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Meeting God in the migrant stranger

Special to the National Catholic Reporter

A migrant laborer -- let’s call him Pablo -- begins picking beans before 7 a.m. in an upstate New York field. Morning dew soaks his trousers. By midafternoon on this hot summer day, he’s sweaty and parched, but there isn’t any drinking water nearby. Without any toilet facilities, he walks into the woods on the edge of the field to relieve himself.

His wife, Beatriz, works in a different field. Her elderly mother watches her two young children. She cooks rice and tortillas for supper. Beatriz’s cousin, Marilla, brings salad and, if they’re lucky, a little chicken. They eat just before dark, outside. Cramped shacks serve as kitchen, bedroom and living room.

Beatriz, wanting to scrub off the pesticides making her skin itch and her eyes water, fills a small basin at a pump in the middle of camp, while Pablo simply bathes in the polluted river.

Such conditions -- characteristic for the vast majority of migrant workers in the United States -- are shockingly primitive, not to mention dangerous. Strangely enough, however, relief from them probably wouldn’t be the first thing to come up if you were to ask Pablo or Beatriz what they’d most like from the Catholic church in America.

It’s not that migrants aren’t acutely aware of the need for action that leads to justice -- they are. But first, they’re likely to talk about a sense of welcome, of inclusion, that is too often missing from the Catholic parishes they encounter as they move across the country.

Roberto Pina of the Mexican-American Cultural Center in San Antonio puts the challenge to parishes in areas with migrant laborers this way. “Stop looking at them as illegal aliens,” he says, “but as legal Catholics, our brothers and sisters.” In short, Pina says, pastoral care of migrants represents a major challenge for the U.S. Catholic church.

Observers say that migrant laborers represent a large pool of nearly invisible people, most of them Catholic, who move through the country each year working the harvests. From Central and South America some come for seven or eight months a year, staying beyond the legal limit for migrant laborers or never registering in the first place. Their annual earnings usually range from $4,000 to $8,000.

New York state alone hosts up to 47,000 migrant farm workers every year, according to the official count -- a tally that virtually everyone considers much too low. The national numbers are, at a minimum, in the hundreds of thousands. Migrant workers face remarkably harsh living and working conditions. According to a 1995 New York state report, conditions in farm labor camps haven’t changed much since the 1950s, when they were considered a national scandal.

As they move around, migrants rarely seek out a parish. Often they find Mass only in English or parishioners who don’t seem warm or welcoming. The average migrant, experts say, is much more likely to say a few prayers to Our Lady of Guadalupe and hope that God understands than to walk into an unfamiliar Catholic parish.

Bishop Henry J. Mansell of the Buffalo, N.Y., diocese has spoken out frequently on the need for Catholic parishes in areas with migrant populations to get involved, both in doing personal outreach and in addressing the broader social and political issues.

“We’re working against a terrible malaise,” Mansell said. “Proposition 187, which denies health care and education benefits to illegal immigrants, is working its way across the U.S. We bishops lobby against this, but we’re the only ones there. We must broaden support, make people understand how these migrants are living and the effect on the children.”

All is not hopeless, Mansell said. “We can build better experiences of church,” he said. “The real needs of migrant workers here in New York state are that there are not enough connections. When the migrant workers were asked what they want, they asked for religious education and sacramental preparation for their children.”

Mansell met with his pastors, asking that they make contributions to Hispanic ministry, including outreach to migrants. “This effort should be supported by local parishes. We need to involve more accountability on the local level.”

Mansell wants to meet with camp owners, to solicit their involvement in efforts to make life more tolerable for workers.

Sister of St. Joseph Mary Jane Mitchell, director of Hispanic Ministry for the Buffalo diocese, said of the migrants she encounters in overcrowded, dusty camps, “A large majority are still culturally Catholic. Some ask me for books with prayers in Spanish.”

“They have no economic or other security,” she says. “They constantly look over their shoulders. They can be picked up by the [Immigration and Naturalization Service] anytime.” But precisely because of those hardships, Mitchell says, migrants sometimes have a deeper sense of dependence upon God than many other Catholics.

“Their sense of faith is different from what we have,” she said. “Who else have they got but God?”

