For the Hispanic and Latinx migrant communities working the fields and farms of the Willamette Valley to the southern border of Oregon and north through the landscape of central Washington, there has never been a safety net for them or their families.
First COVID-19 came along, and the economy crashed. Then wildfires forced them to evacuate their homes if not destroying them completely. This has all happened while living with uncertainty and fear as governmental policies and practices target migrant workers making it difficult for them to raise their voices, while ensuring cheap agricultural labor.
“There is definitely a lot of fear in the migrant community,” said Pastor Keren Rodriguez of Aloha United Methodist Church west of Portland. “There’s this kind of unspoken fear that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is going to chase them.”
It has become the work of Hispanic ministries in the Greater Northwest Area of The United Methodist Church to support their neighbors and friends in real and tangible ways through this seemingly unending crisis.
“Our people are here to integrate and work very hard,” said Rev. Cruz Edwin Santos, director of Hispanic/Latinx Ministries in the Pacific Northwest Conference. “Our Hispanic/Latinx community is in survival mode.”
After wildfires forced evacuations around Salem, Oregon, Rodriguez worked with Las Naciones Church in Salem, and Oregon-Idaho Conference Disaster Response Coordinator Dan Moseler, to get UMCOR-provided hygiene kits in the hands of Pastor Zaida Huereca from Las Naciones.
But it was more than that. Farm workers still had to work in the fields even as thick, heavy smoke filled the valley and forced almost everyone inside. Rodriguez and Huereca worked with Moseler and partnered with community organizations like Adelante Mujeres and Unete to get n95 masks in the hands of farm workers.
“Our communities are really struggling,” Rodriguez said. “They don’t have the luxury of being on Zoom. They have to work out in the smoke and the rain.”
Rodriguez is proud of the way Aloha UMC partnered with nearby churches like Hillsboro UMC and Portland Westside United Methodist Church to get a truck load of hygiene kits and other necessary supplies dropped off with Las Naciones recently.
Offering assistance isn’t always easy, though, Santos said, when migrant families fear that by putting their name on a piece of paper, they automatically become a target of ICE.
“I always believe disasters reveal a lot of things for us – like racism,” Santos said.
That is why it has been crucial to send Hispanic church leaders out into the migrant communities to help build that trust and let people know the church is here to help, not harm them.
Artemio Zapoteco, a member of the Okanogan UMC in northcentral Washington, helped connect farm workers (like himself) with UMCOR school supply, hygiene and cleaning kits.
“I was very happy to see that UMCOR responded to the needs of our community,” Zapoteco said. “I am very grateful for what the United Methodist Church is doing. Many Hispanics do not know much about The United Methodist Church. By providing this help for the Hispanic community it allows us church leaders and members to be more active and present in our communities.”
For example, Santos said, when fires swept through Brewster, a local Hispanic family lost access to their pharmacy and needed medications for their diabetes. Zapoteco and others were able to help the family get access to medicine.
“We’ve also connected Hispanic pastors with pastors in bigger churches,” Santos said. “They’ve not only created help, but stronger relationships with the churches.”
On November 1, members of Okanogan UMC will be distributing more hygiene kits and gift cards at the church from 12 to 5 p.m.
While migrant families have a unique set of challenges, Hispanic families living in large urban centers have also been disproportionately impacted by the economic disparities created through COVID-19. When businesses shut down, immigrant families couldn’t afford to pay their rent, put gas in their vehicles or get food.
“It’s important to be culturally aware of the differences when we’re offering help,” Rodriguez said.