Migrant Ministry The Council migrant ministry program has been in existence for over 50 years, and each year it serves over 300 migrant children and families. The Virginia Council of Churches Migrant Ministry began in 1948, when the Council became aware of plight of migrant workers in Virginia through a federal report stating,
Unorganized, unprotected by workmen’s compensation laws in most states, ineligible for educational, health or welfare benefits while following the elusive dollar during seasonal employment, migrants frequently find maintenance or even minimum standards of living an impossibility.
This ministry was particularly compelling to the Council due to the unique situation of the migrant worker. In 1948, the majority of migrant workers in Virginia were African-American, and they not only suffered from poverty and homelessness, but also from racial inequity. They did not fit in anywhere—they were segregated from the white community, and, due to their condition, generally not welcome in African-American communities either. They often lacked citizenship to any state, and therefore had no legislative voice.
The VCC’s initial migrant ministry began on Virginia’s Eastern Shore at labor camps operated by the Farm Bureau. By collaborating with the Home Missions Council of North America, the Council was able to begin outreach focused on providing pastoral care for migrant workers as well as meeting basic physical needs. The amount of work overwhelmed the ministry workers, as the Council was initially the sole group reaching out to thousands of workers. The labor conditions experienced by migrants were far below acceptable standards, and efforts by Council ministers to speak out for the rights of the workers were met with strong opposition and threats.
By the late 1950’s Hispanic, workers began arriving on the Eastern Shore, and a Spanish-speaking seminarian joined the ministry. By 1960, programs were held in 55 migrant camps in the Eastern Shore, Princess Anne, Albemarle, Roanoke, Frederick, Clarke, and Warren Counties. Clergy and volunteers provided home visits, literacy education, preaching, Sunday Schools, counseling, family nights, films, recreation, health and sewing classes, and crisis intervention.
Gradually, the Council’s work with migrants began to focus on migrant children. Childcare and education came to the forefront as being the issues of greatest concern in to the migrant community. Parents wanted their children to be educated and to have a safe place to go while the parents were working. In 1952, the Council’s first day school/child care center operated with paid staff opened in the Cheriton chapel. Established through the support of Church Women United and the assistance of the Home Missions Council of the National Council of Churches, the day school brought on Ethel Johnson of Brooklyn, New York as director and Helen Ames of Cape Charles as her assistant.
The Council gradually added additional small day care programs to its ministry. For example, in 1958 a 15×20 foot building was constructed in the Mapsville Labor Camp. The cost of this “center” was $700.00. Small centers were established in Melfa, Tinkams, Exmore, and Wattsville. With the beginning of Title I Migrant Education programs in 1967, VCC ceased operation day school programs and focused on expanding its childcare services.
In 1974, Sister Geraldine O’Brien was employed as the Director of the project to be known as East Coast Migrant Head Start. That year, she visited the crowded Mappsville Center and indicated that funding would be made available to the Council if licensable facilities were obtained. In Northampton County, arrangements were developed to enter into a five-year lease agreement for use of the former Catholic School Building. In Accomack County, arrangements were made to relocate the Mappsville Camp to Metompkin Baptist Church. The new centers opened on schedule and were both soon filled—60 children at the Cape Charles Center and 45 children at Metompkin Baptist Church.
Gradually the Head Start Centers expanded it include more children. Accomack County’s Center built a permanent site in 1979. In 1983, the Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry Committee and a number of individuals assisted in building a center to accommodate 75 children just south of Cheriton in Northampton County. In 1991, the Cheriton Center expanded again. By 2003, the Council-supported Migrant Ministry included four childcare centers with the capacity to care for 270 children–108 in Parksley, 66 in Cheriton, 52 in La Cosecha and 44 in Winchester. Linda Ross, a former farm worker, spoke of her experience with the Cheriton Center, “dragging the kids back and forth from Florida every season is very, very hard. But then they got to the day care center and my kids liked it very much. . . and now they are on the honor roll.”
Though professionally staffed for many years, the Council’s migrant ministry has always sought to maintain communication and cooperation with other groups involved in ministry to migrant farm workers. Chief among these relationships have been those with leaders of the Roman Catholic Migrant Ministry and the Baptist Migrant Ministry on the Eastern Shore and statewide. The Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry Committee served for many years as a vehicle for communication and coordination among the participating groups. In 1990, the Pittsylvania-Danville Migrant Ministry Project was launched as an interdenominational ministry in cooperation with the Baptist General Association of Virginia, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond, and the United Methodist Annual Conference of Virginia.
The ecumenical ministry to migrants in Virginia has grown to be so strong that in 1993 the Council decided to stop employing pastoral ministry and recreational staff and, instead, directed its support through the regional cooperative ministry groups. In 1998, faced with the increasing complexity of the Head Start program, VCC created Rural Family Development. Rural Family Development is now the agency within the Council given the task of administering the ongoing Head Start program and addressing the needs of migrant and seasonal farm workers in Virginia.
Recreation, Fellowship, Bridge-Building
Recreation, fellowship, bridge building with community resources and advocacy are carried out in cooperation with local churches and regional programs including:
- Close working relationships with the Catholic Migrant Ministry, its full-time staff person, and its team of summer seminarians
- Visits with workers and their families, soccer programs, Spanish language radio programs, information services are all among the services and activities that we are able to provide together
- Partnerships in the life of the Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry workers that connect denominational and local churches with migrant needs
- Support for Southside Virginia programs, especially the ecumenical program based at Sacred heart Church in the Danville area.
Refugee Resettlement The Council’s refugee resettlement program began in 1962 in cooperation with Church World Service with the arrival of a plan load of Cuban Refugees. This ministry assists individuals leaving desperate situations to rebuild their lives in the United States. The Council assists new arrivals with necessities as they settle into Virginia communities, and works with churches as they seek to provide moral support during this time of transition.
Who Are Refugees?
Refugees are people who have fled their homes-out of a fear of persecution; they have left everything behind and set out in hope of finding safety and a new start. Many have had to come alone, leaving their families behind. All are in need of the caring welcome a church can provide.
Refugees arrive in Virginia with very little to get them started, often only their skills, and a handful of keepsakes. Local churches can help refugees in the difficult process of beginning over again in a new land. Refugees need help with the practical aspects of life in a new land, such as finding an apartment and getting a job. Churches can also provide help by extending their community to include refugees in the fellowship of the human family.
Before a refugee is accepted for resettlement in the United States, there must be a sponsor here who is willing to assist the refugee in his or her new life in this country. A sponsor can be a local church, a civic organization, a family, or a family member.
While an organization or a family member can become a sponsor, experience has shown that local church sponsorship provides helpful advantages. Refugees adjust more easily to their new community through the loving and supportive environment of a congregation and the personal care of many individuals.
Sponsors are asked to offer their prayers and friendship and to help with the immediate needs of resettlement such as housing, furnishings, clothing, and food. Most of all, the sponsor is asked to empower the refugees to become self-sufficient.
Sponsorship is a unique partnership with the Virginia Council of churches Refugee Resettlement Program, where both parties insure that the refugee is provided with the basics needed during his or her initial resettlement. Sponsorship is a real “hands-on” mission that will bring joy and meaning to those in churches or organizations.
Many individuals are needed to facilitate a successful resettlement. Volunteers help in a number of ways including:
- Spreading the word
- Praying for a successful transition
- Welcoming new arrivals
- Serving as interpreters
- Providing transportation
- Coordinating employment for those who are able to work
- Donating food, clothing, and other essentials
- Taking the refugee families to community events and linking them with community resources