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Open hands, open doors

Ministry to migrant farm workers at Cornerstone Community Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario

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The Farmworker Hub provides health and basic needs support services for migrant farm workers in the Niagara region.

“What has God given us? What can he do with what we have?”

Cornerstone Community Church in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario found itself asking these questions in 2017. The church had recently merged with Orchard Park Bible Church, another MB church in the community, and they now had two buildings. One facility is nestled in the countryside between Virgil and Old Town, and the other is on the main road in the heart of downtown Virgil. (For those not familiar with the area, Virgil is just west of Niagara-on-the-Lake.)

Since the Orchard Park facility was much larger, it was decided to move Cornerstone’s Sunday morning worship services there. But the church questioned and prayed and processed together: should they keep their old building in downtown Virgil, or should they sell it?

Jeff Martens is the Outreach Pastor and Director of Operations at Cornerstone. He says that through much conversation and prayer, the church felt that God had given them the best spot in town to do ministry — the building is visible, it’s in the heart of the community, and people are already there.

So they decided to keep the old building. But now the question was: what should they do with it?

An open door

At the same time, Quest Community Health Centre in St. Catharines was looking for a better clinic space to provide healthcare for seasonal agricultural workers in the region. They were presently located in downtown St. Catharines, which is quite out of the way for the 3,000 migrant workers who come to the Niagara-on- the-Lake region every year.

Though all migrant workers in Ontario have full access to the healthcare system, there are significant barriers to this access: limited time off, transportation issues, language barriers as well as fear of disclosing medical issues to an employer. Healthcare that is tailored to address some of these issues is essential in creating a vibrant, healthy community and workforce.

Cornerstone Community Church and Quest Community Health Centre partner together to provide healthcare services to migrant workers in the Niagara region.

In a different part of Niagara, Southridge Community Church was engaging with migrant workers in Vineland, occasionally operating a health clinic out of one of its buildings. So the leadership and congregation at Cornerstone thought it made a lot of sense to do something similar through their space in Virgil, since it’s a central location for migrant workers. There are many members of the church who are farmers and who are aware of the needs of the community; there is a real heart in the congregation for serving this group of people.

So, Cornerstone Community Church approached Quest about partnering together to create a community health clinic for seasonal agricultural workers through their building in Virgil. Quest had access to the funding necessary for the medical equipment and licensing requirements, but Cornerstone was a major factor in recruiting doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, administrative volunteers as well as volunteer translators. It also renovated their building in Virgil and set it up as a clinic space. The health clinic launched in 2019. The partnership has been wonderful for both Quest and Cornerstone; Martens says that the partnership itself has become part of the ministry.

The heath centre operates twice a month on Sunday evenings from April to October. In 2023, 241 individuals accessed healthcare services through the clinic.

The health clinic runs from April to October, twice a month on Sunday evenings. In 2023, the clinic served 241 individuals in total. The actual number of appointments is higher, as this includes follow-up consultations and repeat visits.

“It’s a… justice issue, for the church to stand with those that are vulnerable in our community. And I would say [migrant workers are] a vulnerable part of our community: being in a foreign country, heavily dependent on their employer, in a system that is honestly hard, dealing with the healthcare system that most Ontarians have a hard time navigating,” says Martens. “It felt right, for us at the church, in bringing Kingdom values into that space.”

Another open door

Cornerstone has continued to ask the questions, “What has God given us? What can he do with what we have?” And God keeps providing opportunities for ministry.

In 2021, a non-profit organization called the Farmworker Hub opened in Niagara-on-the-Lake to provide clothing and other basic needs items to migrant workers — in essence, a free thrift store. It has grown substantially since it started; last season it saw over 3,000 people access its services.

Cornerstone has been in conversation with the Farmworker Hub this past year, and in 2024, it will be taking over this organization. Cornerstone’s vision for the Virgil property is that it will be the place to receive support services for migrant farm workers in Niagara- on-the-Lake. The health clinic and the thrift store will be a ministry of their Virgil property, serving as a resource centre. Cornerstone hopes to start ESL classes and other community events that create more opportunities to build relationships between church members and their neighbours, migrant workers.

“Many [migrant workers] feel a tremendous amount of loneliness when they’re here. And so…our longer-term goal is to be more integrated [with our church]. So we’re thinking about how to have translation options available so that our gathering on Sunday is a bit more reflective of our community. And many [migrant workers] are Christians, so there’s an opportunity for them to be incorporated as part of our community when they’re here,” Martens says.

The church hopes to receive funding that would allow them to hire a part-time director of The Farmworker Hub as well as a bus that could provide some transportation to events and classes — most workers travel by bicycle, which can be dangerous at night.

Martens says the vision is big. There’s a lot of work ahead to communicate this vision to their congregation and to the community. But Cornerstone has seen God’s hand throughout the last number of years, especially through the partnership with Quest and now with the Farmworker Hub.

“Through everything that God has given us…we just keep saying, ‘OK, God. You have given this to us.’ So we will keep walking forward in faith” says Martens.

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