Ministry with Mexican Migrant Workers

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14 Dec. 2017, by Pastor Sam Jess, samuel.w.jess@gmail.com

Monday night this week I went to see three houses full of Mexican migrant workers, 30 men, to say “adios.” They were on their way to the airport. Many of them had been here 8 months working in the Christmas tree industry. Some of them have been coming to this community for 10 years or more. They are going home to their families. This year, some of them are going home with a new goal to take the presence of God into their homes in a fresh new way, and our two little country churches had a part in that.

In September of 2016, I knocked on the door of one of those houses, to say “hola” and to try to use my broken Spanish. Little by little, in a few months my family and one of my little churches bonded with one of the men, Felix. He is a committed evangelical Christian and was having a rough year when we met him. He welcomed our friendship and support, and came to really enjoy the worship and fellowship at church. And he became very skilled at helping me improve my Spanish. When he left a year ago, we prayed that he would return in spring and a second worker would join him at church.

God more than answered our prayer, in ways that only He could do. This past Sunday, Canadians were in tears in both of our churches, touched by God through these Mexicans. In the one church, where total weekly attendance is usually around 35, we were deeply encouraged by having 17 Mexican men worship with us their last day here. And in many of their lives we are able to see God at work. We baptized one of them, Esau, in a cold lake at the end of October, and he is eager to grow in his faith. As they arrive in cities and villages all over Mexico this week, I pray that God will keep working in them and through them, that our weak little churches would have the privilege of blessing that whole great nation.

 

Joys and Benefits. As much work as it has been to connect with these guys, here are some of the benefits it has brought to our church…

  • I as the pastor feel encouraged by the language and other skills that I’m learning. Many pastors have to pay thousands of dollars for courses and mission trips to feel this fulfilled.
  • My children grow up learning Spanish.
  • Our two little churches feel the joy of being “missional,” by using skills that they already have. People here have always been good at putting on big suppers. This year one of the churches put on a year-end Christmas dinner for the Mexican workers. The tables were set beautifully, the food was “rico,” or rich, and the atmosphere in the room was of grace and joy in both directions.
  • Sharing with the Mexicans makes us appreciate how rich we are. When the cold weather came, many of the guys didn’t have warm coats, and many people in the churches went into their closets and got extra coats out for them. (John the Baptist named that as an act of repentance, Luke 3:11.)
  • Mexicans help the churches to reach Canadians. It’s easy for people in the community to write the church off as narrow, old-fashioned, closed-minded, etc. But when they see the church engaging with the Mexican workers, and no one else doing so, then they take another look. Then sometimes Mexicans share the gospel with Canadians. E.g., I get invited to perform each year at a community Christmas concert, where about 150-200 locals attend. I usually try to put a good word in for Christ. This year I brought some Mexican guys to sing carols in Spanish. Manuel automatically suggested to me that he could speak to the crowd about Christ, if I could translate. He was very well received.
  • Our churches become training-grounds for new missionaries. Just as the work load was becoming too much for me this fall, God brought me some help. Two different Canadian guys came into our path, both of whom have the goal to serve as missionaries, and both of whom already started learning Spanish. Here is where they will learn, both the language and the cross-cultural ministry skills that they will need.
  • It is very healthy for these Mexican guys to get to spend time with children, families, elderly people, etc. Their families back home often don’t believe them at first when they describe being welcomed into Canadian homes on Sunday afternoons.

 

Challenges. Even though there are thousands of Mexican workers in Atlantic Canada, with churches all around them, very few churches are engaged with them. Here is why…

