Late this summer, a church will rise each Sunday evening in southern Minnesota.
In Montgomery, the amplifiers will be plugged in and songbooks will be unpacked. Wine will be brought out for the service – and if it’s forgotten, someone will run to get more.
And between the shifts at the Seneca packing plant, Hispanic migrant workers will walk over to Memorial Park for a church service and meal, part of a ministry that is marking its 22nd year in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota.
La Misión el San Jose Obrero is a ministry that has grown from a hospitality ministry to one where the congregation – the workers – have taken on more responsibility. It’s also a ministry that’s been incredibly meaningful for those who have volunteered with it for decades.
The question now is: Is it a ministry that might attract more Twin Cities congregations to its mission of partnership and radical hospitality?
“It’s not bringing charity,” said Carolyn Schmidt, who helped start the ministry more than 20 years ago. “It’s people who are guests in our state, working to help one of the backbones of our economy, and we are here to say, ‘Thank you, thank you for doing work for us.’”
Seasonal Ministry Develops Into a Community
To everything there is a season, and for La Misión el San Jose Obrero, that season would be corn.
The corn, along with the earlier pea season, brings hundreds of workers from south Texas to Montgomery, year after year, for jobs that keep them working seven days a week, 12 hours each day.
So for two decades, Episcopal faith communities in southern Minnesota have supported the workers on Sunday evenings, providing a church service and a meal from late afternoon to early evening. The ministry begins in early August and ends in late September with a blessing of the cars before workers drive back south.
“I think the community is really living into being a community,” said the Rev. Neptali Rodriguez, the priest-in-charge at San Jose Obrero. “They are a family when they are here and they are happy to be there.”
The ministry serves two shifts of workers – those coming for the 6 p.m. shift, and those leaving at that time, Rodriguez said. Two people from each shift are responsible for finding workers to read and otherwise serve on Sunday afternoons, like helping to set up.
“I feel now like they are owners of this place,” he said.
The Seneca plant in Montgomery is one of five plants for the company in Minnesota, with more than a half million square feet devoted to packing peas and corn. According to its website, Seneca is the largest producer of canned vegetables in the world.
Seneca’s plant in Montgomery brings back workers year after year, which has allowed a community to develop there. Ginny Padzieski, deacon at Calvary Episcopal and a volunteer at Montgomery for more than 20 years says she has seen children grow from age 10 to adulthood – and then bring their children to be baptized at San Jose Obrero.
The community, which averages about 70-80 worshippers each Sunday, is learning how to have a voice in its own ministry, said Jill Tollefson, deacon at All Saints in Northfield and a key organizer for the ministry. Three years ago, when the ministry became a “specialized mission” under church cannons, plant workers decided on the name San Jose Obrero, which is Spanish for Saint Joseph the Worker, in honor of Jesus’ father.
“People saw them at first as needing something, as us doing something for them,” Tollefson said. “But now people are playing a role that’s more supporting and allowing people at the plant to see how they want this to go.”
She later added: “It’s a fabulous opportunity to see a church being born.”
Additional Faith Community Partners Needed
Faith communities in Region 5, in southeastern Minnesota, have supported this ministry for years. But the reality is that southern Twin Cities churches are closer to Montgomery than Austin or Albert Lee, and supporters of San Jose Obrero hope to get the word out to interested faith communities who might help with the mission.
What help does this ministry need? There’s always a need for translators, Schmidt said, and the mission can always use support in providing the food.
But speaking Spanish isn’t essential, she said. Being present, no matter what language is spoken, is key.
“I’d say the hardest thing is not to get people there with food,” she said,” but it’s to get people to be in conversation..”
It’s also an opportunity to practice “radical hospitality,” Schmidt said.
“In Montgomery, and in Minnesota, we think we have this immigration thing solved and we don’t,” said Schmidt. “What we really need to work on in Minnesota is a radical kind of hospitality and that’s what Bishop Brian [Prior] wants us to think about. … But we have to think in terms of really welcoming people into our midst.”
La Misión el San Jose Obrero is so important because no other faith community is in ministry with the Hispanic workers at the plant in Montgomery, Rodriguez said.
“People are always saying to me that they are so happy to be a part of this community,” he said. “They are so grateful that it is there.”
Schmidt, Padzieski and Tollefson said the ministry sustains them.
“When it’s boiling hot outside and people come from the plant for mass and some men come in their t-shirts plastered with corn stuff and then kneel on that concrete and stand for an hour or more for mass – that’s how much it means to them,” Tollefson said, “It is truly, truly, that the Holy Spirit is alive and well there.”
For more information, or to participate in this ministry in August or September, contact Jill Tollefson, firstname.lastname@example.org.