Arkansas Missions Help 'Welcome the Stranger'

Posted: 5/13/2006

For approximately six weeks each summer, Glenmary's mission in Warren, Ark., plays a significant role in welcoming the 2,000 workers who come from Mexico with temporary, non-immigrant agricultural visas (designated as "H-2A workers") to harvest tomato and pepper crops in southeastern Arkansas.

Members of the St. Luke community, bearing bags of groceries that include beans, rice and other staples, welcome the workers in the name of the parish and ask about their needs, both physical and spiritual.

This welcome is an integral part of the Pastoral Project With Hispanic Farm Workers, sponsored by Glenmary and the Vincentian Evangelization Team (VET) in collaboration with the Hispanic Ministry Office of the Diocese of Little Rock. Begun in 2002, the program provides Hispanic farm workers with various kinds of social outreach as well as opportunities for nurturing their faith through a connection to parishes like St. Luke.

The custom of providing farm workers a welcoming bag of groceries was well established when Father Chet Artysiewicz was assigned as pastor of St. Luke and of St. Mark in Monticello in 2000. "But Arnoldo has really been able to get more people involved," Father Chet says. He emphasizes that the relationship between the Glenmary missions and Vincentian Arnoldo Hernández, a deacon and director of the project, is key to that outpouring of hospitality.

Calling social justice an important part of his life, Arnoldo says his ministry to farm workers grew out of his desire to serve the poor and marginalized. "As a boy growing up in Texas, I saw a lot of discrimination," he says. "I felt stigmatized when I saw signs in stores and restaurants that said, ‘No Mexicans or dogs allowed.'"

When Arnoldo came to the Diocese of Little Rock in 2002 to begin the pastoral project, he learned of the outreach efforts of Glenmary's missions. St. Mark, the larger of Father Chet's missions, was contributing the needed funding for the groceries, which were then distributed with the help of parishioners at St. Luke. "Anything the church can do to help the farm workers with expenses gives them the opportunity to send more money home to their families," Father Chet says.

Arnoldo, who travels all over the state of Arkansas with this pastoral project, enlisted the aid of the St. Luke parishioners, all of whom are Hispanic, and empowered them to take a leadership role in relating to farm workers who come to their area. The approximately 2,000 workers who come to the Drew and Bradley county area every picking season are under the H-2A program which requires that workers contract their labor with just one farmer and then return to their country of origin at the end of the contract.

But while the contracts stipulate conditions for transportation, housing and health care, the reality of working conditions are sometimes very different from what has been promised.

"So where do we begin?" Arnoldo asks. "We start by building bridges with the farmers and asking them, ‘How can we work together so we can have decent housing for people?'"Arnoldo's bridge-building started with the farmers in Bradley and surrounding counties whose crops are harvested by guest workers. Arnoldo also built relationships with Father Chet and the members of St. Luke "whose spirit of solidarity and generosity is to be admired," Arnoldo wrote in the booklet that describes the pastoral project and gives instruction to volunteers.

Bishop J. Peter Sartain of Little Rock, in endorsing the booklet and the project, said: "I am always amazed at the dedication and commitment of the Vincentians and the Glenmary missioners in their ministry to the Hispanic farm workers. They are great examples to us and their work challenges us in our own ministerial efforts to build up the body of Christ."

Father Chet goes on to say, "The pastoral project is a good collaboration between the Vincentians and us, but they've taken it to another level. They've given the project a much wider reach and Arnoldo has increased the participation of the parish. He's been a real blessing."

That "wider reach" has resulted in other services that are needed by farm workers and supplied by parishioners. Workers often need such things as transportation to see doctors or immigration officials and translation services when they get there. Advocacy has become an important part of the project because guest workers are sometimes subject to excessive or unpaid overtime work and are reluctant to speak up for themselves for fear they won't be hired for the next picking season, Arnoldo says.

The collaboration of Glenmary and the Vincentians to reach out to guest workers goes beyond meeting physical needs. Father Chet says Mass for the workers once a week, and Arnoldo leads a weekly Bible study and a Rosary devotion.

Because a Glenmary missioner considers every person in a mission county a parishioner, it is only natural for Father Chet and the members of St. Luke to reach out to guest workers in their area. "And the vast number are Catholic," Father Chet says. "We have to consider how we accommodate them from a faith perspective, how we help them spiritually as well as physically, when they're in our midst."