Ministries touch lives of seasonal field workers

Posted on June 16, 2017

By Diana Swift

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 outreach ministries in the Diocese of Toronto are helping to change that.

At the forefront of collaboration with the Durham Region Migrant Workers Network (DRMWN), the Rev. Augusto Nunez and the Rev. Canon Ted McCollum are among those leading a comprehensive outreach to visiting field workers.

The Rev. Augusto Nunez and Desley White, a seasonal worker from Jamaica (right) with an unknown Mexican worker after a service in 2016 at St. John, Bowmanville. Photos courtesy of the Rev. Augusto Nunez.

The Peruvian-born Nunez is the new priest-in-charge at St. Saviour’s in the picturesque town of Orono, about 90 kilometres east of Toronto. Thanks to a Ministry Allocation Fund grant for innovative ministry, he’ll be able to split his time in one-third/two-thirds proportion between presiding 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,” says the married father of four grown sons.

Mr. Nunez’s group will kick off the 2017 season with a health fair on July 16 at St. John, Bowmanville, and will celebrate St. Saviour’s first Spanish service on July 23.

Last year, the pastor 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 masses 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 an Italian friend, Gino, 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, this can help workers get ahead in their positions and maybe become supervisors.”

Like most Latin Americans, the pastor 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.

Seasonal workers line up to receive Communion at a service at St. John, Bowmanville in 2016.

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. One thing that’s made the six months of separation a little easier for workers like Fernando, says Mr. Nunez, is the advent of cheap cell phone plans that allow them to connect frequently with their families back home.

As for the pioneering Mr. McCollum, who back in 2009 started a small workers’ program at St. Paul, Beaverton after noticing large numbers of Mexican workers on the town’s streets, he’s gratified to see this caring work steadily expand along the 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 will hold a health fair and welcome dinner for Beaverton-area seasonal workers on June 25.

Looking ahead, Mr. McCollum would like to see Mr. Nunez’s ministry become a full-time one, with perhaps another person brought in to assist 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.

Follow the ministry of the Durham Region Migrant Workers Network on Facebook at facebook.com/nunez1982.