This week the magic happened.
It started with a tiny flicker, a momentary reflection catching my eye in a little pond tucked deep among the ferns.
A second tiny flash hovered over the path and I followed it down to the forest below. I was transfixed by the sight that awaited — a veritable constellation of thousands of fireflies hovering and drifting through the ferns and Solomon’s seals. It was a fantasy in slow motion. I had never witnessed a firefly show as breathtaking as the scene before me.
Standing in the hushed valley, filled with awe and wonder, I had a flashback to a special memory years earlier.
It was Sunday night in the little village of Grant Bailey, in the rolling hills of St. Ann, Jamaica. We had just attended a Sunday night service at our good friend Winston Green’s church. Sunday evenings were informal services with folks wearing ball caps, running shoes and comfortable clothes, the better to “raise the praise” in an evening of enthusiastic singing. I watched proudly as Winston helped lead the music on the guitar he had brought back from Canada.
After a rousing evening of lively gospel choruses, we left the little country church on foot for the long walk back.
I had forgotten just how velvety and infinite a night sky could be, the star filled galaxy overhead. One lone streetlight illuminated a short stretch of the single lane road so I relied on the others in our little group to help me find sure footing. The road wound around the mountain, overlooking a valley on one side and flanked by a steep stone outcrop on the other.
Rounding the first bend we were greeted with the incredible sight of peenie wallies — large fireflies — punctuating the darkened landscape below. They drifted lazily over the valley, leaving soft light trails like comets flaming out into the atmosphere. I had to pause and watch, mesmerized by this unexpected display of fleeting brilliance and beauty.
Winston’s neighbour Mavis began to sing as she led the way. Her voice was bold and confident, echoing against the mountain face.
These women who walked alongside were fearless. It may not have been by choice, but came from having to live without their husbands or partners for eight months of the year. They had to raise their families and tend their farms, forced to rely on their neighbours and church family during times of struggle, critical illnesses, and hurricanes so fierce there would be nothing left but a concrete pad where a home used to be.
The song Mavis sang was an old gospel tune called Rest in the Eye of the Storm, but she infused new life into it. The words permeated my heart and continued to provide strength and courage in years to come, as I wrestled with “storms” in my own life.
The walk home that night was transformational in so many ways, illuminated not only by fireflies but the resilient spirit of these people.
An idea came to me as I lay sleepless that night. It was a little spark no bigger than a firefly, but it caught my attention and ignited more questions.
How could we honour our Jamaican neighbours back home? What could a welcoming Niagara community look like?
As a musician, one idea seemed like a simple place to start — hold a concert, invite the mayor and the locals to come and enjoy an evening of great music together.
Planning started as soon as we returned from our trip. The band Newworldson readily agreed to participate, as did then-Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs.
Later that spring, in May, 2007, the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project (with which I volunteered) hosted the first welcome concert at Bethany Church.
The evening was a success, bubbling over with neighbourly enthusiasm and song. The numbers continued to grow each year as it became an an annual event.
In 2009, Newworldson recorded a CD with the world-renowned Toronto Mass Choir. One of their most requested songs was the Caribbean Medley they had learned from our Jamaican neighbours on the farms. Sitting in on their recording session in Toronto, we were blown away by the powerful vocals and the sheer joy the choir exuded when performing. I dared to dream they would some day grace the stage at a Workers Welcome concert.
The cost of bringing them to the concert in Niagara was formidable to an organization with no budget for an event like this. How would we possibly raise the money? By late November, the decision had to be made whether to go ahead and book the choir.
Early one morning I was driving my husband to work, wrestling with the deadline. I shot up a prayer — “ God, I need a sign.”
I dropped my husband off, turned on the radio and CBC’s Sounds of the Season came on. To my astonishment, the powerful voices of Toronto Mass Choir were ringing out from the car speakers. There was no turning back.
On May 2, 2010, buses unloaded and the auditorium filled to capacity at Orchard Park Church as we scrambled to find chairs for over 625 farm workers and locals, to hear the Toronto Mass Choir. Burroughs offered a heartfelt welcome, and together everyone celebrated a powerful night of joy-infused black gospel, funk and reggae.
One elderly gentleman came up to me at the door halfway through the concert, frowning. “How come farm owners get in for free?”
“Because they won’t come if they have to pay,” I replied.
He broke into a big smile and plunked down a $50 bill on the table, saying “it’s worth twice that. Thanks for all your work.”
It was my first time meeting Jim Meyers, and he continued to be a great encouragement in the years to come.
The 2010 concert took place just a few months after the devastating earthquake in Haiti. Thanks to the unexpected donations of many farm workers, we were able to present Leno Mori with a cheque for more than $1,000 just a few weeks later to support International Child Care’s rebuilding of Grace Children’s Hospital in Port-au-Prince. Most of the Jamaican men had just arrived for the season, but they dug deep to help ICC.
Partnering with the Toronto Mass Choir in 2010 was the beginning of a new direction for the Niagara Workers Welcome concerts.
The 2016 concert was a highlight, as we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program, with a capacity crowd at Southridge Church in St. Catharines. About 600 farm workers and 200 locals attended this milestone event with the Toronto Mass Choir once again raising the roof with their joyous sound.
In 2017 the event evolved into the Peach Pickers Picnic, to include the Mexican farm workers who wished to participate. It was held at the Market@The Village on the Sunday of the Peach Festival. More than 475 meals were served to our Mexican and Jamaican neighbours, and increased to 500 in 2018.
Working to create a more welcoming community has been a challenging road for the past 12 years. The logistics of finding transportation for workers and fundraising for the annual event can be overwhelming.
The challenge is on again this year, as we ramp up the preparations for the 2019 Peach Pickers Picnic on Aug. 11.
We are encouraged that community support and gratitude has been growing exponentially and are excited about plans unfolding for the coming year.
The Niagara Workers Welcome is a grassroots effort that belongs to our community and started with a little spark of light, a glimmer of an idea back in 2007.
We press on for many reasons. It’s about expressing gratitude. It’s about the joy of our treasured friendships.
The growing appreciation of our Jamaican and Mexican neighbours in the NOTL community has been a clear indication that “together, we are a caring community” — the motto that best represents the Niagara Workers Welcome group.
All organizing is done on a volunteer basis. The budget for the event is $8,000 with about $6,000 designated to showing appreciation by providing free meals to the farm workers. We have about $4,000 to go in the next two weeks to meet that goal.
In past years most of it was raised by people paying it forward to cover the costs of a meal for a farm worker. We also welcome and recognize sponsorships of larger amounts — gold at $1000, silver for donations of $500 and bronze at $250.
For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Donations can be sent by e-transfer to the above address or dropped off at 2230 Four Mile Creek Rd.
See you at the Peach Pickers Picnic, 5:30 to 9 p.m., Sunday, Aug. 11.
See an online version of a workers welcome, visit https://vimeo.com/254895196.