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Migrant workers discover friendship, ministry from Tampa-area church

TAMPA, Fla. (BP)–For 18 months, the doors of Wimauma Spanish Baptist Church near Tampa were closed, no pastor available to lead the people. Every week member Domingo Sanchez, 72, would sit on the church porch and cry out for God to send His servant to open the doors.

His prayers were answered when Raul Puente arrived as pastor in October 1999. When the doors were opened, God poured out His blessings. Within his first seven months of ministry Puente saw 66 persons, drawn from the migrant community, make professions of faith. Worship attendance has drawn as many as 70.

Cultivating the spiritual fields in a community where drug and gangs are prevalent is difficult work. But Puente has found success by inviting farm workers and their families to church to view Christian videos, such as the “Jesus” film, and offering food and clothing. The migrants are open to the gospel message, Puente reports. Puente transports children and adults to church in his little pick-up truck, making as many as five trips to gather the crowd for each church service.

More than 70 children attended a vacation Bible school underwritten by funds from the Maguire State Mission Offering. Five young men made professions of faith through this one activity.

Migrant Marcelo Sanchez, 23, is one of those who have been led to the Lord through Puente’s efforts. Originally from Mexico, Shanchez works the fields in the farming community near Wimauma, picking oranges, watermelons and cucumbers-whatever is in season at the time — tedious and strenuous work requires little education or technical skills.

Located just southeast of Tampa, Wimauma is known for its agricultural products as well as its violence and gangs. Almost every weekend, Tampa news reports tell of another murder in the community where drugs and alcohol abuse is widespread.

Sanchez broke away from that lifestyle several months ago when Pastor Raul Puente invited him to attend the Hispanic mission of First Baptist Church. It was there that Sanchez met the Lord and turned his life around.

“I can’t imagine my life without Christ,” said the Mexican young man through an interpreter. “My life has changed because I seek the Lord every day and come to church.”

“My life is different now. People here drink, smoke, use drugs and listen to bad music. But I don’t want that anymore.”

Puente, too, has been working the fields near Wimauma, not picking crops, but harvesting souls. In a seven-month span after he arrived in October, 66 persons have made professions of faith through his efforts to lead them to the Lord. They are attracted to church through Puente’s personal invitation, offers of food and clothing and to view Christian films such as the “Jesus” video.

Many of the children in the community attended the church’s vacation Bible school. Puente transported the children to church in a borrowed van making six trips to gather the more than 70 in attendance. The classes were held under the trees in the late afternoon because the building’s air conditioner does not work properly.

For many of the children, vacation Bible school is their first opportunity to hear about Jesus and the difference He can make in their lives. Florida Baptists through gifts to the Maguire State Mission Offering provided the funds for this ministry, helping to purchase supplies and materials. Serving as pastor of a migrant church is fraught with discouragement. Church members are too poor to fully financially support their pastor. Many of those won to the Lord will leave the area when picking season is over. Doing double duty for the Lord, Puente also serves as pastor of a migrant church in nearby Ruskin in an effort to make ends meet.

Miguel de la Cruz, a field missionary with the task of helping churches minister to the 400,000 migrants and seasonal farm workers in the state, believes there is an urgency to reaching migrants and especially their children with the gospel.

Looking at a group of teens studying the Bible under the trees, de la Cruz shook his head. “They have no hope. It’s sad. They are rebellious. Many of them will drop out of school. Their parents could care less about their education. They know that society will never fully accept them.”

He added, “They realize they will be destined to live the lives of their parents. They will get married at an early age, and the cycle will begin again.”

De la Cruz knows of their hopeless. In the eighth grade he was forced to drop out of school and work the fields with his parents. His own life was changed by the transforming powers of Jesus Christ. He is committed to sharing with others like himself that their lives can be changed through the gospel.
Churches ministering to predominately migrant families rarely will be financially independent. The poorly paid migrants have little money to give to their church, despite working extremely long hours in strenuous conditions.

Puente and other migrant pastors face disappointment and discouragement, realizing that after evangelizing and discipling migrant families, they will move when the picking season is over. A proposed $35,000 allocation in the Maguire State Mission Offering will help pastors and churches as they seek to reach this unreached people group located within our state.

Migrant Ministries: The proposed allocation is expected to fund two projects to assist Florida churches with ministries in or near migrant farm laborer camps. Most of these congregations are Hispanic or Haitian. Because of their own limited financial resources, these congregations are unable to provide effective ministries needed to reach with the gospel the migrant farm laborer and their families. It is estimated that there are between 88,000 and 150,000 migrants who come to Florida between October and March each year to harvest crops. Three of the proposed projects, to be funded by $ 33,200 of the total allocation, will provide three special camps for migrant children, migrant Hispanic youth and migrant families. A fourth project, an annual School of the Prophets for pastors serving the migrant community is designated to receive $1,800. The school is designed to provide spiritual and ministerial development resources for migrant pastors. Total earmarked: $35,000.

Migrant Family Retreat

It is a hot summer day and the pool is filled with migrant parents and children laughing and playing in the sun, realizing how valuable the time is and how fast it will go by.

    About the Author

  • Barbara Denman

    Barbara Denman is communications editor for the Florida Baptist Convention. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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