishop Cheverus’ coat of arms and episcopal motto "diligamus nos invicem” (let us love one another). Bishop Cheverus was the founding Bishop of Boston. He served from 1808 until 1824 when he returned to France. He died in 1836 as the Archbishop of Bordeaux.
At the invitation of Fr. Luc TARDIF, provincial, last November 12, right after the provincial congress, a certain number of Oblates were invited to bring together their reflections, plans, concerns, etc., regarding our mission in Côte -Nord. Present were: Gérard BOUDREAULT, Gérard TSATSELAM, Cornelius Ali NNAEMEKA, André LAROCHE, Jacques LALIBERTÉ, Raymond MARQUIS, Laurent DESAULNIERS and Luc Tardif.
The indigenous peoples of Côte-Nord experience many difficulties: the tough life of the youth (often without work) is manifested by suicides, dependence on alcohol and drugs; the violence done to women has been brought to the fore by the Val d’Or revelations…(Editor: numerous allegations of assault and sexual abuse of local aboriginal women by members of the provincial police.)
Our missionaries also have their challenges: competition caused by certain Christian sects (Baptists, etc.); promotion of the traditional indigenous religion; and especially attachment to a traditional and superficial way of living Christianity: many Innus hold on to certain rituals (baptism, funerals) without an adequate preparation to give these a deeper meaning.
What orientation should we give to our missionary practices? That’s a big question that must remain open to research! Shouldn’t we live more intensely the events which interest our people? Shouldn’t we risk "going forward into unknown lands?” Is it necessary to respond to all the pressures? Should we not reserve some time for ourselves to spend together in fostering our Oblate life as a team? The sacraments are an excellent opportunity for catechesis: isn’t it vital to form teams that can assure an meaningful preparation? Shouldn’t we live close enough to the people so as to understand what will make them grow in their personal relationship with God?
Looking toward the future… It seems urgent that we get younger co-workers but that does not appear to be an easy job. The faith of the grandmothers no longer passes automatically to their grandchildren. There are significant intergenerational hurts! We really need to adjust.
We absolutely need to focus more and strengthen our life as a team; we need to devote time and energy to it! We need new perspectives and a powerful tonic! "Praying together and rejoicing together.” (INFO OMI 1 December 2015)
On October 7, Bishop Doug CROSBY and Frs. Tony O’DELL and Jarek PACHOCKI launched their initiative for a church without walls outside St. Patrick’s Church in Hamilton. At the ceremony of unveiling the statues and the new prayer space, Fr. Tony quoted Pope Francis about the role of the church, " … A church should be a bridge, not a road block.”
Taking down the fence surrounding St. Patrick’s Church building was a clear sign of the welcoming spirit of hospitality. New statues of the Homeless Jesus and St. Patrick, crafted by internationally known artist, Timothy P. Schmultz, brought the Gospel message outside of the church itself to all who pass by.
Eight feet tall on a four foot pedestal, the statue of St. Patrick, the great saint, known as the "Apostle of Ireland”, is an imposing and inspiring figure on the grounds. The dimensions are monumental and heroic – fittingly "larger than life” for a missionary saint who was called by our Lord to evangelize a barbarous land.
The image of the Homeless Jesus
is both unusual and arresting. In his comments, Bishop Doug said, "Jesus knew
what it was to be bullied, to be falsely accused, arrested, abandoned,
condemned to death, imprisoned and executed. The statue challenges us to reach
out to those who are suffering.” Only after one really looks at the statue will
they learn the message: "If they really look at the feet, they will see the
wounds in the feet and they will identify it as Jesus.”
(http://www.omilacombe.ca/ and http://www.stpatrickshamilton.ca/thechurchwithoutwalls/)