  • Very few of the Mexicans speak English, and very few Atlantic Canadian churchgoers speak Spanish.
  • Time and tiredness. The Mexicans on the Christmas tree farms here get on the bus to go to the fields at 6 AM. They work very hard. They get home around 6 PM. Then they are on a tight schedule to take turns to wash, cook, do laundry, talk to their families, etc. They have one day off, Sunday, when their bus goes into town for shopping. It’s a pretty big sacrifice for them to miss that bus, to come to church where they will get tired from trying to relate cross-culturally.
  • Food tastes. There are some foods that we consider staples (e.g., bread) that some Mexicans have trouble stomaching. I think they have a second stomach that is not full unless they eat corn tortillas. The guys are polite, but my wife has had to work pretty hard to discover what foods they clearly like.
  • In addition to the language barrier, I find that there’s a cultural difference when it comes to planning for things. I think it might be rude in Mexico to say no when you’re invited to something – that it’s more polite to say yes, and then back out at the last minute. This makes for some challenges when it comes to scheduling events, arranging rides, etc.
  • These Mexican guys are used to being exploited. It takes them quite a while to decide whether they think we actually care about them.

 

Key Tricks of the Trade

  • The more Spanish the people in the church can learn, the more effective this ministry becomes. One trick for that, I found, is to do my daily Bible reading in Spanish, and to listen to a Spanish Audio Bible. (I find that the NVI Experiencia Viva is very good, you can guy one gospel for about $5 at https://biblegateway.christianbook.com/nvi-experiencia-viva-mateo-audiobook/9780829764017/pd/DA20254-CP?event=ESRCG.)
  • Church is pretty boring when you don’t understand what’s going on, if it’s in another language. The guys have expressed how much they appreciate “las hojas,” or “the papers.” Each week I print off copies of most of the service’s content: scriptures, prayers, hymns, sermon notes, etc., with the English in a column on the left and the Spanish in a column on the right. Matching the English with what is projected on the screen, they’re able to follow along pretty well. To make those papers, I’m able to copy and paste Spanish scriptures from http://www.biblegateway.com, and I’m able to translate my sermon notes and the hymn lyrics at http://www.translate.google.com. It’s pretty amazing, that’s all for free.
  • We can’t conduct the whole church service in Spanish, but we can learn a Spanish chorus, read a few key verses of the scripture in Spanish, I can preach the key points of the message in Spanish etc. The English-speakers are generally patient during that, and the Spanish-speakers really feel honoured by it.
  • Eating together means a lot. Our church does an after-church meal once a month, so some of the ladies make sure there is lots of extra food that the Mexicans will like. The rest of the weeks of the month, the Mexicans who come to church will then go to someone’s house for lunch. While they wait for dinner, they will take advantage of wifi to connect with home. We often arrange for Canadians to come over to eat with the Mexicans, with me translating. Friendships are formed across the language barrier that way.
  • Since Sunday is their only day to shop, we drive them to town to do their shopping etc. after Sunday dinner. I never realized how complicated shopping is, but some things are pretty difficult to buy if you have a language barrier. They appreciate us helping them.
  • They appreciate having people they can call who can drive them places when needed. Their employer is able to provide them with the basics, but there are extras we can help them with. The key is to discern what to say no to, and what to make a priority: e.g., I say no when they call for a ride to the liquor store, but I say yes when someone needs to get his phone plan sorted out.
  • Lending them an old bicycle goes a long way.
  • We can show them local resources that they are welcome to use. Our church has a picnic and swimming park on a lake, close to where the Mexicans’ houses. They didn’t know about it until I showed them.
  • They appreciate any research I can do for them online, or online shopping.
  • Sometimes sending money home to Mexico is complicated. I made it a goal that I would not handle their money for them. But I will drive them to town to get their money transfers sorted out.
  • The Mexican guys love it when we drop off leftovers to them, after community suppers etc. Especially sweets. Also, locals often have a lot of deer meat to give away, and the Mexicans really enjoy it. One lady had some hens that stopped laying. She couldn’t stand to kill her beloved birds herself, but the Mexicans were happy to look after them.
  • Some of these guys have been coming here for years and have never done any sightseeing. On Thanksgiving I took three of them with my family to see the ocean. Next year we will plan many trips to the beach, and other tourist destinations.
  • With 12 tired men in a house, sometimes things can get tense between them. Various ones of them appreciate a listening ear, advice, and prayers for a peaceful environment among them.
  • Alcohol can be a big issue. More guys started to connect with us spiritually when they made sobriety a goal.
  • For new believers among them, there are some useful free Bible Study resources at https://losnavegantes.net/discipulado/.
  • It seems to work best not to work through the Canadian boss. I show whatever respect I can show to their boss, but it helps that I hardly know him and that the Mexicans don’t think of me as their boss’s man. There is another local farm that is starting to bring in more Mexicans, where I am friends with the bosses, and I think that will be a bit of a challenge to overcome.

