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They’re ‘Feeding Those Who Feed Us’

FRESNO, Calif. (BP)–For Juan Samuel, the good news — wearing khaki slacks and a blue shirt — arrived under the shade tree where he was sitting with two other friends from Mexico.

The temperature was 105 degrees just beyond that stretch of shade and there was hardly a breeze blowing on the early August afternoon. Good news doesn’t usually walk up unannounced, but on this day it came with a smile and a handshake.

Oscar Sanchez, California Southern Baptist Convention migrant ministries field specialist, was making his rounds at a migrant housing center in Madera, in the heart of the fertile San Joaquin Valley. The center is a cluster of highly sought-after government-subsidized duplexes for farm laborers who are in the country legally.

The good news Sanchez was bringing the men and women, few of whom spoke English, was that California Southern Baptists would be on-site the following week for Vacation Bible School, crafts and workshops for women, and to provide children with new clothes for the start of the school year. The CSBC outreach would even provide free medical and dental services through its two mobile units.

While some might criticize migrant workers’ presence, California Southern Baptists are sidestepping the political minefield and seeking ways to minister to those who bring food to America’s tables. The CSBC ministry, called “Feeding Those Who Feed Us,” is a godsend for nine weeks of every summer as churches bring spiritual hope and physical relief to more than 50 migrant centers and low-income farm communities.

By the time volunteers leave the complex at the end of the week, friendships are developed, many have accepted Christ through an evangelistic service or Bible study, and lives are changed. And hopefully, as those workers eventually pack up and leave at the end of the growing season for greener fields, they will take the Gospel with them as “missionaries” in their own right.

L.J. “Randy” Randolph, a member of First Baptist Church of Clairemont in San Diego who drives one of the two mobile medical units, said he sees a spiritual solution where others see only a political quagmire. He has chosen to be part of that solution.

“When we sit down to the table — whether we live in Fresno or Boston — we don’t realize that virtually everything on our plate has been touched by migrant labor. If you were to take the undocumented immigrants out of California and send them back across the border, our country would agriculturally go belly-up in six months because we would have only a fraction of the manpower to plant and irrigate and harvest the crops.

“I believe we should reach out to them in the name of Jesus and try to help them any way we can,” Randolph declared.

“I leave the politics to the politicians, but I believe the church needs a response and that’s why I want to be part of a ministry that is making a difference. There are government social programs out there but they don’t offer a spiritual dimension. Seeing someone coming to you with a sad face and leaving with a big smile and a new sense of hope is worth the world to me,” Randolph said.

Edd Brown, a retired California pastor and director of missions who serves as volunteer recruitment liaison for the CSBC partnership with the Georgia Baptist Convention, echoed those sentiments.

“Half of those who cross our borders are husbands or fathers who are sending their paychecks back home to support their families. What I see is a wonderful opportunity to send some of those men or women or children who come as family units back home as missionaries to their towns and villages. Sending them back with a changed heart is the greatest gift they can receive from America,” Brown said.

That’s the goal of CSBC’s ministry, which seeks to serve the whole person, he explained. The ministry is not just to migrant camps, but goes a step further to areas known as migrant cities where many illegal workers live in poverty outside the state-sanctioned centers.

Brown and other volunteers are pleased with the progress that has been made in recent years but are quick to point out that the solution is still far from meeting all the needs.

During a typical week, volunteers fan out into a migrant community with a variety of ministries, depending on the capabilities of staff. Some locations provide a sports camp while others offer haircuts. A month’s supply of groceries is distributed to heads of households. Craft classes for women are frequently offered while children participate in Vacation Bible School.

Medical and dental mobile clinics are scheduled as professional volunteer labor is available. In some cases a Bible study or evangelistic service is held in the evenings when adults are together. But regardless of other options, an evangelistic service is held at the end of each week.

One of the more popular ministries is outreach to children, Brown said.

