Church serves migrant workers “for the good of all.”

Church serves migrant workers “for the good of all”

“It all began with a bottle of juice and a package of cookies.”

So goes the story of Rural & Migrant Ministry, says Jane Konitz, a member of New Hackensack Reformed Church in Wappingers Falls, New York. This ministry with migrant workers in the Hudson Valley area began with area churches donating leftover VBS snacks to the children of men and women who were in the area to pick apples and harvest corn.

More than 30 years ago, that ministry morphed into something more official: the nonprofit organization Rural & Migrant Ministry. As a covenant supporting church, the congregation of New Hackensack has supported RMM financially since its creation. Recently, however, they’ve answered a renewed call to partner with this ministry, not only financially, but also through actions and relationships.

“It is so interesting to see how God places opportunities and mission programs right before our very eyes,” says Keith Tamlyn, pastor at New Hackensack Reformed. “Rural & Migrant Ministry is a project that excites us and inspires us to do the work that God calls us to do.”

Empowering workers

RMM is a statewide nonprofit dedicated to the empowerment of the disenfranchised in New York, especially farm workers and rural workers. It provides education, particularly for rural women; offers yearly conferences on entrepreneurship; puts on summer camps and youth groups for migrant children; and trains area residents on how to become better allies for marginalized people in their communities.

The ministry long ago evolved from one of charity to one of empowerment and justice, says Konitz. In particular, RMM’s “Justice for Farmworkers” campaign has worked for many years to bring farmworkers the same rights that other workers in New York—and other states—enjoy.

“We have succeeded in changing the laws so farmworkers do earn the minimum wage, do have porta-potties in the fields, and do have cold water available,” she says. “But they still do not enjoy overtime pay, any days of rest, or the right to collectively bargain.”

RMM helps raise awareness of these inequalities. “How many of us when we sit down to our Thanksgiving dinner will remember by whose labor that food made it to our table?” asks Konitz. “And how many people are even aware that farmworkers in all states except California still do not have the same basic rights as other workers? The journey to equality is still happening.”

Going deeper

Konitz has been heavily involved with RMM for decades: as a volunteer, secretary of the board, and now as volunteer coordinator of special projects, working with development staff and maintaining relationships with area churches. It was a natural fit to get her home church more involved.

Konitz thinks partnerships between local churches and social justice programs can offer “great potential for growth and promotion of global understanding.

“We cannot sit back and let someone else do it—everyone has a voice in making change happen in positive ways,” she says.

Tamlyn credits Konitz with building a stronger bridge between RMM and New Hackensack. About five years ago, the pastor says, she proposed that the church host RMM youth for a homemade dinner during the summer.

For New Hackensack members, that was the start of an exciting new phase of ministry with RMM. Each summer, all of the children served by RMM spend a week together at an overnight camp; it’s become tradition for New Hackensack to host a dinner on one night of camp. Church members make casseroles, salads, and desserts for the evening, and also serve the meals to the youth.

“Those who have worked the dinner before really enjoy helping out,” says Tamlyn. “As a congregation, many of us are struggling with trying to make ends meet. But working with this ministry, we realize just how much we do have. It helps us to see that we are a part of God’s kingdom, and he calls us to this. It’s a privilege to be able to give back.”

The church has made it a point to reach out in other ways, as well. During the Christmas season, they collect new toys and other gifts to donate to RMM’s Christmas store—an opportunity for migrant families to purchase gifts well below the costs found in stores. The funds raised through this endeavor also pay for a weekend retreat for the women in these families. And, last fall, New Hackensack members collected and filled almost 50 school supply kits so that the children served by RMM would be well-equipped to begin school.

Tamlyn says this kind of community ministry—work that extends outside the four walls of the church—is vital for congregations.

“We’re in this ministry for the good of all, whether they’re our neighbors or our members or rural and migrant workers. We are all one.”

“It makes what we do as a church more credible, more believable,” he says. “We’re in this ministry for the good of all, whether they’re our neighbors or our members or rural and migrant workers. We are all one.”

Konitz has seen the RMM ministry strengthen as inequalities in the food system have become more publicized among social justice advocates. But, she says, there is still more work to be done.

“This is the one area of our work that churches often have difficulty getting involved with because it is political. But in conversation with one of our RCA pastors years ago, he suggested that everyone should note that Jesus was always involved in social justice issues—so the church should be raising its voice!”

Youth lead the way

At New Hackensack, they’re starting with youth. Since so much of RMM’s work impacts young people, the church sees a natural fit in partnering their Youth Fellowship group with this mission. Many YF members help at the Christmas toy store, and some also pitch in during the annual summer dinner. Both Tamlyn and Konitz dream of many more partnerships, with young people taking the lead.

“The youth today want to be proactive—they want to be missonal and do mission trips,” says Konitz. “They are comfortable with diversity and basically accept the fact that race, religion, and nationality don’t matter that much.

“I am excited about future efforts to bridge our [New Hackensack] youth to RMM youth. They are very different, but so much alike. What new voices will be heard? What new opportunities to reach out will evolve? They will be the ones helping and empowering others—and themselves—to make a difference in their families, communities, and, ultimately, the world.”

Pray for eyes that are open to injustice, and hearts that seek to address it.

Pray for the workers and their families who are served by RMM, and for the volunteers who help.

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