The rivers of Rural & Migrant Ministry trace their sources to the founding streams of the 1970’s and 1980’s. One of those streams was the commitment to collaboration through ecumenism, as five faith bodies looked at their own rural or farmworker ministry and decided it could be stronger through merging with others. These five were the American Baptist, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Reformed Church in America and United Methodist.
A precursor to the founding of RMM: Eleanor Benjamin oversaw a ministry for the Presbyterians and others in the 1960’s and 70’s that sought to bring congregations into relationships with farmworkers, to share needed resources and to also engage in advocacy in Albany, NY.
Through the support of the New York State Council of Churches, a unique Covenant was established in which each of these denominations would continue their ministry in partnership with each other, through the creation of Rural & Migrant Ministry (RMM.) In subsequent years, several other faith bodies entered the Covenant: Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ and the New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers.) Therefore, RMM was to be ecumenism at its best, while at the same time serving as the rural ministry of each of these denominations. RMM was also to be an independent non-profit organization. As one denominational leader has said, the importance of this Covenant is that it has allowed RMM the ability to be a part of the denomination and at the same time, since RMM is not completely controlled by the denominations, the freedom to be prophetic.
This stream of collaboration has grown into one of the strongest rivers of RMM through the years as RMM has welcomed the partnership of several prominent Jewish congregations and many important organizations in the state of New York. Key among these partnerships have been a number of prominent labor unions, universities and colleges and other non-profit organizations. Important partnerships within the history of RMM include: The New York State Federation of the AFL-CIO, New York State United Teachers (NYSUT), United Food & Commercial Workers (UFCW), Civil Services Employees Association (CSEA); Vassar College, Hobart & William Smith Colleges, Cornell University, SUNY Sullivan; Worker Justice Center of New York, Brooklyn Food Coalition, New York Civil Liberties Union, New York Immigration Coalition, New York Labor-Religion Coalition and many other congregations, organizations and coalitions. Collaboration is the essence of Rural & Migrant Ministry.
Rising into an equally strong river, a second stream of RMM has been our commitment to justice and equality. From the very beginning, the founders stated that RMM was to focus on social transformation as opposed to social services or charity.
“We must look at . . .policies toward migrant workers and the rural poor. If these policies are not set in such a way that they anticipate justice and economic opportunity, they become occasion for advocacy. . . . We are mandated to work for justice for migrants and rural poor.”
It has been this mandate that has led RMM to partner with others to create and in turn, help staff the FARMWORKER ADVOCACY COALITION and its successor THE JUSTICE for FARMWORKERS CAMPAIGN.
An important third stream in RMM’s history has been the importance of ensuring that rural workers are at the tables where decisions impacting their lives are being made. This has really been the core of RMM’s history as we have stood by emerging leaders. RMM’s early successes occurred in helping people to develop leadership capacity & to build self-determining organizations. These include: the development of a Head Start/Child-care center for migrant children; the creation of a rural youth leadership-development project called UNITY which taught its members to fight prejudice in their communities and build racial harmony; the formation of DAUGHTERS of SARAH, a rural women's support project; and the creation of Centro Independiente de Trabajadores Agricolas (CITA) /The Independent Farmworker's Center. CITA was a leadership development/organizing project that was the only farmworker-controlled organization in New York State.
Subsequently, RMM also helped young people create the YOUTH ARTS GROUP, the YOUTH ECONOMIC GROUP, and the JUSTICE ORGANIZATION OF YOUTH. Essentially RMM has been about responding to the needs and requests of the disenfranchised rural community in New York, and standing with them as they seek to build capacity to respond to the needs of their community.
As RMM has responded to the requests of the disenfranchised rural communities, we have also traveled down a fourth stream, helping to nurture allies especially within the faith communities, but also labor and university communities. We believe that allies have been essential to the efforts of the people of RMM, helping to affirm, channel resources, and also add their voices to the voices calling for justice. Throughout our history we have offered trainings, workshops, conferences, publications, and most importantly action – helping to inspire, educate and involve allies, so that they will have the strength, commitment and understanding to travel the road to justice with the rural and migrant workers and their families.
Along the way, the breadth of Rural & Migrant Ministry has grown from the original geography of the Hudson Valley, Catskills and Adirondacks to include Western New York. In 1997 a group of farmworkers and farmworker agencies in Western New York approached Rural & Migrant Ministry and CITA, with the request to establish a presence in the region. RMM and CITA agreed to come to the area, thus beginning the process that turned both organizations into state-wide organizations. More recently we have been exploring with workers and allies a presence on Long Island.
Perhaps these streams and rivers of RMM have their roots in the same source. It is a source that both inspires and confuses supporters of the organization: Ministry: We could go into all sorts of explorations about the origin and meanings of the word, but suffice to say for us it comes simply to mean: ‘to serve.’ Throughout our history a wide diversity of people have joined in RMM from a variety of backgrounds: some have been deeply rooted in a faith background, and RMM is a vehicle to live into their faith. Others couldn’t stand organized religion, but were/are deeply committed to justice, or to farmworker empowerment, or rural women’s development, or so many other things: committed to serving others; and RMM has been the best vehicle for them to live into their ‘ministry (though they probably would shudder at the use of that word.) When all has been said and done: the streams and rivers of RMM, and the people traveling together upon them, have celebrated this diversity – for RMM has held up that the strength of the river and its travelers has rested on celebrating the diverse experiences and outlooks of all involved – for that is what has helped RMM to remain strong all of these decades.