“Since these are summer camps, the opening of the school year is right around the corner. Many of these children are embarrassed by not having adequate clothes to wear on the first day of school like their friends will be wearing, so we try to help in that area.

“Each child age 4-12 receives a nice backpack with school supplies, a pair of new jeans and tennis shoes and two shirts — everything they need for that first day of school so they will fit in with their friends,” Brown explained.

Valley Baptist Church in Bakersfield has participated in migrant ministry projects for three years. Al Wagner, director of evangelism and outreach for the congregation, said, “Our people loved this project and want to be involved again next year.”

Members of Valley served about 20 miles from their church at the Shafter Migrant Center. Wagner said the volunteers conducted VBS, provided recreation with a water slide, held a baseball camp, provided haircuts for about 60 adults and children, and distributed the traditional backpacks, school supplies, new clothes and food.

“I think this is important and the outreach is beneficial,” Wagner said. “This is a group of people who are in the shadows of our society and culture that move from place to place. I think they are a forgotten group.”

Wagner added that the project provides the platform to demonstrate that California Southern Baptists and local congregations care.

“I think a lot of barriers were penetrated and broken down because of our ministry,” he said.

He also noted this type of mission endeavor is important because “some people just don’t want to travel great distances to do missions and we have this need in our own area.”

At least 50 professions of faith were recorded at the Shafter center.

Another congregation involved in the migrant project was Tracy Southern Baptist Church in Tracy. Pastor Carlos Dona said they participate because “it is an excellent opportunity to practice what we preach.”

This was the second year the congregation had been involved in the migrant project. Dona noted there are many new people in the church and he thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get them involved in ministry.

This type of project is ideal because many church members couldn’t afford to be involved in a project that took them further from home, the pastor said.

Dona noted that the congregation would participate again to “share an act of appreciation and love for what God does for us in recognizing the people group who do so much for us.

“I believe we planted a lot of Gospel seeds,” Dona said.

Fresno resident Rita Rios, who grew up in the Valley in a farm labor family, said she has a strong appreciation for the people on the receiving end of ministry.

“I want to give something back to the community that I came from. I have a background as a medical social worker and have found that I can use those skills with our mobile medical and dental units.”

Rios was raised near Hanford and recently joined a Hispanic church in the area to locate ministry contacts.

“I have come full circle, right back to my roots. Church planting is something God has placed on my heart and it’s such an exciting way to be involved.

“I know of one Christian family who helped in a VBS for migrants in an apartment complex and felt led to start a church,” Rios said. “Now, seven months later and working through pastor Lee Yarbrough of First Southern Baptist Church in Hanford, they have called a mission pastor and average 70 adults and children in attendance.”

Frank Sanchez, a member of Annadale Baptist Church in Sanger, also knows well the life of a migrant family. As he walks around a migrant center that recently hosted a Vacation Bible School he reflects back on his childhood.

“I remember being embarrassed because I didn’t have socks to wear and my tennis shoes were so old they caused blisters to form on my feet. It would have meant the world to me to have had a new set of clothes to begin the school year.

“I wish Baptists would have had a presence among the workers back then…. [I]t would have made life so much more bearable,” Sanchez said.

“I know what it is like to suffer out there, and that’s why I want to help bring the Gospel to these laborers. They need to know that Christ and His church cares, when no one else does,” Sanchez declared.

His wife Linda uses his reflective pause to add: “It’s amazing how God took two ordinary people like us and used them for His glory. Frank and I are just two specks in His eyes who He chose to use. If more of us, from California and Georgia, can just step out of our comfort zones and see what God wants to show us through our obedience, our lives will be changed forever.

“We have no money. We have no extra education. But we are willing to be used,” she asserted. “Come, help us.”
Joe Westbury is managing editor of the Georgia Christian Index, online at www.christianindex.org. Terry Barone, editor of the California Southern Baptist, at www.csbc.org/csb, contributed to this article.

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  • Joe Westbury