Churchwomen thank the hands that harvest

Handmade blankets covering the chancel rail at Manatee UMC will be among gifts to migrant farm families from Church Women United. Photos on this page by Susan Green. Home page feature photo from

BRADENTON – Planning to buy a couple of cucumbers to slice up for salad this Thanksgiving?

They don’t weigh that much in your grocery bag. But multiply them by the scores needed to fill the box a migrant farmworker must turn in to collect $30 in pay, and the picture changes.

“Cucumbers are not light to carry,” former farmworker David Carrillo told a crowd gathered Friday at Manatee UMC. On a screen at the front of the sanctuary flickered video images of workers picking produce in nearby fields. 

“They make it seem easy,” he said, as people on the screen plucked and tossed the harvest into boxes, then hoisted them onto trucks. “But it’s hard work.”

David Carrillo leaves Manatee UMC with bags of clothes and gifts for migrant families
David Carrillo, foreground, and another Manatee County School Board worker leave the Manatee UMC fellowship hall with clothes, blankets and other gifts for migrant farm families from Church Women United. 
Piles of clothes on tables in the Manatee UMC fellowship hall
The tables in the Manatee UMC fellowship hall aren't big enough to hold all the gifts for migrant families donated by Church Women United. Piles spill onto chairs and the floor. 

Carrillo, who grew up working in the fields of Florida and Michigan, spent his 28th birthday sharing his past with Church Women United for the ecumenical Manatee County organization’s annual tea to benefit migrant families. Sandra Holley, the group’s president, said representatives of 10 of the 15 to 20 churches active in the organization turned out for the tea. Representatives of the Manatee County School Board, where Carrillo now works recruiting migrant children for educational activities, also attended.

About 75 handmade blankets draped over the chancel railings of the church sanctuary, gifts from Manatee UMC’s United Methodist Women volunteers. Long tables in the church fellowship hall held more blankets and other bounty, including clothes, school supplies and even a few toys, donated by church women’s groups for distribution to migrant farm families.

Carrillo, who has two brothers and two sisters, went on to describe living conditions for migrant workers that often involve more than one family to a housing unit. Like children in other families, Carrillo remembers working in the fields before and after school, sometimes by artificial light, to boost the family income. His older sister, he said, stayed out of school altogether to help in the fields. Seven-day work weeks were the norm.

He recalled teachers asking about his tan after school holidays.

“We didn’t have any holidays,” he said. “I was kind of embarrassed, so I would say I went to the beach. … We were all days at the fields, working.”

Despite the hardships, Carrillo went on to graduate from Lakewood Ranch High School. He sees the value of the farmworker experience.

“It was hard, but I learned a lot from it,” he said.

Rev. Sharon Davis, Manatee UMC pastor, told the audience that she is the daughter of immigrants from Canada.

“Unless you are a full-blooded Native American, you or your family entered this country as aliens,” she said. People from other countries typically come seeking freedom of religion and adequate employment to support their families – things Americans take for granted, Davis said. 

Immigration issues have been at the forefront of debate as voters evaluate candidates for the 2016 presidential election and in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in Paris and the crisis of Syrian refugees.   

“We are a country sharply divided on refugee and immigration issues,” Davis said. “There are no easy answers.”

She noted that Jesus spent time as a refugee. She recalled the Bible account of Joseph and Mary fleeing to Egypt after Jesus’ birth to escape King Herod’s plan to kill baby boys born in Bethlehem at that time.

God’s kingdom does not exclude people according to national citizenship, the pastor said.

“Christ is our cornerstone, and that changes everything,” Davis said. “All are welcome in a new temple of God.”

Kate Bloomquist, who coordinates the migrant program for the Manatee school district, said after the presentation that her office works with 300 to 400 migrant families, and gifts from groups like Church Women United fill “a huge gap” in their needs. 

Sandra Holley at podium
Sandra Holley, president of Manatee County's Church Women United, addresses the annual Migrant Tea volunteers from a podium draped with gift blankets.
Sharon Davis at podium
Rev. Sharon Davis, pastor of Manatee UMC, reminds listeners that Jesus was once a refugee in a land not his own.
Valene Long at the podium
Valene Long of Manatee UMC's United Methodist Women welcomes volunteers from 10 churches to the annual Migrant Tea.

Government agencies like hers must follow strict guidelines for the use of taxpayer-generated and grant funding, she explained, but they can refer people in need to faith-based and nonprofit organizations that provide other types of assistance. 

She said the churchwomen should know that the blankets they donate are cherished and often displayed in the family home as keepsakes after the children no longer need them. Language barriers and long hours in the fields with little opportunity to socialize can leave migrant farmworkers feeling isolated and alone.

“Because of gifts like these, they know someone cares about them,” Bloomquist said.

Laraine Batista, another Manatee school worker who has worked with migrant families for 22 years, fought off tears as she talked about the uncomplaining spirit of the children she works with.

“These kids can’t go home and ask parents for help with their homework,” she said. “But I’ve never heard these children come and say, ‘My life is so hard.’ … It’s my privilege to work with them. I’m honored to know them.”

Valene Long, president of Manatee UMC’s United Methodist Women and wife of retired  Manatee UMC pastor Neal Long, said Friday’s event is the 12th year the church has hosted the annual tea since she became involved in organizing it, and the event had been going on for years before that. 

She recalled that she and her husband once served as missionaries in Argentina, and later used their Spanish language skills in Florida – he through pastoring churches in communities with Spanish-speaking populations and she through teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes.

The ministry hasn’t influenced a significant number of Hispanic people to join the church, she noted, but it has had other benefits. For one, volunteers have received thank you notes from migrant children who received gifts, re-enforcing their belief that the mission is needed.

“This is a mission not only of our church but a variety of Christian churches in the community, bringing together people from different churches and different backgrounds,” Long said. “I think we need more connection to other people.”

Holley agreed.

“That’s really the joy of Church Women United,” she said. “It brings us together not in a doctrinal way … but doing good work in the community. God created us for good works.”

Click here to see coverage of the Migrant Tea in the Bradenton Herald.

– Susan Green is the Florida Conference managing editor.

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