Prayer Answered in South Georgia's Onion Fields
"Let us pray to our almighty Father for his holy people and say: 'Be mindful of your Church, O Lord.'"
In the early evening of the last day of November 2011, seated at the kitchen table of the rectory of Holy Trinity mission in Swainsboro, Ga., I recited that prayer from Evening Prayer for the Feast of St. Andrew as I was preparing to drive to a workers' camp near the local onion farms for Mass.
Hundreds of temporary agricultural workers come to South Georgia each November to spend about six weeks planting Vidalia onions under the H2-A visa. In March a similar-size group, using the same visa, comes for another six weeks to harvest the onions.
For many years Glenmary mission communities, missioners and coworkers in this area have reached out to these migrants, seeking—in the words of the prayer—to be mindful of Jesus' Church while they are in the area.
Glenmary missions here work with local agencies and receive donations from outside groups to help meet the needs of these workers. For many, the care packages they receive, filled with food and personal items, are lifelines because workers can't easily obtain such things when they first arrive.
The workers labor from dawn to dusk, seven days a week, and transportation is difficult to arrange. We do our best to help meet their basic material needs and, most especially, their spiritual needs.
Predominantly Catholic, the workers always have the same primary request: "Please celebrate Mass for us."
I put my Mass kit into my car and drove to the workers' camp, following a maze of back roads through night-shrouded, already-harvested cotton fields.
The camp is located in a remote corner of the county. My predecessor made sure, before moving on to his new assignment, that I knew the route to that driveway, which winds another half mile back to the workers' housing.
Several of the men and two of the women greeted me in Spanish, the only language used throughout the evening. Together we transformed a folding table into a beautiful outdoor altar, covered with a tablecloth decorated with an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Her image also graced the glass candles whose light augmented the orange glow from the streetlight under which we gathered.
Wine, water, chalice and bread were all prepared. I put on the Mass vestments while one of the men took the little altar bell and walked the whole length of the barracks, ringing and announcing in an almost street-vendor manner that Mass was about to start.
There were about 10 men and two women present as together we traced the sign of the cross to begin the Mass. These workers, having returned about an hour earlier from a full day of onion planting, must have been the first to take showers and have supper. Others continued to quietly join the group as they were able. By the homily, there were some 30 worshipers.
For my homily, I reflected on the text from the day's Gospel (Mt 4:18-22), which told the story of Jesus' calling of the apostle Andrew. I told those gathered that they were not just workers planting onions but, like Andrew, they too were called to meet Jesus, the Messiah, in the consecrated bread-become-Jesus. They were called to tell those in their world that they had met him.
No preacher could have asked for a more attentive congregation—or a more reverent one. As we approached the consecration of the Mass, caps and sweatshirt hoods came off as the workers spontaneously knelt on the Georgia sand, the same soil in which they had been planting thousands of Vidalia sweet onions.
They listened as I spoke the ancient words of love: "my body given for you...my blood poured out for you." Some spontaneously responded with faith, "My Lord! My God!"
As I lifted the host—our Lord and our God—high into the star-filled night, I knew that my prayer to the Lord to make me a missionary priest for his people had never been more thoroughly answered than at that very moment.”
Following Mass I heard confessions, offering the front seat of my car as the confessional—and promising that I would start the car so that there would be heat to ward off the 34-degree cold outside!
An hour later I was giving absolution to the last man. He had patiently waited in the cold all that time to receive this wonderful sacrament.
When we had finished, he told me that while waiting he had spoken via cell phone to his wife in Mexico. She was thrilled that he was about to receive the sacrament of reconciliation and wondered if I could hear her confession by phone!
I told him that wasn't possible, but that as I drove back to Swainsboro, I would pray for her to find a good confessor at her church in Mexico.
As I headed home, the night was deep and very quiet. I had a sense that God, indeed, had heard the prayer I recited earlier in my kitchen, allowing me to be part of his answer in caring for these, his beloved people.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Visit the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops "Justice for Immigrants" Web site to learn more about the Catholic Church's position on immigration reform and migration.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 Glenmary Challenge.