Mission work lands close to home

Published 12:35 am Friday, October 21, 2011

While many people go overseas to do mission work, there are plenty of opportunities closer to home in North Carolina.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Washington has found one such opportunity in Newton Grove, a small town in Sampson County and about an hour-and-a-half drive west of Washington. The area surrounding it is home to a large number of migrant-worker camps. These farmworkers make little money, and the conditions in the camps are abysmal at best. Given their minimal pay, the workers and their families have to make due in these substandard living conditions, unless they get help.

Father Tony (Jesus Antonio Rojas) is executive director of the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry based in Newton Grove. He and his organization strive to take care of the needs of the migrant workers. They monitor conditions, assess needs and coordinate with churches from around the state to find ways to meet those needs. Unfortunately, it’s a never-ending job the EFM can’t do alone. It relies on other churches to donate money and supplies. That’s where churches like St. Peter’s come in.

Checking out the weighty bushel basket at Newton Grove are (from left) Ben McKeithan, Zack, Mia and Anne Pagnani and Sarah Vick. (Submitted Photo)

In the past, the congregation of St. Peter’s has put together bags of supplies and donated them to EFM. Gillian L. Pollock, director of Christian Formation at St. Peter’s, decided to bring it back. She contacted Father Tony.

“I wanted the kids to see there are people in need in their own backyard,” she said.

So, the youth from grades six through 12 raised money to buy toiletry supplies. In July, 10 children and three adults went to Newton Grove to assemble the bags and donate them to EFM.

While they were there, they visited the camps to see camp conditions.

“It was a harsh reality for these kids,” Pollock said. “They were not ready to see what they saw, and we were at a camp that was a nice camp.”

It was an eye-opening experience for the children, she said. Touched, they came home and wanted to do more.

When Emily Gowdy-Canady, the youth coordinator for the Episcopal Diocese of Eastern North Carolina, contacted Pollock about coordinating an event in September for the diocese, they decided on doing something for the migrant workers around Newton Grove. More than 100 children and 30 adults came to St. Peter’s. They put together backpacks that included clothes and school supplies and wrote notes to the backpack recipients that included prayers of thanksgiving written in Spanish. They assembled close to 200 backpacks. Although the children considered that project successful, it wasn’t enough for them.

The youths want to adopt one of the camps so they can work more closely with the migrant families and target specific needs rather than general issues. Pollock and St. Peter’s are working with EFM to make this happen. If this works out, the youths will continue activities similar to the backpack project and visit their adopted camp once a year to talk to and eat dinner with the workers and their families, as well as play soccer with them.

Pollock said this kind of service makes one realize that “there’s nothing different between you and them except culture.”

More information about the Episcopal Farmworkers Ministry can be found at www.episcopalfarmworkerministry.org.