Mitchell’s office sends volunteers into camps to help determine the temporal and spiritual needs. Volunteers cannot change camp conditions in any fundamental way, but appeals in church bulletins can help supply some necessities. The volunteers also assess spiritual requirements and then try to figure out ways their parishes might meet some of those needs.

“The church needs to welcome [migrants],” said Christina Martin, former assistant director in the Buffalo office of Hispanic Ministry. “Our churches are just as much theirs as ours.”

Martin, who has a history in community organizing, said she sees her role as establishing a bridge between the migrant and the Anglo communities. “I utilized people where they were,” she said. “The charitable step [came first] -- when people did something for the pathetic poor. The positive step happened once they met the migrants and saw them as people. Then metamorphosis occurred. Once you interact with someone different, you discover their human side, and barriers come down.”

Across America, as the need for better outreach to migrant laborers begins to dawn on the church, several positive steps have been taken:

  • A parish in Sioux Falls, S.D., which hosts a large contingent of seasonal migrant laborers, voted to change its name to Our Lady of Guadalupe to make migrants feel more welcome.
  • In parishes in Brockport and Niagara County, N.Y., bienvenida ceremonies are held to welcome the migrants into the community.
  • Parish volunteers in Albion, N.Y., provide transportation for migrant women to English as a Second Language classes.
  • Several parishes in the Buffalo and Syracuse dioceses have changed their Mass times to accommodate migrants who miss pay when they miss work.
  • The Jacksonville, Fla., diocese has established a special “council” as a way to respond to migrants’ needs and to give them a voice.
  • In Birmingham, Ala., parishes working with local doctors offer low-cost medical care, charging migrants a minimal fee while the diocese picks up the rest of the cost.

Still, many pastoral needs go unmet. Barbara Anderson, a parish volunteer in the Buffalo diocese, says she wishes for more Spanish-speaking priests -- even though the migrants with whom she deals sometimes speak an indigenous language rather than Spanish.

“I ask the people I visit, ‘Are you a practicing Catholic?’ They answer, ‘In Mexico, yes. Here, no. It is hard to practice here.’ “ Anderson believes language is a large part of the difficulty.

Mitchell agrees. “Picture these rural areas,” she said. “Rarely are bilingual priests and sisters sent to these parishes. In this whole area, we have one bilingual priest, who works in the prisons. Even if the church wanted to respond to migrants’ needs, no one speaks Spanish.”

The simple fact of being migrants is another, huge part of the problem. “Because of their mobile lifestyle, they never learned about their faith, but they hold it dear,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell believes that a truly effective outreach program must be holistic. “It’s got to be a concerted effort by a pastor and pastoral staff, who must be willing, in a biracial, bicultural parish, to make everyone feel at home.”

Pausing, she adds: “Canonically speaking, priests are responsible for everyone within their parish boundaries.”

Mitchell points out that the sporadic nature of Catholic ministry to migrant workers is not without its consequences. “There is a strong, deep sense of faith without much catechesis,” she said. “So it’s easy to be persuaded by another church.”

“In western New York, the Pentecostal, nondenominational churches are active among the migrants. Two have Puerto Rican ministers. Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists regularly send people into the camps.” Mitchell explains that Hispanic people are more drawn to those who can communicate in their language.

Minerva Moya of the Buffalo diocese sums it up this way: “One pastor in Orleans County has been supportive and cooperative. But no one comes to the Spanish Masses because two Pentecostal churches have Hispanic ministers.”

Moy spoke of a parish whose social justice committee visits camps during the summer and studies Spanish in the winter, in order to be more effective ministers. “If each parish did what that parish did, Hispanics would know that the church does care,” Moya said.

“I long for a willingness to reach out and understand the migrant’s deep faith, to see a reduction in stereotypes and misconceived myths. I want to see the migrant farm workers recognized as true to their faith, generous, hardworking, dedicated to their families.”

Mansell argues that taking care of migrants is, in some ways, a measure of national health. “What is a developed country, a developed people?” he asked. “Do we measure it on gross national product or the sensitivity to people and their needs?”

National Catholic Reporter, September 25, 1998