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Pastor ministers to migrant workers in Pa.'s Fruit Belt

| Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, 3:51 p.m.
In a Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, photo, migrant workers laugh as the Rev. Rod Runyan unloads a bag of sport coats, mistaking the coats for a bag of sweatshirts, in Carlisle.
In a Monday, Aug. 28, 2017, photo, migrant workers laugh as the Rev. Rod Runyan unloads a bag of sport coats, mistaking the coats for a bag of sweatshirts, in Carlisle.

CARLISLE — 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, Adams County, 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 Dec. 2016, showed that 53 percent of farm workers had work authorization. Some of them are contracted through H-2A visas, a program which 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 hale 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.

“Como esta?”

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.”

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 that the 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.

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