Father Jesus Antonio Rojas, known by all as Father Tony, runs the Episcopal Farmworker Ministry in Dunn, North Carolina. From an airy facility about an hour south of Raleigh, he and a small staff provide a long list of services to nearly 4,000 migrant farmworkers who live in temporary labor camps off the highway, all but invisible to passersby.
Last week my daughter Greta and I helped fill 400 grocery bags with those shirts and toothbrushes, alongside visiting college students from UNC and Duke.
Father Tony knows workers who miss a day of work waiting for their only pair of pants to dry on a clothesline. And waiting for the weekend doesn’t help when you work seven days a week. He prays now for a pants donor, so he can give an extra pair to every worker.
Our bag-stuffing was guided by Lucia, Father Tony’s wife and navigator of the white van that later hauled those bags to four camps. We followed, caravan style.
“Muchachos! Muchachos!” Father Tony yelled from an open window as he rolled the van to a stop, beeping the horn. Soon he was introducing us to the workers and guiding the distribution of goods.We couldn’t help notice the squalid conditions. Kitchens were filthy. Rows of toilets lacked stalls. At one camp, a foul-smelling dumpster sat just outside the open windows of the rooms where men have to sleep.
There are thought to be at least 100,000 migrant farmworkers in North Carolina. Nationwide there are more than a million, many living in conditions barely suitable for animals.
Father Tony doesn’t blame the farm operators, known as growers, who hire and house these men, women and, sometimes, children. He tells me how busy they are “with so many, many problems” to worry about. “They try to give workers the best they can.”
Clearly some growers try harder than others, but he’s wise in not pointing fingers at the growers. This is a system problem. Even we the people who enjoy the sweet potatoes and everything else provided by these men and women working for low pay and living in squalor share responsibility. We are part of the problem.
But we are also the solution. That’s the message I get from listening to Father Tony and watching him work, that we all have the capacity to help improve the lives of farmworkers, the poorest of America’s working poor, to whom he has devoted his life’s work.
“Farmworkers are a miracle,” Father Tony told me on an earlier visit. “A gift from God. Without them we have no life.”
I asked Father Tony what he wants most for the farmworkers—beyond a few thousand pair of sturdy pants. His answer? Recognition. Simple awareness of their existence by people like you and me.
“These are the most important people in the world,” he tells me, emphasizing words as if he can’t understand why this is obvious only to him.
“They feed us,” he continues. “And they are so near us. But people don’t know.”
Father Tony knows he can’t do much about that part of the problem. But he knows what part he can address. He knows where the camps are and what the farmworkers need, and he does an amazing job at getting it to them.
But he can sure use those pants.
Photos by Michael Durbin