Week #23. Meet Linda McElroy Thomas. She is the solo pastor at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Trinity has an average worship attendance of 100-120 people on a given Sunday.
Trinity has been called to work with the migrant worker population in their area. Literally. They received a phone call from the Department of Education in Pennsylvania (DEP) to help with an English as a Second Language (ESL) program.
The education grant program provides ESL classes to migrant workers, who are under the age of 22. They find out about these classes when the Health Department does their routine health inspections of the boarding rooms on the farms.
The ESL teachers are paid to go from farm to farm to teach the students. A more cost effective plan was developed to gather people from many farms to one location, to teach the class with all the students gathered in one place. This provides valuable fellowship time among the workers – even time for an occasional soccer game!
Trinity provides a room for the class and transportation to and from the church for the workers. They coined the name “Building Bridges” for this initiative and added a few more elements to the process. With no questions asked about visas or status, anyone can attend the class. They also provide a potluck meal. The class runs for one hour and then they eat together. This provides the conversational practice for all the students – much needed when learning a new language
Pr. Thomas said, “The migrant workers are essential to the farms. Gone are the days when farmers have lots of kids. If they do have kids, many go off to college and are not returning to work the farms. The migrant workers work hard, they contribute to our economy and they pay taxes.”
This ESL program has given the congregation a chance to learn about local migrant workers. Together, they eat a meal and swap stories. One lady from Trinity has kids the same age as the workers she has been transporting back and forth to the class. She learned that these young men are working on the farms to help their parents by sending money back home. She said, “If it were my kids, I would hope someone would look after them.”
Pr. Thomas said, “We don’t do this to grow the congregation. We do this to have compassion for our neighbors. Most workers are here by themselves and it can be lonely. By having a meal together, they have an instant community each time we gather.” A few of the workers have become active participants at worship and one infant has been baptized – with three “God-mothers” from Trinity!
Why does this story matter? It matters because God calls us to be compassionate to the stranger. Mark Alan Powell describes how different communities interpret the story of the Prodigal Son. In the US, the emphasis is on the young man who wasted all his money by being irresponsible. In Russia, emphasis is placed on the role of the famine. In Africa, Christians hear the same story and point to how the tribe failed to give the son no food to eat. Trinity members asked themselves, “Are we the tribe that does not feed those who are hungry – not just for food, but for compassion?” Migrant workers may not be the prodigal son but they are living in a foreign country, under difficult conditions. “The least we could do was collaborate with DEP, share a meal with our new friends, and be compassionate to our neighbors. We have been blessed in serving and have become more informed citizens, with regard to the complexity of the situation for immigrant and migrant workers among us.”
For more information on the this story, please contact Linda McElroy Thomas at 814-445-5446.