Twenty-seven years ago, Rod Runyan visited a migrant camp in the Adams County Fruit Belt to drop off supplies.
The Carlisle pastor was not a welcome guest.
Because all the workers were Catholic, an armed man told Runyan that if he came back, he would shoot him.
“I told him, ‘Most you can do by shooting me is send me to heaven.’”
Runyan returned to the camp the next week and several weeks after that. The two men are now good friends and sit and talk about their families whenever they see each other.
Runyan has maintained this spirit of fellowship, having volunteered for the Fruitbelt Farmworker Christian Ministry, a nonprofit under the Pennsylvania Council of Churches that provides aid to migrant workers at area farms, since 1990. He became director in 2000.
Every year, Runyan, 70, tries to visit more than 100 migrant camps, which shelter more than 2,000 laborers, mainly in Adams, Franklin and Cumberland counties. For Runyan, it’s crucial to show the workers that the community cares for them and values their work.
“The idea is to get into the camps and let the guys know, who in many places are marginalized, that there are people that care for them,” Runyan said. “We’re glad that they come here to work. We’re pleased that they’re willing to put in the time and be away from their families to do the work here.”
Runyan travels to camps four nights a week in a dirt-splattered 1990 Ford Explorer van filled with donations. On an August evening in Biglerville, he visited four camps to meet the early arriving workers and deliver “health kits,” individually packaged bags filled with toiletries, like a washcloth, soap and a shaving kit, for each worker.
The kits were prepared by volunteers at an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. They prepared 1,000 kits last year and 1,200 for the 2017 picking season.
Workers spend their paychecks on everyday goods and services, like groceries, boots and laundry, Runyan said. However, most of the workers he is familiar with send at least half of what they make back to family members in their home country.
Migrant farmworkers made up 16 percent of crop workers interviewed for a National Agricultural Workers Survey during the 2013-14 fiscal year.
The study, released in December 2016, showed that 53 percent of farm workers had work authorization. Some of them are contracted through H-2A visas, a program that lawfully allows foreign workers to perform specific work for an employer through the duration of that work.
Mean and median incomes for farmworkers range from $15,000 to $17,500. About 2.5 million seasonal workers are estimated to work on U.S. farms and ranches, and the workers predominantly hail from Mexico.
The apple picking season, a significant part of the year for Adams County’s Fruit Belt, lasts from mid-September through the end of October. Some workers arrived earlier, in August, to pick fruit like gala apples, cherries and peaches.
A recent study on the Historic South Mountain Fruit Belt in Adams County showed the northwest region of the county that features 20,000 acres of apple orchards contributed $518 million to the county’s economy in 2016 and $16.4 million to the local tax base.
Driving in the donated van, labeled “chaplain” with an image of a barrel of apples, Runyan observed how many workers were in each camp by the amount of clothes on their clotheslines.
Runyan, a former missionary in Colombia, is fluent in Spanish and converses with the migrants. As he stopped at the migrant camps for Kime’s Cider Mill, he greeted the seven workers there with a question.
Runyan chatted with the men and prayed with them for their health, safety and the prosperity of fruit picking season.
“They’re here for such a short time,” Runyan said. “They’re moving all the time, and a lot of places they don’t have anybody that shows that they care. Matter of fact, they’re more treated like they’re hated. ... We try to show that God loves them regardless of where they’re from.”
Next visit was Mount Ridge Orchards to a camp of about 25 men, some sitting on the porches in front of their living quarters. One worker reclined with his boots outstretched, using a cinder block as a footrest.
Up to three men are assigned to each sterile, cement-floor apartment, which would make a college dormitory look spacious. One included a sink, three beds, a few small cupboards and a fire extinguisher.
A tiny striped kitten roamed the grounds. The workers called the “gato” their mascot, although they hadn’t named it yet.
Runyan asked the workers, who had recently arrived, what they thought of Pennsylvania. “Frio,” one answered — too cold for the men used to the Mexican heat.
