Oblate Voices is a JPIC blog that follows stories of hope and is about how Oblates and associates live and experience mission work in the spirit of the Oblate founder, St Eugene De Mazenod of responding to the needs of poor and most abandoned around the world.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Eternal Stranger: Ministry with Migrant Farmworkers

(Reprinted with permission from OMI Lacombe Canada)

Every spring, as monarch butterflies begin their long journey from Mexico to Canada, they are followed by tens of thousands of human migrants. They come, summer after summer, to harvest fruits, berries and vegetables, low paid work for which few Canadians are interested in applying. The migrants, mostly Mexican men, are part of the Season Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Their labour and low wages help keep Canadian agri-business competitive and Canadian produce relatively cheap.

A “generic” photo of a farm worker taken from a farm outside Manitoba. This is the photo we use on most of the publicity for the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network.
One of these men is Antonio. Antonio had been coming to Canada every year for over 20 years, usually arriving in April and returning home in December – the maximum stay allowed under the program. He leaves behind his wife and family – only those who have wives and children are allowed into the program. Although Antonio spends most of his life in Canada, he will never be allowed to become a permanent resident or to bring his family.

Thomas Novak with his guitar and members of the choir of SAWP workers.
Life in Canada is lonely and the work difficult. But Antonio hopes that, after paying his expenses in Mexico and Canada, he can put aside enough cash to pay for the education of his children. Others are saving to buy a little house or a small business – all depending on the quality of the harvest and the number of hours they are able to work. Over the years Antonio has learned a little English, but there is little opportunity to practice. Antonio and his co-workers live in a kind of barracks, 50 km from the nearest major town. The program does not provide for language classes; the work days are long and Antonio has little opportunity to interact with people other than his co-workers and bosses. The workers remain eternal strangers in the country where they spend so much of their lives. At the same time, those who stay in Canada for the full term of 8 months per annum, become strangers to their families back home. Antonio has missed the birth of his children, their birthdays, their graduations and the funerals of his parents.
Oblates in British Colombia (Otto Rollheiser) and in Manitoba (Thomas Novak) have been part of ministries that befriend and support workers like Antonio. As a student at St. Paul University in the 1980’s, Thomas studied the liberating leadership of Cesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers. Chavez led many successful actions to improve the working conditions of Mexican and Mexican American workers who harvest the fruit and vegetables of California and Texas. Today Thomas coordinates a volunteer ministry to another generation of Mexican farm workers; it is based out of Winnipeg’s St. Ignatius Hispanic Catholic Community.
During the harvesting season, Thomas organizes monthly celebrations of the Eucharist in Spanish for Mexican workers in Portage la Prairie and in the village of St. Eustache. The goal of the ministry is not just to provide religious services but to address the isolation of the men, to help them make some contact with the community and to give them a sense that they are cared for and that they are valued for more than for their labour. Thomas and other volunteers visit with the workers on Friday evenings when they are driven into town to do some shopping and their banking. The volunteers try to address any problems that the workers bring to their attention. Every year the ministry organizes special celebrations around Mexican Independence Day (September 15). The celebrations include a supper prepared by the parishes in Portage and St. Eustache and soccer matches between teams from the larger farms.
In 2009, Thomas co-founded the Migrant Workers Solidarity Network. The MWSN is a more political coalition that educates Manitobans about the realities lived by migrant SAWP workers like Antonio. Its members also campaign for better working conditions for the workers. They have successfully lobbied Manitoba’s NDP government to assure that SAWP workers are covered by the provincial medical health plan. In 2015, MWSN volunteers began organizing language classes at two of the farms.

Choir composed of Mexican SAWP workers at a Spanish language Eucharist at St Eustache.
There remains much to do. Although SAWP workers pay the same taxes as Canadian residents, they receive few of the benefits received by other workers. They pay into the national Employment Insurance plan, but cannot collect benefits. Most provinces still deny them participation in provincial Medicare plans. In 2013 the Harper Government stripped SAWP workers of the possibility of applying for the child tax benefit. Workers in most provinces are subject to abuse by recruiters and may be removed from the SAWP program if they are suspected of communicating with a union organizer or otherwise stand up for their rights.
Another generic photo of workers doing typical harvest work (from outside Manitoba).
If you would ask Antonio what would be the change he longs for most, he (and many of his co-workers) would say that it would be the opportunity to bring his family here and to make Canada his permanent home. The MWSN is linking up with like-minded coalitions across the country to encourage the new federal government to provide a pathway to permanent residency for all temporary workers. The rallying cry is “Good enough to work here, good enough to live here”.
The volunteer work that Thomas does among migrant workers is another way that Oblate priests, brothers and associates of OMI Lacombe Canada seek to be present to those who have been pushed toward the margins and, like St. Eugene, to help them to appreciate their dignity as beloved children of the Creator.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Marching for the Environment: Events Held Worldwide

By Sr. Nathanael Lee

Sr. Nathanael Lee is from South Korea and is a member of the Little Servants of the Holy Family, a congregation based in Korea. She is interning at JPIC's office in Washington, DC.

