New England pastors reach out to migrant workers
Sep. 25, 2006
NOTE: A UMTV report and photographs are available at http://umns.umc.org.
By John Gordon*
WASHINGTON COUNTY, Maine (UMNS) - They work up to 12 hours a day, harvesting the delectable main ingredient for blueberry muffins, pancakes and pies.
Each year, thousands of migrant workers stream into Washington County to work in the wild blueberry capital of the world. But the migrants - representing a diverse mix of Native American and Latino cultures - face backbreaking work, low wages and sometimes poor living conditions as they bring in the crop.
United Methodist pastors from New England are reaching out to help.
"It's hard. We think they often get taken advantage of," said the Rev. Betty Palmer, pastor of Jacksonville United Methodist Church in Machias, Maine.
Palmer began her ministry six years ago, visiting migrant workers, giving away blankets and baby needs, and holding worship services in camps where they live.
"The first year we went out, three of us with a sign around our neck, in Spanish, that said, 'God loves you and so do we.' And we handed out blankets and Bibles and became known as the blanket ladies," she said.
The ministers and volunteers who come to help them are a welcome sight for Armando Aguilar, 26, from Honduras. Aguilar began working in the fields after construction jobs became difficult to find in the area.
"We work here and then we work there, and we don't make very much money," he said. "And so we can't afford the medicines and things that we need."
Holy Pants and Shirts
One of the best shopping bargains in the area may be a used-clothing store, Holy Pants and Shirts, supported by United Methodist churches. For a dollar, migrants can fill a large bag with clothing, shoes and Bibles. Or, if money is a problem, they can pick out what they need without charge.
Many migrant workers are supporting their families in other countries, or making money to buy school clothes or a used car.
Andres Flores, 46, came from Mexico and began working in blueberry, orange and tobacco fields five years ago.
"I have to be here," he said. "In Mexico, doing the work, we earn very little money. For me, it's just the work for my family."
About 20 churches, most of them United Methodist, support the migrant-workers outreach as part of Down East Maine Missions. The clothing store is located near a center that offers free commodity foods, medical care and other assistance to workers.
Churches have come up with creative ways to raise money for the outreach.
First United Methodist Church of Marlborough, Mass., sponsored a motorcycle rally that brought in enough funds to buy 200 blankets. Church members also donated teddy bears and other gifts for children.
"These people are literally buried out in fields, miles away from nowhere, in an extremely remote and impoverished part of the country," said the Marlborough church's pastor, the Rev. Linda Stetter.
"They work under harsh conditions and they have very little education, and they have no voice. They're almost invisible."
Some live in bare cabins in work camps, while others sleep in their cars or in the fields, Stetter said.
Lessons about work
Native Americans who used to live in Maine return to the area each year to rake the wild blueberries, which grow on squatty bushes close to the ground.
Donna Augustine, whose Native American spirit name is Thunderbird Turtle Woman, began working in the fields when she was a child. She now lives in Canada and raises seven children.
"It's a tradition to come here," Augustine said. "It teaches the children hard work - that at the end of the day, after you've raked very hard, that you'll feel good about yourself, and when you pick up that paycheck, it wasn't just handed to you."
Pastor Palmer estimated about 6,000 migrant workers came to harvest blueberries this year in Maine - down from previous years. She said fewer jobs are available because some lease-holders now use machines, which do not require as many workers.
But some fields, she said, are difficult to harvest by machine. Maine has an estimated 60,000 acres of naturally growing blueberries.
Palmer said most of the workers entered the country legally with work visas. But others lacking the proper paperwork keep a wary eye out for Border Patrol officers who can be seen cruising the area's streets.
"Some are here on student visas, and so they're allowed to be here for education, but haven't been able to feed themselves," she said.
"They're not really looking to take a job. They just want to eat while they're here."
More information about Down East Maine Missions is available at http://neconference.brickriver.com/files/oFiles_Library_XZXLCZ/Material_ Aid__for_Down_East_Maine_Missions_WQJT6CG4.pdf or by contacting Betty Palmer at (207) 952-0413 or email@example.com.
*Gordon is a freelance producer and writer based in Marshall, Texas, who travels on assignment for United Methodist News Service.
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