Serving Migrant Workers Is Cause for Thanksgiving
For many years, Glenmary's financially struggling Swainsboro and Metter, Ga., mission communities have been ministering to another struggling group of 300-500 people, who live and work near the missions about four months a year. These migrant workers travel from their previous agricultural jobs to plant and harvest the local Vidalia onion crop.
"It's as if we have an extra parish to serve," says Sister Mary Bordelon, pastoral coordinator of the Metter mission. But every year, the efforts of the two small missions—and the compassionate generosity of others—make this ministry possible.
It's a tremendous stretch to help meet the spiritual and material needs of both poor parishioners and visiting farmworkers, says Swainsboro mission pastor Father John Brown. But in the midst of the challenges, a spirit of thanksgiving survives.
"We bless them with our help," he says, and the migrants quietly express their gratitude. "But we are blessed with the chance to answer Jesus' call to help all those in need. And we also share a common Catholic faith with most of the workers." Sister Mary adds that "in thanks to him, we give to others."
No other local churches have been actively ministering to these workers. But this year, in response to Father John's request, two Protestant churches donated clothes for them.
The workers—mostly men, some women—arrive two times each year, a number of them with little more than the clothes on their backs. They put in long hours of grueling labor for meager pay, from the end of October until Christmas and from about April 1 to June 1. And they're housed in remote camps that, according to Father John, range from rough-but-decent to slum-like. (One camp is sometimes for women or families.)
Sister Mary asks the missions' sister parishes and others for assistance with outreach efforts. "Without their kindness, we couldn't begin to meet the workers' needs," she says. Georgia parishes that help every year are St. James in Savannah and St. Matthew in Statesboro. St. Pius in Loudonville, N.Y., an "adopter" of both missions, sends two or more large boxes of over-the-counter health care supplies each year, as well as store gift cards and pharmacy cards.
Father John adds that another adopter, a group of Tacoma, Wash., Catholics, supports both missions, and that St. Paul in Ramsey, N.J., gives to the Swainsboro mission's poor fund. In addition, both missions receive some assistance from diocesan ministry offices.
To help meet clothing needs, the Metter mission has a pantry of used clothes for the local needy and migrant workers. The Swainsboro mission has a small supply. In addition, this year Goodwill provided large quantities of pants and shirts for workers, and the two Protestant churches contributed. "The goal," Father John says, "is for each worker to have three changes of clothes."
Using donations, Sister Mary says that "I put together the workers' personal care kits for at least a two-month stay (soap, shampoo, toothbrush, toothpaste, disposable razors, comb), sometimes with parishioners' help."
When workers arrive, "Father John and I go separately to three or four camps each to deliver the personal care kits as well as food supplies that help bridge the gap till they get their first paychecks." They time visits to fit workers' schedules, often at night. And they make follow-up trips to deliver health care items, blankets, clothes and other supplies, as well as rosaries and Spanish Bibles.
The two also help if a worker needs a ride to a doctor or dentist or other assistance. One year, for example, Sister Mary took a man with cancer to local doctor appointments and to Savannah an hour away for daily treatments.
Father John celebrates more than 30 Spanish Masses a year at the camps. "Anywhere from 5 to 50 workers come," he says. "The altar might be a table between bunk beds or an outside table. I preach that they have dignity as human beings and that Christ is as present in our Masses as he is in a cathedral. And I ask them to pray for our donors."
After each Mass, "I have a small reception with a cake, popcorn and cold drinks, just to let the workers know their presence and dignity are recognized. They get a kick out of it."
He also distributes welcome letters "thanking them for working hard for their families and putting food on our tables." Whether it's because of his message or the picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the letters, workers often tack them to the walls.
He hears some confessions after Masses, and he talks with workers about their jobs, families and day-to-day matters. "I'm honored that they welcome me,¨ he says.
And over the years, in circumstances that could possibly make people despair, a spirit of thanksgiving survives: "‘I was hungry and you gave me food, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me.... Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'" (Mt 25:35-36, 40)
This article appears in the November 2011 Boost-a-Month Club newsletter.