On November 29th the Global Catholic Climate Movement held a march in Washington DC, just a day before the official start of the Paris Climate Summit  or COP21. The event coincided with other climate gatherings around the world.

This event made history! It was the largest climate mobilization ever. Over 785,000 people participated in 2,300 events in 175 countries. And I was one of them! 

On the day of our event it was raining slightly, a bit chilly, with memories of my recent Thanksgiving holiday meal left far behind.

Our local crowd that gathered at the White House was modest, not as many as I expected. The thought ran through my head that I forgot to bring the OMI-ecology banner!

Pope Francis' latest encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si' not only calls on the Church but the world as well to acknowledge and do something about our environmental crisis. This is a pivotal issue that affects the poorest and most vulnerable people in our common home, the earth. 

My home community in South Korea, Little Servants of the Holy Family– Justice & Peace Office (LSHF-JPIC) and The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate – Justice & Peace Office (OMIJPIC) in Washington, DC where I currently intern, share a common spiritual philosophy: care for the poor and among the poor. My background and presence here at OMI JPIC encourage me to live out this charism with radical commitment. 

I have attended many climate change seminars, both scholarly and theological in nature. But participating in the recent Global Climate March on the behalf of LSHF-JPIC & OMI-JPIC has personally impacted me to take ACTION and do a little more to move things along.

 "I want the Church to go out to the streets." Pope Francis   

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Parishioner at Archdiocese of Johannesburg Reflects on 'Fees Must Fall' Student Protest in South Africa

The government of South Africa recently proposed a 6% increase in tuition at the nation’s universities. In response students took to the streets to protest. Ms. Palesa Ncube, a parishioner at the Archdiocese of Johannesburg (Parish of Diepkloof in Soweto) reflects on her own experience as a university student, navigating the costs for pursuing higher education in South Africa today. Ms. Ncube works for KPMG - South Africa.

By Ms. Palesa Ncube

In the past few weeks news headlines and social media have been dominated by university students calling for tuition to be lowered. I fully understand their position as I have in some form or another dealt with this situation throughout my school life.

I always begin my story with this line: I believe I have been blessed to be in the right place at the right time. Born to a teenage mother, I was raised by her parents who were great believers in education. I started school when I was 5 years old and immediately knew I was different. Learning to read was more important to me than running faster than the other kids.

At my first school in Soweto and as a top student, I was part of a group selected to attend Saturday School classes at one of South Africa’s most prestigious schools: Rodean School SA. The program was sponsored by GCP (Growth of Children’s Potential). This was the beginning of a new lease on life for me. I got a taste of the ‘other side’, of opulence and privilege and I wanted in. I began reading as if pages in books gave off extra oxygen and I basically lived in the heady clouds of possibility.

My grandfather greatly influenced my ‘head in the clouds’ ideology. I remember saying I wanted to be like Tito Mboweni (Governor of the Reserve Bank of South Africa) and sign the nation’s money. My grandfather's response: Why not?

When it came time to enroll in high school I finally began to grasp that my realization of ‘why not’ was not going to be easy. GCP had a scholarship program for underprivileged children to attend some of the top schools in Johannesburg. I wrote and aced the entrance exam for St Stithian. All that was left was the financial approval. My grandparents naturally filled out the forms as they were my legal guardians. I vividly remember being denied a scholarship as my grandparents collectively made more than what was deemed to be ‘underprivileged’.

I however got accepted into another exceptional high school with an excellent academic record, that had been established to assist underprivileged children who excelled in Math and Science.

Fast forward to a couple of years later. By now I aspired to attend university and obtain a Bachelor of Commerce (B.Comm) specializing in Finance and eventually work at a Merchant Bank brokering multimillion rand deals (the rand is the currency of South Africa) like the traders I met at a career fair. I was fully aware that my grandparents could not afford this and my mother had just recently started a career. It wasn’t because my family hadn’t planned properly, it was that there was no discretionary income to allow for a marginal propensity to save (as they had taught us in Economics). All their income was disposable, barely covering our basic needs.

Having learned from my high school saga, I completed the financial assistance forms using my mother’s details. I received a loan from NFSAS (National Student Financial Aid Scheme). But this was not an easy win. Every year we had to stand in day long queues to have our applications reviewed, until one year when I had a bitter sweet victory - I received a financial assistance loan of 100%, while my good friend, suddenly became less underprivileged and received a loan of only 25%. It was harrowing to watch him plea with family members for help and stand surety for a bank loan. Because although his mother earned too much for him to receive government funding, she earned too little to give the bank comfort that she could adequately service the debt. What a tricky, vicious cycle!!

Why do we subject ourselves to this trauma? Very simple, to work in our dream careers. Corporate South Africa will not consider your application for a post if you do not have the necessary qualifications. That is why the plea of students that FEES MUST FALL resonates so loudly with me. I completely understand how detrimental it is for one's soul to realize that higher university fees could abruptly end dreams. In this lifetime I pray I utilize my ‘luck’ and privilege to ensure that my daughter and all other South Africa children never experience this feeling: that exorbitant and exclusionary university fees do make dreams unattainable.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Oblate Radio Liseli spreads the light of Christ to surrounding communities

In June 2015 Oblate Radio Liseli in Mongu, Zambia marked 10 years in its mission of Spreading the Light of Christ in the Western Province of Zambia, Mongu Diocese.

