Mission and Migration: Celebrating the Richness in the Body of Christ

Posted: 10/13/2007

By Dennis O'Connor

Father William Howard Bishop, founder of Glenmary Home Missioners probably would not be surprised at the changes in ministry that would be asked of the members of his Cincinnati-based society. Founded to bring a Catholic presence to counties in the south and Appalachian region of the United States without any Catholic parishes, now the Church has come to Glenmary as wave upon wave of immigrants have settled in the small towns and rural areas in search of work and new lives.

Glenmary Father Neil Pezzulo, pastor at two home mission parishes in Waldron and Danville, Ark., is immersed in this new mission to migrants. Earning his stripes with the Hispanic community at an earlier assignment in Arkansas, Father Neil continues to carry out the primary duty of the Glenmary missioner—providing spiritual care for those within reach. But he also acknowledges that he spends plenty of time helping smooth the way as much as possible for the nation's new immigrants seeking work in the nation's poultry capital.

"I don't worry whether people have papers or not," he said. "Near as I can tell, there is nothing in Scripture asking about papers. I don't see the two issues connected. Instead, I see immigration connected in the spiritual life. I see people living in fear: If they can't make a decent living, that, too, affects their faith life. That's where the missionary comes in."

The placement of the Glenmary missioners in the southeast has literally been a godsend for immigrants seeking to have the support of a Catholic faith community in these rural enclaves. Father Neil noted that about 85 to 90 percent of the migrants he ministers to are from Mexico. Many also come from Guatemala and El Salvador. All seek the kinds of assistance that this native of New England can offer his parishioners.

"Drivers licenses are a huge issue," he said. "In Arkansas and Oklahoma, you can't get a license without a social security number, and that goes contrary to federal law. But nobody can fight it because they are too busy working. Enforcement of these laws are very haphazard. We deal with a lot of police and county officials who, I contend, have their own personal political agenda, and that seems to outweigh the law. I've seen that with drivers licenses. And it's important, because without a license, these folks can't drive to work."

Dealing with the day-to-day problems of the new immigrants takes up a great deal of Father Neil's agenda. And the unique nature of his ministry—being the one Anglo his parishioners know they can trust—affords him numerous opportunities to see firsthand the difficulties they suffer.

"For example, when someone dies here, it is very rare that the body isn't sent back home to Mexico or wherever," he said. "It's a tremendous hassle. It takes weeks of going through government paperwork, and it's extremely stressful for the families involved. Just a week ago, we had a woman who came to visit her grandchildren, and she died while she was here. The family, from Mexico, is totally legal. And they had to go through the same trial. It is very, very difficult."

Father Neil regularly holds workshops for his parishioners, and anyone, really, seeking assistance on getting through life in the United States. He gets assistance from the local police, who he said do not want to deport people. "It's the last thing they want to do, in my experience."

Because of the nature of the jobs available in his part of Arkansas, Father Neil offers counseling to workers in the poultry industry about their rights as employees, going over what bosses can and cannot do, and covering issues dealing with sexual harassment, a problem in a field of agriculture that is dominated by female workers. Father Neil is able to offer insights into the workplace since he spends much of the year working at chicken plants across the country.

"I let them know what is expected of them, and what they can expect from the job," he said. "I tell them that they aren't required to work a 10-hour day cutting up chickens without a break. They are taken advantage of sometimes, and I try to give them as much information as possible so they can avoid being exploited."

With so much of the undocumented worker's life lived under the radar, any services are needed and welcome, he said.

"We do health fairs with the local department of health. If someone is having a baby, we try to get them into neonatal care with vitamins and examinations. Sadly, in our community, there is a high rate of stillbirths among immigrants."

Father Neil also sees the role of the church-a critical role-is as a provider of sanctuary when an immigrant requests such a safe harbor.

"I talked with an immigration official from Atlanta who was working in Arkansas, and he told me that if people are on church property, immigration employees can't ask questions about them or pursue them. So I always keep the doors of my churches open," he said. "I think what I'm doing by that is creating an opportunity for someone if they need the help. I have no plan as such for forming a sanctuary movement that was seen in the 1980s. My belief and understanding is that the feds can't come into my church and ask questions without my permission. They might do it with my back turned, but not while I'm on watch."

Reflecting on his work in this new mission world, Father Neil said that pondering the challenges these immigrants face is daunting, something most Americans wouldn't understand unless they were to witness the struggles immigrants face.

"I was sitting in the center of town not long ago reading the newspaper, and I started to think about how I might go about getting set up in life if I had come here from Mexico," he said. "I don't know if I could find a place to live all on my own without any contacts or help. I don't know if I could overcome the language barrier and find a job. I just don't know if I could do it. It is so very hard.

"It takes courage to leave home and country, and come to a small town in the United States. A tremendous amount of courage."

Reprinted with permission from the October 12, 2007, special section of The Catholic Telegraph, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Cincinnati, focusing on issues surrounding migrants and immigrants.