ST HELENA (CBS SF) – When it comes to farm worker rights, Cesar Chavez was a fierce fighter. But for the last three decades, North Bay farm workers have had their own faithful friend, Father John Brenkle.
Sixty-year-old Moases Sanchez is one who has seen Father Brenkle’s work first-hand. He himself spent many years homeless in nearly four decades as a migrant worker in the Napa Valley vineyards.
“Sometimes sleeping in the car,” Sanchez remembered, as a friend translated his story from Spanish. “It was very, very hard.”
But at the River Ranch Farm Worker Housing Center in St. Helena, he and sixty other laborers get bedrooms, three meals a day, and hot showers.
“He rests much better. He doesn’t really worry about his safety,” the translator explained.
The workers give thanks for Father Brenkle, a champion of farm worker housing for nearly thirty years.
“This valley is so darn prosperous!” Father Brenkle remarked. “It was a scandal having them sleeping in cars!”
When he first came to St. Helena Catholic Church in 1983, Father Brenkle noticed the plight of farm workers immediately. At night, he’d see up to 40 of them crowded onto the church porch to sleep.
“When I went to bed in my warm bed, I felt very uncomfortable,” he remembered.
At first, Father Brenkle offered showers and meals at his church, and set up a tent city in Yountville. He organized a committee of growers, farm workers, and community leaders to create long-term housing.
In 2002, they helped pass Measure L, an ordinance that allows landowners to donate parcels less than 40 acres for farm worker housing.
“Our slogan in the churches was ‘Vote for L or go to hell’,” Father Brenkle laughed.
Father Brenkle’s leadership gave rise to three county-owned farm worker centers that house nearly 200 Napa County migrant workers. River Ranch is one of them. Laborers pay $12 a night to cover half the $1,000,000 operating cost. A voluntary tax on vintners covers the rest.
Angel Calderon runs the centers. He says the 81-year-old pastor created a model for farm worker housing.
“He was a saint because I don’t know anyone else in this valley doing that much for the farm workers,” Calderon explained.
Father Brenkle also co-founded a nonprofit that helped develop more than 900 affordable housing units.
“As I look back, I have a sense of peace and satisfaction,” Father Brenkle said.
So for his tireless fight for farm worker housing, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Father John Brenkle.