 

Needs for the Future

  • I heard about a farm one hour north of us that has 200 Mexican workers each summer. That’s a lot just on one farm. As more farms, fish plants, etc. throughout our region bring more and more Mexican workers here, we need more churches to figure this ministry out.
  • Various guys ask about what it would take to bring their wives here, or to become permanent residents, etc. Our local MLA has recently taken a keen interest in studying those questions for me, and I’m grateful, since I’ve had a hard time finding answers myself.
  • The guys know that they need to learn more English in order to really thrive in future years here. But they don’t have a lot of time or energy to study during their work-week. I tried giving them English lessons on Thursday nights, but they were too tired and busy. In 2018 we will try making audio resources to listen to on their smartphones while they work. That’s a good chance to expose them to scripture: record a verse in Spanish, and in English, and work them slowly through a passage of scripture like that.
  • The biggest need is for Canadian Christians (especially men) learning Spanish who can engage in these relationships, figuring things out as they go. This is about the best opportunity anyone will get to practice Spanish in Canada, so I hope lots of people will benefit from it like I am benefitting.
  • This ministry came together for us because of one, then two, then three Mexican guys who are committed to Jesus and who opened the door for us into their coworkers’ houses. Maybe in other years in the past, if I would have knocked on the door, I wouldn’t have found a welcoming brother among them. All of this fits with Jesus’ instructions for mission, to go into a place and seek a “man of peace,” (Matt. 10:11-14). And maybe in future years, depending on who returns or who doesn’t, I may not find those key people in the Mexican workers’ houses here. Praying and trusting God to bring those key people is essential.
  • And they will need welcoming and supportive churches behind them, ready to try things and fail and try other things and learn, and to pray for God’s blessing to come, for God to bless Mexico through Canadians and Canada through Mexicans.

 

The Message God Wants Us to Give Them

   One of my big surprises has been to see just how strongly the gospel has spread in Mexico. Some of the men I’ve met have been deeply impacted by Bible-believing, gospel-preaching churches that seem to be advancing with strength. They come with stories of changed lives. Some of these guys bring us a strong sense of God’s presence with them. Others were impacted by the gospel in their youth, and sometimes it comes alive again by being around us. It makes me wonder what we have to offer them.

Others of these guys never visited a Protestant church until they came to ours. Many were raised in Catholicism, where they learned the fear of God (which is good) and a gospel of works-righteousness (which is bad).

    I’ve concluded that what all of these guys need to hear from us, whatever their backgrounds, is an emphasis on God’s grace. For some of the Catholic guys, hearing about salvation by grace is a very new message. For the guys who’ve been around Protestant revivals (Pentecostal, Seventh Day Adventist, Charismatic, etc.), they have been pushed hard to demonstrate a changed life (which is good), and I can see them struggling to admit that they are puzzled by their lingering weaknesses (which is bad). They need to learn that not only our conversion and salvation are by grace, but also our growth and sanctification depend on God’s grace too (2 Peter 3:18).

That message of grace also fits with how we have been hearing God calling us to be generous to these guys.

My favourite interaction with these guys went like this. Last spring I was driving Felix and José home from shopping. They were talking about how much things cost.

José: “Nothing is free in Canada.”

Felix: “All the help that Pastor Sam gives us is free.”

Me, thinking about how people in these churches pay my salary so that I have time to help people:  “God’s grace is free.”

José: “Yes, God’s grace is free to us, but it was not free to God.”

Felix: “No, you’re right, it cost God dearly.”

 

 

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