This year marks a 15-year anniversary celebrating treasured friendships with our Jamaican neighbours.
It was in spring 2005 that I was invited to assist with the music at a little church service for Caribbean farm workers. The CWOP (Caribbean Workers Outreach Project) services were run by Grace United Church, but held at Bethany Mennonite Church, on Sunday nights for two months in May and June.
I took on the task of building a music team, but had no idea where the farms were located or how many men actually came to Niagara on the program.
It took some sleuthing, but I gradually discovered singers and musicians hidden on farms tucked away in every corner of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
By 2006, we had a core group of musicians, and every Tuesday night we would pick them up at their bunkhouses. I would typically greet them with “How are you doing?”
They would always respond in one of two ways: “Good so far,” or “ I thank God for life.”
I found the “ good so far ” amusing. It was as if they expected something unpleasant to happen, or for their life to spin out of control at any moment.
On days when they’d been out thinning peaches, their muscles aching from reaching up into the branches for 10 hours, and dealing daily with the rashes and itching from the peach fuzz, they would respond, “I thank God for life.”
It was humbling for me, remembering how I complained so easily about my problems.
In February, 2007, we travelled to Jamaica to visit their families. We stayed in their homes and visited their churches across the island, experiencing the warmth of their island culture firsthand. I began to appreciate how very hard it was for them to have to leave their children and families for eight months of the year.
I also began to understand how decisions made on farms in Niagara have an immediate impact on their families, almost 3,000 km away. When a father, brother or son worked on a farm where respect and dignity was part of the work environment, it was also experienced and appreciated by their family members back home.
When the relationship with the employer was abusive, or they were forced to live in degrading conditions, that too sent a clear message to the families back home. They now not only had to deal with the physical separation for such an extended period of time, but now carried the additional burden of worrying about the mental and emotional health and well-being of someone they loved.
Over the years, I came to understand the precarious nature of this type of employment. Injury and illness were always concerns that were first and foremost on their minds. The possibility of being sent home for reasons beyond their control was a close second.
In their world, they did not enjoy the same employment security as Canadians. Even though they had been paying into Employment Insurance, some for as long as 40 years, they could not share in the benefit. They could be sent home for any reason, without even knowing why, and without the ability to appeal.
They had to accept whatever living conditions their employer decided was good enough for their “class” of human being.
They were too far away to protect their families during hurricane season.
They missed the milestones of family life that we celebrated. They were unable to hold the hand of a dying parent or their own child.
I also began to understand why their faith was so important to them. The music at the Sunday night services was vital to surviving the challenges of their everyday life. When they “raise a lively chorus,” it is whole-hearted, from the very depths of their being.
Singing is a life-affirming connection to God, their loved ones, and a shared faith community, regardless of denomination. It is a safe place where their voices can be heard. Sunday night testimony time is a moving experience, as they share from the depths of their souls about God’s goodness and faithfulness in their lives.
In recent years, the simple choruses and testimonies have carried me through some of my darkest times.
Over the years I began to understand the reason behind the response, “good so far.”
I gained a great appreciation for “I thank God for life.”
Last fall we had the privilege of opening our home to Delroy Castella, who had suffered a stroke and needed a place to stay while receiving outpatient therapy at Hotel Dieu Shaver Hospital. He had lived and worked in our neighbourhood for 35 years. His wife Joan flew from Jamaica so she could attend his therapy sessions.
On Sundays, they visited different local churches. One Sunday morning we attended Southridge Vineland Church where Pastor Nate Dirks was speaking. He engaged the congregation in an exercise to understand privilege, and how it impacts our lives. It was a paper version of a similar exercise seen on social media, where the participant advances or steps back, according to the questions asked.
After about a dozen questions, Delroy looked at me quizzically. He had moved so far below zero he was “off the chart.” What was the point of playing?
The look of deep reflection on everyone’s faces indicated that the message was not lost on the congregation, most of whom were actively involved in friendship with their Caribbean neighbours. Southridge is also a church that is now actively preparing to serve their Caribbean friends despite the challenges of community life shaped by Covid-19.
Reality is rapidly changing in Niagara. As much as we wish for a return to normal life, we are all starting to recognize that life is going to be much different than what we feel entitled to. We are experiencing a major seismic shift in our ability to control our circumstances, just a tiny taste of what much of the world has to deal with in the best of times.
Some of the men I met 15 years ago are arriving weekly now, soon to be working in local orchards and vineyards. Our current feeling of uncertainty and anxiety is one they are well familiar with. May we humbly learn as we walk alongside our neighbours whose faith has been tried and tested.
Over the past 15 years there is a common theme in their testimonies at church and in our conversations. It offers solid ground to the choices we make, when rebuilding our community and economy.
They can quote these words by apostle Paul off by heart: “And now these things remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
Maybe now when we greet them ( from six feet away ,) we can also answer, “good so far,” or “I thank God for life.”