[Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to us from the Rev. Melissa DeRosia, Pastor at Gates Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. -gm]
It was one of those phone calls on a Sunday morning that I least expected. Anticipating a last minute communion server cancellation or sick Sunday school teacher, I burst out laughing when a church member said, “Melissa, the farmworkers from Jamaica called this morning and said they wanted to come to church today, so we are going to go pick them up. I’m serving communion this morning, but don’t worry—I will be there.”
“Of course you will be,” I said.
Over a year ago, the congregation at Gates Presbyterian Church (GPC) responded to the invitation to be part of the Rural & Migrant Ministry Building Bridges pilgrimage. We had no idea where God was leading us and how we were going to get there. GPC is a suburban congregation on the west side of Rochester, NY nestled between the interstate onramp and big-box stores. Though the closest farm field is 20 minutes down the road, our church members had little or no interaction with those who pick the apples or cabbage.
What we did have was a relationship with a small town in Jamaica where our congregation has been a part of building a school with a local church. We also have a congregation that includes families who emigrated from Jamaica years ago. These connections seemed all too obvious, but we still weren’t sure how to go from there to building relationships with the Jamaican farmworkers. With the help of the Holy Spirit and relationship we made through the Building Bridges program, we went from being a congregation that talked about how we might welcome farmworkers to learning how we can share meals and worship together.
The first meal we shared together began with the words “The One to whom we turn our lives over has invited us to this table: Whoever you are, however you feel, for whatever reasons you are here, come to the feast. Whatever your condition, whatever brokenness and hurts you bear: know that our host is the one who teaches, the one who heals, and the one who welcomes.”
I glanced over to the section of pews where the farmworkers were welcomed by those who normally occupy those pews, including the families of Jamaicans who are part of our congregation, and saw that, where our church members were staring intently at their bulletins to participate in the liturgy, the farmworkers eyes were fixed on the table. Reflexively, I began to recite from memory the liturgy and quickly discovered no one was responding as they normally do. I stared down at the bulletin and realized that the liturgy had been left out of the bulletin! I figured my congregation was well practiced enough with this, and given the opportunity to improvise, would do so. So, realizing this, I instead led the group in a call and response, sharing the words they were to repeat. The farmworkers eyes lit up as their voices blended with those around them.
I continued to change some of our normal communion practices, instructing the congregation along the way. GPC often includes the hymn “Let Us Talents and Tongues and Employ” set to the tune of a Jamaican folk melody and it took on new meaning as we sang “Christ is able to make us one; at the table he sets the tone, teaching people to live to bless, love in word and in deed express.” For me, the meaning was apparent as the congregation remained standing following this hymn. As I raised my arms for the benediction, I watched ten pairs of hands lift into the air with me. No one in the congregation turned or stared; I’m not sure anyone else even noticed. In that moment I felt our congregation was learning what it means to live and to be blessed by our new friends.
A week later, GPC hosted a farewell dinner for our friends as they make the long bus ride back to Miami, FL before boarding a plane to Jamaica. They brought apples and cabbage from the fields and we shared a home cooked Jamaican meal. I was instructed to practice my newly acquired domino skills so that when we get together again next year, I might not lose every round! After we said our goodbyes, the folks from GPC talked about how we are going to connect next year. There was talk of getting a group together to provide transportation to church and providing support for basic needs. But most of all we talked about gathering at the table again.