Brethren and the National Farm Worker Ministry: 50 years of service

By Galen Fitzkee

In the early 1900s, a group known simply as the Migrant Ministry began their work as a small charity by providing clothing, food, and other necessities to migrant farm workers throughout the country. During the 1960s, however, Migrant Ministry leaders noticed that the needs of their constituents were broader and deeper than before, since migrant workers had begun to publicly campaign for equality, justice, and freedom.

In 1971, the coalition officially rebranded as the National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) in order to expand their mission to include supporting farm worker movements and attracting other communities of faith to their cause.

Office of Peacebuilding and Policy director Nathan Hosler (standing at right of sign) at a meeting of the board of the National Farm Worker Ministry.

The Church of the Brethren proved to be one such faith community that walked alongside the NFWM following its establishment, and it is in the spirit of celebration that we recognize 50 years of good work by the NFWM and their partners.

In a 1972 issue of Messenger, the Church of the Brethren magazine, contributor John G. Fike was one of the first Brethren to call attention to the struggles facing migrant workers including constant travel, social exclusion, low wages, and racial prejudice (Messenger, Fike, 1972, https://archive.org/details/messenger1972121121roye/page/n361/mode/2up?q=darke). In Darke County, Ohio, Fike described Brethren communities waking up to the reality of these conditions and taking action to provide day care, education, medical services, and legal aid to migrant workers in ways consistent with the mission of the NFWM.

Other historical examples of Brethren outreach include the Shenandoah County Inter-Church Planning Service (SCIPS) hosting picnics for migrant workers in Virginia, members of Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) aiding farm workers in the fields, and church member support for boycotts and unionization efforts, which are important goals for the NFWM even today.

The debate over unionization became controversial in Brethren circles since it pitted the financial interest of some Brethren farmers against the farm worker movement’s calls for a more just balance of power, but thanks to staunch Brethren leadership the denomination eventually formally recognized the need for the church to actively improve the conditions facing their migrant worker neighbors.

Ralph Smeltzer was one Church of the Brethren leader in the struggle for farm workers’ rights who took on an important role as a liaison between farm workers, growers, congregations, and NFWM movement leader Cesar Chavez. His work on the ground in California was instrumental in binding the Church of the Brethren to the plight of farm workers and led to an official church statement addressing “The Farm Issue” in 1974. The resolution included commitments to acquaint members with farm worker issues, support government legislation to protect workers, and provide qualified volunteers and grants to help in the meantime.

In the years that followed, Brethren made good on these commitments in the form of BVS placements and the SHARE program for financial support. In a 1978 issue of Messenger, for example, it was reported that a grant for $2,000 was allotted to a Farm Workers Association at a food processing plant in Princeville, Ill. The money helped the workers confront the plant management about poor working conditions, unsanitary living arrangements, and unfair breaches of contract. SHARE director Wil Nolen wrote, “The people have gained a new vision of justice and power to address their needs” (Messenger, Royer, 1978, https://archive.org/details/messenger1978127112roye/page/4/mode/2up?q=farm+worker).

In 1999, BVS trainees participated in educational sessions dealing with farm worker issues and got first-hand experience picking fruit alongside workers in the Florida orchards near Camp Ithiel that year (Messenger, Farrar, 1999, https://archive.org/details/messenger1999148111farr/page/n87/mode/2up?q=farm+worker).

This simple timeline speaks to the depth, breadth, and endurance of the Brethren commitment to support the NFWM and make a difference for farm workers.

As we reflect on 50 years of the NFWM, we celebrate their many accomplishments and yet recognize that work is ongoing. Currently, the NFWM is actively advocating for immigration reforms like the Agricultural Workers Program Act and changes to the H-2A guest worker program in order to better protect workers from abuse, fear of deportation, and the horrible working conditions that they often endure.

Through the Office of Peacebuilding and Policy, the Church of the Brethren carries on its legacy of supporting migrant farm workers through education and advocacy. Office director Nathan Hosler sits on the NFWM board and former BVSer Susu Lassa also contributed to projects that enhanced the partnership between the two organizations. Office staff have previously taken leadership roles in event planning and participated in acts of solidarity, such as marches and vigils, in that capacity. More recently, representatives of the office tuned in to the online “Pathways Prayers for Citizenship” series that allowed faith communities to hear testimonies directly from farm workers as well as learn about ways to advocate for policy change.

Finally, as we all go about our personal lives, it is our hope that Brethren will remain mindful of the grueling and often dangerous toil of many migrant farm workers who give us access to good food in our stores and on our tables. May we use each of our voices to advocate for their safety, security, just treatment, and humanity as the NFWM has done for the past 50 years.

— Galen Fitzkee is a Brethren Volunteer Service worker serving at the Church of the Brethren’s Office of Peacebuilding and Policy in Washington, D.C.

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