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Niagara Workers Welcome – How It Started

 

This week the magic happened. It started with a tiny flicker, a momentary reflection catching my eye in a little pond tucked deep among the ferns. A second tiny flash hovered over the path and I followed it down to the forest below. I was transfixed by the sight that awaited – a veritable “constellation” of thousands of fireflies hovering and drifting through the ferns and solomon’s seals. It was a fantasy in slow motion, I had never witnessed a firefly show as breathtaking as the scene before me.

Standing in the hushed valley, filled with awe and wonder, I had a flashback to a special memory years earlier.

It was Sunday night in the little village of Grant Bailey in the rolling hills of St. Ann, Jamaica. We had just attended a Sunday night service at our good friend Winston Green’s church. Sunday evenings were informal services with folks wearing ball caps, running shoes and comfortable clothes, the better to “raise the praise” in an evening of enthusiastic singing. I watched proudly as Winston helped lead the music on the guitar he had brought back from Canada.After a rousing evening of lively gospel choruses we left the little country church on foot for the long walk back.

I had forgotten just how velvety and infinite a night sky could be, the star filled galaxy overhead. One lone streetlight illuminated a short stretch of the single lane road so I relied on the others in our little group to help me find sure footing. The road wound around the moutain, overlooking a valley on one side and flanked by a steep stone outcrop on the other.

 

Rounding the first bend we were greeted with the incredible sight of peeniewallies – large fireflies -punctuating the darkened landscape below. They drifted lazily over the valley, leaving soft light trails like comets flaming out into the atmosphere.  I had to pause and watch, mesmerized by this unexpected display of fleeting brilliance and beauty.

Winston’s neighbour Mavis began to sing as she lead the way. Her voice was bold and confident, echoing against the mountain face. These women who walked alongside were fearless. It may not have been by choice but came from having to live without their husbands or partners for 8 months of the year. They had to raise their families and tend their farms, forced to rely on their neighbours and church “family” during times of struggle, critical illnesses, and hurricanes so fierce that there would be nothing left but a concrete pad where a home used to be.

The song Mavis sang was an old gospel tune – Rest in the Eye of the Storm – but she infused new life into it. The words permeated my heart and continued to provide strength and courage in years to come as I wrestled with “storms” in my own life.The walk home that night was transformational in so many ways, illuminated not only by fireflies but the resilient spirit of these people.

 

An idea came me as I lay sleepless that night. It was a little spark no bigger than a firefly but it caught my attention and ignited more questions.  How could we honour our Jamaican neighbours back home? What could a welcoming community back in Niagara look like? As a musician, one idea seemed like a simple place to start – hold a concert, invite the mayor and the locals to come and enjoy an evening of great music together.

Planning started as soon as we returned from our trip. The band Newworldson readily agreed to participate as did Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs.  Later that spring the Caribbean Workers Outreach Project ( who I volunteered with ) hosted the first welcome concert at Bethany Church in May 2007. The evening was a success, bubbling over with neighbourly enthusiasm and song.  The numbers continued to grow each year as it became an an annual event.

 In 2009 Newworldson recorded a CD with the world reknown Toronto Mass Choir . One of their most requested songs was the “Caribbean Medley” that they had learned from our Jamaican neighbours on the farms.  Sitting in on their recording session in Toronto we were blown away by the powerful vocals and the sheer joy the choir exuded when performing. I dared to dream that they would some day grace the stage at a Workers Welcome concert.

The cost of bringing them to the Welcome concert in Niagara was formidable to an organization with no budget for an event like this. How would we possibly raise the money? By late November the decision had to be made whether to go ahead and book the choir. Early one morning I was driving my husband to work, wrestling with the deadline. I shot up a prayer – “ God, I need a sign”!

I dropped my husband off, turned on the radio and CBC’s Sounds of the Season came on. To my astonishment the powerful voices of Toronto Mass Choir were ringing out from the car speakers! There was no turning back!

 2010 Niagara Workers Welcome with Toronto Mass choir.

On May 2, 2010 busses unloaded and the auditorium filled to capacity at Orchard Park Church as we scrambled to find chairs for over 625 farm workers and locals . Lord Mayor Gary Burroughs offered a heart felt welcome and together everyone celebrated a powerful night of joy-infused black gospel, funk and reggae.

One elderly gentleman came up to me at the door halfway through the concert, frowning.

“How come farm owners get in for free?” “Because they won’t come if they have to pay” I replied.

He broke into a big smile and plunked down a $50 bill on the table saying “It’s worth twice that, thanks for all your work.”

It was my first time meeting Jim Meyers and he continued to be a great encouragment in the years to come.

The 2010 concert took place just a few months after the devasating earthquake in Haiti. Thanks to the unexpected donations of many farm workers,  we were able to present Leno Mori with a cheque for over  $1000 just a few weeks later to support International Child Care’s rebuilding of the childrens hospital in Port au Prince. Most of the Jamaican men had just arrived for the season but they dug deep and gave sacrificially to help out ICC.

Partnering with the Toronto Mass Choir in 2010 was the beginning of a new direction for the Niagara Workers Welcome concerts.

The 2016  concert was a highlight as we celebrated the 50thanniversary of the SAWP ( Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program)  with a capacity crowd at Southridge Church, St.Catharines. About 600 farm workers and 200 locals attended this milestone event with the  Toronto Mass Choir once again “raising the roof” with their joyous sound!

Peach Pickers Picnic

In 2017 the event evolved into the Peach Pickers Picnicto include the Mexican farm workers who wished to participate. It was held at the Market@The Village on the Sunday of the Peach Festival. Over 475 meals were served to our Mexican and Jamaican neighbours and increased to 500 in 2018.

Working to create a more welcoming community has been a challenging road for the past 12 years. The logisitics of finding transportation for workers  and fund raising for the annual event can be overwhelming.

The challenge is on again this year as we ramp up the preparations for the 2019 Peach Pickers Picnic on August 11.  We are encouraged that community support and gratitude has been growing exponentially and are excited about plans unfolding for the coming year.

The Niagara Workers Welcome started with a little spark of light, a glimmer of an idea back in 2007. It is a grassroots effort that belongs to our community  and we press on for many reasons. It’s about expressing gratitute. It’s about the joy of our treasured friendships.

The growing appreciation of our Jamaican and Mexican neighbours in the NOTL community has been a clear indication that “Together, we are a caring community.”

Together, we can illuminate the qualities that make us a truly beautiful community.

Join us at the Peach Pickers Picnic The Market@ The Village!

5:30 -9pm, Sunday, August 11.

For more information contact – niagaraworkerswelcome@gmail.com    https://vimeo.com/254895196