History of migrant workers’ outreach at Carlisle/Kilbride United Churches
Every year they arrive from Mexico, Central America, South America and the Caribbean islands. Our migrant workers come to our shores to labour in our local nurseries and crop farms to provide the workforce so essential to the economy of our area. Sacrificing their own family life for a better standard of living for their families, these men and women are much more than labourers, they are our heroes.
We are the two small rural communities of Carlisle and Kilbride United Churches, situated about five kilometers apart and located in the cities of Hamilton and Burlington, Ontario. Our migrant workers’ outreach had its genesis almost twenty years ago when a caring congregant from Kilbride was moved with compassion when she noticed a couple of Jamaican workers from a local farm riding their bicycles in the dark on a country road. They appeared friendless and ignored. She made an appeal to her church and the whole community of Kilbride came together with compassion. Invitations were sent to the farms and the first barbeque for migrant workers took place.
Following the initiative of the Kilbride community, some thoughtful Carlisle congregants noticed that a group of Mexican workers were gathering around the pay phone in the village on Sunday mornings. Using a combination of rudimentary Spanish and sign language, they invited the men into the church to share in the coffee hour after worship service. From those small beginnings, a tradition was born that has expanded, flourished and still survives today.
For all of these years, both churches have been providing a welcome event in the spring, when the workers first arrive and a farewell event in the fall, around Thanksgiving. Over the years, as we learned more about the needs of our guests, these events have evolved into much more than dinners. At each event we often have as many as 80 guests. The early arrivals play soccer, basketball or other sports and all are treated to a home-cooked meal. They play games and compete for prizes, including bicycles, refurbished by our local scout group. Both churches provide a free “store” where our guests are invited to pick out donated clothing, boots, jewelry, toys and suitcases for themselves and their families. We wish them well as they leave, laden with food packages, prizes and clothing with smiles on their faces and we are richly rewarded. Next day we take the remaining food to the farms, to those who had to work and could not attend. Excess clothing is donated to the Salvation Army or other charity. Our efforts are reinforced fully by the farm and nursery owners who are always grateful for the kindness shown to their workers. Many are faithful supporters of our churches.
Our mission is to provide this forgotten and often vilified segment of our society with a friendly place to be for a few hours, to share an evening of fun and fellowship with colleagues from other farms and to get some respite from their intensely physical work. We welcome those who have been coming for many years and they have become our friends. This is an outreach that engages and involves not only church-goers but the wider community including local businesses. We often have as many volunteers as guests and there is never a shortage of willing and caring people to cook, translate, donate monetary gifts, prizes, clothing, do kitchen duty and clean-up.
Sadly, during the current pandemic restrictions, we are not permitted any personal contact with the workers, so both our churches have teamed with Migrants Matter Flamborough, an ecumenical group of several area communities, to provide welcome kits of personal care needs and food for the workers when they first arrive. In the fall of 2020, instead of our traditional farewell events, our communities contributed a wealth of home baked treats which we delivered to the farms at Thanksgiving.
In this rewarding outreach, we are reminded of how essential the migrant workers’ program is to our crop farms and nurseries. Through the efforts of these courageous men and women, enduring both the cold and heat of our Canadian climate, we have attractive plants in our gardens and bountiful local produce to nourish us. We learn of their sacrifices of family life, the newborn that has yet to be held, the missed first steps, the birthdays and life celebrations that can only be witnessed on cell phones. We are made aware of living conditions that are not always ideal, often cramped with inadequate facilities and unwanted closeness. There is also the good news of being able to afford a university education for their children, being able to buy essential medicine or arrange corrective surgery for a child and being able to start up a family business back home.
Our outreach is a tribute to these brave people, to let them know how much we value their presence in our country. It recognizes their sacrifices and expresses our gratitude for the crucial work they do.
Always we are reminded of the words of St. Paul: Remember to offer hospitality to strangers for in doing so you may unknowingly be welcoming angels. Hebrews 13.
Sharon Banks/Catherine Swatten, Kilbride/Carlisle Community of Faith, Migrant Worker’s Outreach.