After two summers of helping migrant farmworker families in Whatcom County, Western Washington University students Kendra Baker and Juan Balmedina have grown in their faith through action and solidarity.
And they’ve gained a new understanding of service.
“Ultimately, it’s not about me fulfilling this need of someone else,” said Baker, a student leader for the archdiocese’s Agape Service Project. “It’s literally just so much more about the relationship and being in tune with where God is calling me in that.”
“Agape love means it’s very sacrificial,” Balmedina said. “We’re actually doing it because we’re trying to love our neighbor.”
Normally the Agape summer project brings youth from around the archdiocese to Bellingham, where each group spends a week in service to the farmworker families. It’s a time for hands-on learning about Catholic social teaching and “the social injustices that farmworkers have,” Balmedina said.
With middle-school participants especially, the change in students over the week is apparent, Baker said. By doing things like getting up early to pick berries for a couple of hours, “they grow into understanding what the life of a migrant farmworker might look like.”
For the college student leaders, the experience is like “a crash course in professional ministry … living the model of servant leadership,” said Agape director Kelsey Harrington, who was an Agape leader as a young adult in the late ’00s.
This year, with COVID-19 restrictions, it was disappointing that the youth couldn’t participate, Baker said.
But Baker, Balmedina and the three other student leaders pivoted and continued outreach to farmworker families. “We really felt called as a program to make sure we continued,” Harrington said, “since the farmworkers are still here and the need is still really high, if not higher than a normal summer.”
Even though the program changed to meet the circumstances of the pandemic, the student leaders continued building relationships with those they served, “encountering people, and through that encountering Christ,” Harrington said.
And the love comes back from those they serve, Balmedina said, recalling the day a migrant worker offered the students homemade tamales. “It was just very heartwarming, how much joy they can provide for us, just as much as we can provide for them.”
Ryan Hagmann loads food and supplies into a clientʼs car at the Agape food bank in Lynden. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Integrating faith and work
The Agape Service Project was operated through the Catholic Newman Center at WWU until August 2019, when it came under the umbrella of the archdiocese’s Office of Pastoral Ministries.
The program assists farmworker families living in some of Whatcom County’s 14 farmworker camps. The camps vary in size, Harrington said; for instance, one camp has 52 cabins, often with multiple families sharing one cabin; another camp has accommodations for 60 single men as well as families.
Normally, some 200 youth and youth leaders from around the archdiocese participate in the program, so responding to the needs of farmworkers and their families during the summer of 2020 required creativity and flexibility, Harrington said.
With the help of community partners like the Bellingham Food Bank, the Agape team delivered food boxes to farmworker families each week, operated a weekly drive-through food bank and participated in gleaning efforts on local farms with volunteers.
The team provided activities for younger children of farmworkers by preparing and delivering at-home kits that included things like art projects or sports equipment, “providing stuff for them just to have fun,” Balmedina said.
The Agape team also made and shared videos on social media, and parishes conducted donation drives for the program, Baker said.
“I think one of my favorite things, even in spite of all of the changes, has been trying to find ways that we can still connect with parishes and with organizations and hopefully reaching the youth with our programs,” Baker said.
“There’s been a lot of opportunities of seeing God work in new ways and seeing a lot of kind of ‘loaves and fish’ moments,” she said. For instance, the team may not know how they’re going to get what they need to serve the families, she said, and then “all of a sudden an organization or a parish donates a bunch of things we need, or money.”
It was an opportunity, Baker said, “to just see how God is working through our program and through the people connected to us.”
Ellen Golden gives out hand sanitizer to a girl before she picks out a backpack at the Agape food bank in Lynden. Photo: Stephen Brashear
Balmedina, an education major who moved to the U.S. from the Philippines at age 12, said he “truly found Jesus” when began attending college. The experience of working with youth during the Agape program in 2019 has cemented his desire to work in youth ministry.
“After working with Agape, I sure want my faith to be involved with my career,” he said. “Youth ministry is my very happy place. That’s where God’s pointing.”
Baker, who grew up in Eatonville attending Our Lady of Good Counsel Mission, is majoring in communications with a minor in English. Agape is the first job that integrates her faith and work, a combination she hopes to find after college.
“It’s freeing in a way,” she said. “I can really fully embrace my faith and integrate that into all the things I do with my work.”
Baker, Balmedina and their Agape peers are a hopeful sign of what’s to come, Harrington said.
“You look at these five and you think, ‘Man, the future of our church is so beautiful.’ Their faith is just so authentic and they’re just living it abundantly.”
Agape Service Project goals
- Serving the migrant community of Whatcom County by providing food, clothing and community support and building relationships with those served.
- Teaching participants about Catholic social justice, especially regarding issues affecting the migrant community.
- Inspiring and encouraging participants to continue answering the call to service throughout their lives.
- Creating a space where participants can grow in their faith and meet Jesus through prayer, people and service.
- Doing everything with agape (sacrificial) love.
Northwest Catholic - October 2020
Jean Parietti is the local news editor for NWCatholic.org and features editor for Northwest Catholic magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].
Jean Parietti es editora local para el sitio web NWCatholic.org y destacada editora de la revista Noroeste Católico/Northwest Catholic. Pueden contactarle en: [email protected].