Runyan brought the men the health kits, a bag of rice and then he announced he had clothing to help the workers put up with the cool autumn nights.
The workers flocked to the back of Runyan’s van, where he handed out donated clothes to their delight. Some tried on their new threads, including sports coats and a black leather duster, while trying to find the appropriate fit.
Runyan once again prayed with the men and offered Bibles to those who were interested. A few came up to Runyan to retrieve his offering.
“We just try to show that Jesus is with these guys, that Jesus cares for them and God loves them and that there are people that care that they come to work,” Runyan said.
Spreading the word
In early September, Runyan spoke at the Upper Adams Prayer Breakfast to spread the word about the ministry. The breakfast, held at the Apple Bin in Biglerville on the first Tuesday of each month, has existed for 35 years, according to facilitator Bob McQuaid.
After the breakfast attendees sang hymns together in the restaurant, Runyan talked to the group of seniors about what his work entails and its relevance in today’s society.
He told a story to the group about a migrant worker and father of six children who tried to get citizenship by returning to Mexico but was told he would have to wait several years. The next time they saw his American-born wife, she was living in a van with her children, visiting gas stations to clean them up before school.
The woman was working full time but could not afford housing, Runyan said. FFCM was able to find her and her family a place to live.
“This is not really an uncommon thing,” he said.
The breakfast attendees were transfixed as Runyan described how FFCM deals with whether the workers they deal with are documented or not.
“Frankly, we don’t ask,” he said. “In Fruitbelt, we accept no money from the government, so we don’t have to ask that question.”
All funding for FFCM comes from donations, primarily churches, Runyan said. The annual operating budget is around $60,000.
Runyan discussed changes he has seen in agricultural work over the years, including the H-2A program. The program stipulates that growers must first attempt to recruit American workers through the Agricultural Recruitment System.
In Pennsylvania, growers work with PACareerLink.com — an initiative by the state’s Department of Labor and Industry — to fill jobs.
However, some growers in the H-2A program have not had an American apply in the last three years, Runyan said.
“Does that say something about our own people?” Runyan asked.
Lancaster County grower Tom Haas uses H-2A visas at his 140-acre fruit farm, Cherry Hill Orchards, according to the York Daily Record. Haas, who hired locals in the past, said he couldn’t complete the farm work without foreign labor.
“The local labor force is just not reliable,” Haas told the paper in April. “I got tired of being stood up. We can’t operate like that.”
Runyan said migrant workers are seeking better work than they can find in their own countries.
“In spite of all the problems we have in our nation, people are still trying, wanting to come to the United States because this is where the opportunity is,” Runyan said.
David Clark, a pastor at the Upper Bermudian Lutheran Parish, was impressed with the program and surprised he was not aware of it. He gave Runyan his contact information to sign up for the FFCM newsletter because he was considering joining the Friend-a-Camp program, in which churches are matched with labor camps based on age and size.
“I think they do a wonderful ministry,” Clark said.
Driving to his final stop that August evening, Wagner Farms, Runyan cited a Bible verse in Deuteronomy that represents the philosophy of his work.
“Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
Runyan was familiar with these workers, who had returned the past few years, as he departed the van to say hello. They invited Runyan to a barbecue they were planning to hold that weekend. They discussed cooking homemade salsa and playing volleyball and soccer.
One of the workers, Victor Madrigal, favorably compared Runyan’s reliable aid to conditions when he works in California for another part of the year.
Madrigal, who works five and a half days a week with an option to work on Sundays, said that when he and his fellow workers have a need, sweat shirts for instance, FFCM reliably addresses it.
“They always help us out every year,” Madrigal said.
For Runyan, his service is merely a fulfillment of his faith and a means to build kinship with people who, like him, aim to provide.
“Their language is different, and their skin color may be a little different, but the things they want, things they like, are just the same as us.”