BELLINGHAM – Last summer, Western Washington University students Kendra Baker and Juan Balmedina helped youth from around the archdiocese learn about Catholic social teaching as they served migrant farmworker families in Whatcom County.
During this summer of COVID-19, though, parish youth groups couldn’t travel to Bellingham to participate in the annual Agape Service Project. So Baker, Balmedina and the three other Agape student leaders had to rethink their summer of service.
“We really felt called as a program to make sure we continued, since the farmworkers are still here and the need is still really high, if not higher than a normal summer,” said Kelsey Harrington, director of the archdiocese’s Agape program.
In Whatcom County, there are 14 farmworker camps of varying sizes, 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 participate in the program, so responding to the needs of farmworkers and their families this summer has required creativity and flexibility, Harrington said.
Members of the Agape Service Project team provide items for younger children of farmworkers, “stuff for them just to have fun,” said team member Juan Balmedina. Photo: Ellen Golden
With the help of community partners like the Bellingham Food Bank, the Agape team has been delivering food boxes to farmworker families each week, operating a weekly drive-through food bank and participating in gleaning efforts on local farms with volunteers.
The team is providing activities for younger children of farmworkers by preparing and delivering at-home kits that include things like art projects or sports equipment, “providing stuff for them just to have fun,” Balmedina said.
The Agape team also has been making videos to share on social media and parishes have been doing 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,” Baker 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’s an opportunity, Baker said, “to just see how God is working through our program and through the people connected to us.”
Agape love, servant leadership
The Agape program, which runs through August 7, 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.
Harrington, who was an Agape leader as a young adult in the late ’00s, likened the usual summer experience to “a crash course in professional ministry,” with the college students “living the model of servant leadership.”
Even though the program has changed this summer to meet the circumstances of the pandemic, the student leaders continue building relationships with those they serve, “encountering people and through that encountering Christ,” Harrington said.
Using a donated gift card, Agape Service Project team member Juan Balmedina shops for diapers that will be distributed to farmworker families in Whatcom County. Photo: Courtesy Agape Service Project
The experience has helped Baker and Balmedina, both in their second year of Agape, grow in their faith through action and solidarity, “educating people about the social injustices that farmworkers have,” Balmedina said. The students have also gained a new understanding of service.
“Ultimately, it’s not about me fulfilling this need of someone else,” Baker said. “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.”
And the love comes back from those they serve, he 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.”
Balmedina, an education major, said the experience of working with youth last summer 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 is majoring in communications with a minor in English, said 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 of the Agape Service Project are:
- 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.
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].
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