NEWPORT — For approximately 30 years, churches in East Tennessee Baptist Association have been ministering to migrant workers in Cocke County in one form or another.
Mike Hensley, former pastor of Swannsylvania Baptist Church, Dandridge, was one of several individuals and pastors in the association who played an instrumental role in developing the ministry. Hensley is still active in it today as director of missions for the association.
Though the ownership of the farm has transitioned from local owners to a national corporation (Pacific Tomato Company) and other churches and associations have been involved at various times, the churches in ETBA have remained committed to the ministry, Hensley affirmed.
“The mission field has come to Cocke County,” he observed.
Most of the current workers today are from Mexico and are in the country on work visas, Hensley said. He is appreciative of Pacific Tomato Company and especially local company representative Angel Garcia for working with the association and allowing them to minister.
For many years, the association’s churches have provided an evening meal on Mondays for the workers. “The meal pulls them in so we can share the gospel,” he said.
Churches take turns providing meals and other volunteers provide set up and take down each week, he noted. Hensley said 13 different churches have taken on the responsibility for the meals this summer.
“The meals are a major expense as the churches prepare between 200-300 meals plus provide soft drinks and snacks for many more people each week,” he said. In addition, some churches regularly provide clothing for the workers. On Sept. 18, workers were given clothing donated by West End Baptist Church, Newport, and shirts donated by Three Bears General Store in Pigeon Forge.
Each year, at the start of the harvesting season, the churches of the association provide a bag of toiletries for the workers. This year, Wade Horton, executive director of the Smokey Mountain Children’s Home in Sevierville, was especially instrumental in helping to meet this need, Hensley added.
Though not every church in the association has the resources to provide a meal, most every church participates in the ministry through either donations or volunteer labor, Hensley said. “Our churches have been very supportive.”
Hensley is especially appreciative that the volunteers each week span a variety of ages, from children and teenagers to younger and senior adults. “The younger generation of volunteers like to be boots on the ground and to see things happen,” he observed.
In addition, members of Iglesia Bautista Rios de Agua Viva (Rivers of Living Water Baptist Church), hold a service for the workers during the meal. The church, led by pastor Julio Hernandez, is actually in Nolachucky Baptist Association, but is in the process of moving to ETBA, Hensley said. The church meets on Saturdays at Lincoln Avenue Baptist Church in Newport.
Verdad and Amor (Truth and Love) Baptist Church in Jefferson City also has been involved in the migrant ministry this summer.
The meal on Sept. 18 was provided by West End Baptist and Shady Grove Baptist Church, Newport. On this particular night, the churches provided barbecue, slaw and chips along with both home cooked and store bought desserts, said Jordon Williams, associate pastor.
Though few of the volunteers speak Spanish and can relate to the message that the migrant workers hear, the language is not a barrier. “I can’t speak a word of Spanish but I know when people love the Lord,” said West End pastor Tom Mooty.
Volunteer Logan Ford enjoys serving in the ministry and seeing the results. “When you see one person saved, it is worth it. This is one of my favorite things that we do as a church,” he said.
So far this summer, 40 people have made salvation decisions, said Cesar Siu of Iglesia Bautista Rios de Agua Viva and a former worker on the farm.
The church follows up with those who make decisions, Hensley said. “We hope to eventually provide more discipleship training to help those who make decisions understand the commitment they made,” he added.
The opportunity to see people come to know the Lord is what has kept Joe and Bertha Hutsell of Swannsylvania Baptist Church coming back for nearly 20 years. They, along with other members of their church, bring tables from Swannsylvania to the farm each week.
“It is such a blessing to be a part of a ministry like this where you see people come to know the Lord,” said Bertha Hutsell.
Pastor Julio Hernandez is grateful for the assistance from ETBA churches.
“Before Rivers of Living Water Baptist Church was birthed, my wife and I were invited to sing and play the guitar at the Monday night services in the tomato fields in (Cocke County). It was there we were impacted by the love and service through churches in Newport.
“They made a great effort and blessed the people there with much more than a plate of food. They had come together in one Spirit to serve the needs and to preach the gospel in the language that (the migrant workers) could understand,” he said.
“We continue to join in ministering to the need and with a grateful heart, first to God and to East Tennessee Baptist Association who have allowed us to be a part of this work. It has been 20 years since we started serving there and if the Lord allows, we will continue. We are thankful to God that Rivers of Living Water Church is made of many people who have been reached through this ministry.” B&R