Missions Struggle One Year After ICE Storm

Posted: 9/1/2007


By Michael J. Johnson

One year ago, on September 2, 2006, in Emmanuel County, agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) rounded up, arrested, placed on windowless buses, and eventually deported some 150 men, many of whom worked at the local poultry factory. The loss of those 150 men in the "ICE Storm" led to the migration of nearly 700 people from the Metter, Stillmore and Swainsboro area. Some returned to Mexico to reunite children with their fathers. Others migrated to other American states to continue working.

Father John Brown is pastor of Holy Trinity Parish, Swainsboro, and its missions in Metter (Holy Family) and Stillmore. Much of his time is spent zipping up and down Highways 1 and 57 in a well-traveled Astro van that has 175,000 miles on it. It is a mobile rectory. He makes and takes calls from behind the wheel. He composes his homily, for the first of five weekend masses, on the way from Swainsboro to Metter.

The Hispanic population under his pastoral care was decimated by the Labor Day raids. As soon as Father John begins to speak, his Boston accent reveals he is "not from around these parts." He grew up and remains a dedicated Red Sox fan. He attended the seminary in Washington, D.C. He first served the Hispanic community in Kansas. He arrived in Georgia six weeks before the raids. His mission spans 20 miles from end to end. There are two distinct populations within its borders: the "Anglos" and the Hispanics. Father John ministers to both groups' pastoral needs. He provides the sacraments and Mass in English and Spanish. He counsels engaged couples. He translates and patiently explains correspondence from absentee landlords to immigrant tenants.

Half Anglo, half Hispanic
He typesets, photocopies, folds and assembles eight-page English and Spanish editions of the Sunday bulletins. He loads half the bulletins in his van for the trip to Metter. He is a linchpin in this bifurcated community. He mediates how churches are adorned and organizes a schedule for who will mow the lawn. He lunches between morning and evening Masses with Anglo parishioners at a local Mexican restaurant.

His communities in Swainsboro and Metter are about half Anglo and half Hispanic. The Stillmore mission is entirely Hispanic. Last year as many as 30 people would gather for Sunday Masses in Stillmore. They gathered in homes, in a park and sometimes in the back room of a local store. On Sunday, August 19, just eight community members gathered for Mass. They each responded to Father John's invitation, delivered from the window of his van as he drove through Stillmore on the way to Metter.

Converted chapel
Open space in the rear of a dark, stiflingly hot un-air-conditioned pool hall was converted into a chapel. Wooden pallets, fiberglass shower inserts and old water heaters are stored haphazardly along the walls. Sweat dropped off Father John's face as he dug through a heavy toolbox pulled from his van to search for a socket needed to reassemble a broken table for use as an altar. Also pulled from the van, truly a mobile storage unit, are a brightly colored serape, paintings of Christ and of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and a large rustic crucifix formed from branches which transform a broken large screen television into a humble reredos.

A coarse woolen blanket from the van covers the altar. One of the men sets the altar using Father John's Mass kit. Chairs and wooden benches arranged behind the jukebox serve as pews. Hymnals and missals, from a carton in the van, are placed on each seat. A large fan is set up to direct a breeze over the congregants and the celebrant. Guitars are tuned. Voices are raised, though muffled by the roar of the fan, and Mass begins in Spanish.

The eight people at the Mass move forward and together, getting close so they might hear. There are two couples in the group. One couple does the readings. Another man plays the guitar along with Father John. They join in all the songs and prayers. They sit, attentively engaged as Father John delivers his homily for the fourth time. They kneel on the warped planks of the wooden floor during the consecration.

Labor Day no holiday
After Mass, the group lingers for conversation over ice-filled cups of soda and bundt cake provided by Father John. The conversation turns to the raids last year. Labor Day ironically holds no meaning for them. These laborers, who typically work 10 to 12 hours per day, have no holidays. Frequently, Sundays are their only days off. They all had friends who were captured and deported. One man's wife returned home to Mexico along with her son of her own volition out of fear of enduring the federal deportation system. She was pregnant at the time. Five months ago, she gave birth to twin girls. Their father grows glassy-eyed as he says he has never seen them. For his family it is better that he remained here working to support them. He plans to return to them in one more year-by then he hopes to have enough money to build them a permanent home in Mexico.

He crossed the "frontier" five years ago with his wife and three-year-old son. He remains to work and send money home. Without his take home pay the family would be destitute. He is in constant fear of deportation. Sporadic roadblocks place them in jeopardy when they travel to work, to shop and even to attend Mass. Rumors of the presence of Immigration agents spread quickly through the community. But life goes on.

The temporary chapel is dismantled and loaded back into the van. Father John heads north to Swainsboro to meet with an engaged couple and then to prepare for the final Mass of the weekend. The Mass Sunday night at Holy Family Church in Swainsboro serves the local Hispanic community. Father John will deliver his homily for the fifth and final time.

Story courtesy the Southern Cross, the newspaper of the Diocese of Savannah.