Javier Arias serves as the Rector of St. Alban’s Church in Beamsville, a church committed to ministering in practical ways to the Spanish-speaking migrant workers of the area. The story of how God led him to this ministry begins some fifteen years ago.
Javier came to Canada in 2000 from Colombia to work with a bilingual Roman Catholic community in Hamilton. Javier recalls, “At that time, I started to learn about other churches-- the Anglican churches and the Baptist churches, because most people in my country are Roman Catholic, so you don’t see a lot of different churches like here.” Just about the time that he began contemplating shifting over to another church, however, he was relocated to New Orleans to work with Mexicans and Hondurans.
After spending almost four years in America, Javier returned to Canada, obtained permanent residency, and joined the Anglican Church. One year later, he was appointed to a little church, once again in Hamilton, and was asked to start a Spanish ministry, which he ran until 2013. He was then offered a position at St. Alban’s to serve both the English and Spanish people of the area.
It didn’t take long to meet Spanish workers, and discover their challenges. “There’s one home where there are twenty-two ladies in house. Go to the next house, and there are eight ladies, and you go to the next house, and there are forty-four men. So you’re talking about 80 people in just three homes.”
The federal program that opens the doors for international workers to come to Canada provides an income, but it comes at a cost: long-term separation from family. “Some of the workers are here until the end of October,” Javier explained. “And some people stay here all throughout the winter because there are grapes (to harvest), and they work in greenhouses. (Those workers) spend all year here. Some people from Guatemala spent two years in a row in the program, then came back after three or four months. It’s a big thing for them to leave families and come here without children. I think at they feel isolated here.”
And the isolation can even be amongst the workers themselves. “The twenty-two ladies come from different places in Mexico, with different traditions and even different languages. I found one lady who didn’t speak Spanish. She spoke a native language. So it was amazing for her to try to communicate with the other ladies because they didn’t understand her. It’s hard for her… no Spanish, no English.”
“I received a call from a Caribbean ministry in Vineland. They used to come here during the summer to do a service. They started to see Mexican people around, and they began to wonder if some kind of service could be provided to these people. So we started in May of last year by providing ESL (English as a Second Language) courses and a community kitchen programme.
“We have spiritual support on Sunday, with more people coming for this than for our regular Sunday service. We did the service from May until the end of September. And the response of the people was very positive, which meant they needed that kind of support. We know that someone in Jordan is helping migrant workers too, but it’s really far from here. We hope to double the numbers this year, and instead of starting in May, we want to start now.”
Different agencies are partnering with St. Alban’s to meet the needs.“We are blessed this year because we have three big partners that have started to work with us. We have received a donation of ten bikes, so this year we’re creating a bike loan programme. They’ll use the bikes for transportation, especially the ladies. We also found a doctor and nurse that plan to come once a month, and two other Spanish doctors in St. Catharines. We will bring five people a week to see them, to receive service in Spanish.” Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines will run a program at the church that will teach workers how to cook and eat healthy meals. There is the possibility of expanding the programme to others who may be in need in Beamsville as well. Along with Quest, the Diocese of Niagara has given a grant that is going toward transportation for the workers on Sundays, and the Agricultural Workers Alliance are assisting with immigration, tax, and other legal issues. As workers paying taxes in Canada, they are also eligible to apply for benefits that they may not be aware of.
Javier is especially excited to see the members of St. Albans embracing the workers, and the ministry to them, with similar fervour. “Last year our ESL programme was run by a lady from El Salvador, but this year, members of our community will run it, which is better. They are Canadian; they can speak better, so they can teach better.
“Some of our ladies are inviting them to their houses on Saturday nights, or on Sundays. This is a nice connection, and they start to feel like they belong here. Or they’ll see workers in the supermarket, and they’ll say ‘ola’. They’re starting to build a bridge.”
According to Javier, there are two to four thousand workers from Grimsby to Niagara Falls. “If they don’t come over here, I don’t think Canadians are going to start working on the farms. They are making a big contribution to our country. I think people in our community has to realize that we have other people that are working for us, and doing a good job for us. But I think that the community is opening their eyes to that reality.”
As much as the ministry at St. Alban’s focuses on the workers receiving assistance, there is also opportunity for them to give back as well. “We are going to offer Spanish lessons for Canadians. We plan to start in the middle of April. We’ve had seven people asking for lessons. We hope to spread the word in the community so they can know that we offer that kind of service also. Some Mexican ladies are able to help us with the lessons. They feel that they can give something to the community too. And I think that this will help us to build stronger relations.”
Small, practical items are always needed, Javier says, that the general public can help supply. “We are asking for blankets, things for the kitchen, small heaters for the room… I received a call one Friday night from four guys from Vineland, saying, ‘we are very cold, we have no heat’.” More bikes, Land headlights for them, are also needed, as well as work clothes, and towels.
Volunteer drivers are a necessity as well. “The farm owners bring them to town to do groceries but sometimes they miss the opportunity and they have to pay for transportation. Workers pay too much money to come to town to do groceries if they don’t have bikes. They have to pay maybe $25 to $45 to come. So volunteers for transportation is a big thing. Even to bring them to the church, and back to their houses, that’s a big thing. Not all of them can ride a bike, and not all of them have bikes.”
“It would be nice to have more people involved, even from outside our congregation.”
Another sometimes overlooked need is for social activity. The long hours of work and separation from family can take a toll on the workers, sometimes spend up to $100 to get to social hangouts in St. Catharines where they meet other Hispanics. They then drink very heavily to put their worries behind them. “They put their anxieties and fears and isolation into beer. They come together as Spanish people, but they are going to the wrong places. This is really painful for me because they don’t have any other healthy places to go.
A social activities coordinator is also on Javier’s short list of items for his expanding ministry. “Maybe we can have a Saturday movie, or a Bingo event, and provide a really healthy environment. We can provide some kind of recreation.”