by Olgha Sierra Sandman, CWU IL representative on the NFWM Board
(The following article was published in the September 2011 issue of Church Women United Illinois Interpreter.)
The National Farm Worker Ministry (NFWM) is 90 years young! We celebrate the many years of hard and faithful service, the unchanging spirit of solidarity and advocacy. From 1920 to the present time there is a long unbroken line of religious men and women who have devoted their lives to be present with the men and women who harvest the food that sustains all of us.
The first 50 years, it was known as The National Migrant Ministry and functioned as a related movement of the Home Missions of the National Council of Churches. I was one of the hundreds of young seminary and college students who worked for two summers in the early fifties. The workers coming for the harvest to Illinois were mainly families from the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Illinois grew a great variety of fruits and vegetables and the Ministry had over 20 projects where the staff welcomed dozens of volunteers, mainly from the local Church Women United groups. We directed day care, tutorial classes, sports clubs, sewing classes, translation and transportation to doctors, recreation and social evenings and Vacation Bible Schools for the children. The churches collected books and toys and food and clothing when needed. The migrant families appreciated the Ministry with glad hearts. CWU collected S&H food stamps enough to get a jeep for our work!
Drastic changes took place in the sixties, the Federal and State governments instituted programs for Migrant Education and Migrant Health which were better funded than ours. The face of agriculture changed from an emphasis of growing fruits and vegetables to growing soy beans and corn. The number of migrants decreased considerable in the State.
In the late 60s Cesar Chavez began to organize farm workers in CA and the staff from the Ministry got involved in supporting him. By 1970, the faith community gather to consider discontinuing the Migrant Ministry as it was and to transform itself into a Ministry of solidarity and advocacy to the organizing of farm workers struggling for justice, respect and dignity. The name was changed to National Farm Worker Ministry.
From 1974 to my retirement in 1992 I served as the Director of The Illinois Farm Worker Ministry. We established local worker directed projects in Princeville, Hoopeston and Onarga where the workers, harvesting and packing asparagus or three bean salad, requested land from their employers and organized community gardens to grow tomatoes, chilis and onions for their tables. They organized to have a public telephone installed in their camp. We helped them publishing a weekly newsletter and worked hard with support from CWU and the faith community in passing the Field Sanitation Law in Illinois.
The Illinois Ministry was discontinued by the Illinois Conference of Churches but we continue building support for the National Farm Worker Ministry. NFWM relates closely to the United Farm Workers to FLOC started by Baldemar Velasquez, to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida and to PCUN Oregon’s Farmworker Union operating in Oregon.
All of these workers organizations are doing the courageous work of changing agriculture to a more just system for those who plant, tend and harvest our food.
Help us celebrate NFWM’s Birthday by sending a donation and send it with a small note identifying yourself as a Church Women United in Illinois although you don’t have to be a CWU member to donate. Mail your contribution to 438 N Skinker Blvd., St Louis, MO.