One way the radio station is carrying out its mission is through educational programs facilitated by young people from the surrounding communities and schools. Among the programs are: Press Club, Learning at School and Fun Club.

Radio Liseli reaches thousands of listeners in Mongu, the capital city of the Western Province. The goal is to reach even more listeners in distant villages.
St John’s pupils in the Studio at Oblate Radio Liseli

Friday, October 30, 2015

Oblate Bishop Pastoral Encounters: Challenges in Education Sector in Western Province – Zambia

In his monthly newsletter, Oblate Bishop Evans Chinyemba OMI of Mongu Diocese in Zambia writes about many school infrastructure challenges and lack of basic educational opportunities faced by teachers and students in rural areas of Western Province.

By Bishop Evans Chinyama Chinyemba, O.M.I., Bishop of Mongu, ZAMBIA

Banabahesu, in my outreach to the parishes I take time to visit any nearby school, whether community school, government school or mission school. I am always well-received by the teachers. In Lukulu we gathered with the pupils and teachers of Lukulu’s St. Columba’s Secondary School. I realize the many challenges our schools go through, yet the staff and the pupils do their best in raising the standard of the school. In Mitete district, I met with a teacher who is at a school that began in 1942 and is still housed in a grass-thatched house. In a place called Kashinangombe, the only two teachers at the school are faced with the challenge of fetching water from Dongwe River. At some schools that go up to grade 7, there is only one teacher. 

This is the case of Kakenge Mwalye of Senanga and many other rural schools. Who can forget the story of the one teacher at Mbumi managing the whole school, while the second teacher is out on duty in Lukulu.  My pastoral encounters with the teachers who teach in rural schools make me aware of the importance of a good quality education. In many parts of our rural Barotseland, schools are very understaffed. Teachers have no decent accommodation. Classrooms cannot be termed 'classrooms that motivate teachers and the pupils'. Yet, I admire the teachers who have the courage to be in these schools. I am even more impressed with the courage of the pupils who find themselves walking long distances to reach their school. 

In some cases, I interact with pupils from various grades and I am interested to hear them read something. At times, it is difficult for even those in grades 7 or 9 to read and it is always a cheer when one in grade 4 volunteers to read and reads well. I will not forget the weekly boarders who, during weekends, travel home sometimes half a day’s walk to get their weekly food supply. Banabahesu, these are encounters that keep me asking why should it be like this in our situation! In the midst of all these challenges, one at times finds some determined young girl or boy who desires to complete their education and become a doctor or someone important in society. 

I am reminded of young Karen Kalukango who is in grade 6 and decided to write her name on her exercise book as Dr. Karen Kalukango. Impressive! This is a sign of hope that despite the many challenges pupils go through in rural areas, an eye for the future is seen. I promised to continue checking on her every time so that her dream is not extinguished.

My other encounters are those I have with young mothers. These are very young girls who are supposed to be in school yet most of them are either married or having children with no hope or desire of ever getting back to school. The future of our rural places will always remain a challenge since we do not have many people who finish school and are therefore not able to think of developing their places. When you ask why they getting married at such age, you get various answers. The common one is: we are grown up and it is time to get married. Traditionally, when they say they are grown up, they know what it means to naturally grow up. In our world today especially in rural areas, there is competition to see who gets married first and who has a child first. The second response is we are old enough. Why should I not get married or not have a child since my peers are married or have children. Once in a while you will find someone who says I dropped out of school and got married because I had no support to see me through. Well, we have been talking of the girl child and the question of marriage. 

Yet in my encounters, I also meet boys who are supposed to be in school but have decided to marry because everyone is doing it. How can a boy get married and manage a home!  Here we are, the girl child and boy child are at a crossroad. Banabahesu, my encounters are not only with young girls and boys who are married, but also with their parents and guardians. I have spoken in all our parishes of the need for parents and guardians to make sure that their children go to school. Let the children blame themselves for not having taken education seriously, than in the future blame their parents for forcing them into early marriages. 

Banabahesu, our encounters also inspire me. The spirituality behind self-sustainability moves us towards finding other ways of improving our parishes. In St. Martin de Porres parish, the Out Station of St. Peter around TBZ annually cultivate maize which they sell to supplement the finances of their Out Stations. How I wish many of our Outstations could borrow this idea especially those Outstations that have good land.

My other encounters are those with some retired civil servants. Having labored as teachers, as police persons, as nurses and other jobs, the retired officers are ready to offer their time to the life of the Church.

Banabahesu, I am grateful for these many encounters, which teach me a lot about how diverse our diocese is. As already noted, many of these encounters are difficult for they call us to reflect together what best we should do. May Mary our Mother, who has journeyed with us in the month of October, continue to guide us through and through.

*The full article originally appeared in the Mongu Diocese monthly newsletter – October 2015