Mission Members Welcome and Feed Migrant Workers

Posted: 11/4/2013

Erwin, Tenn., mission members welcome, feed migrant workersThis year the members of Glenmary’s two-year-old St. Michael the Archangel mission in Erwin, Tenn. (Unicoi County), gladly took on another new ministry—welcoming and providing arrival-day meals for 280 tired, hungry, mostly Catholic migrant workers, who had traveled about 1,900 miles by bus to the mission county from their homes in Mexico.

The parishioners’ reason, says pastoral associate Kathy O’Brien, was as clear as Jesus’ call to help others in need: “‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me…’” (Mt 25:35)

These Mexican men, all with temporary U.S. visas, were coming to the area for three to six months to work in the fields at two large commercial farms. In fact, some have come annually for three decades. One farm’s crops include strawberries, tomatoes, corn, blueberries and green beans, while the other specializes in tomatoes.

Mission pastor Father Tom Charters, Kathy and Glenmary Father Aaron Wessman scheduled separate meetings in March with the two farm owners to build rapport with them—and also to assure them that the mission community would be available for any appropriate ministry needed for the migrant workers.

One farm owner suggested a good way to meet an ongoing need would be to feed the workers as soon as they arrived at the farm. “They’re so busy with paperwork and orientation the first day that they have no time to buy food for themselves,” Kathy explains. The owner of the other farm liked this idea, too. And, as it turned out, so did the members of the mission.

The migrant workers came in two waves, the first in late April-early May and the second in late July-early August. However, neither wave came all at once but instead on multiple buses—so mission members ended up serving three meals at one farm and five at the other on eight different days.

“We were thankful for this opportunity to welcome and interact with the men, give them a good meal, and let them know we were there as a church community if they needed us,” says Kathy.

Parishioners responded willingly and graciously throughout the effort, which involved making all the food in their own kitchens, then transporting it to the farms to serve. At first, Latino mission members fixed most of the Mexican food, while Anglo parishioners made cakes and supplied drinks. But some Anglo members learned to make Mexican rice and beans, too.

The serving crew was always a mix of Anglo and Latino parishioners. They also distributed Glenmary “Our Lady of the Fields” Spanish prayer cards to the migrant workers, with the mission’s location and contact information included.   

“It was a cooperative effort by almost the entire mission community,” Kathy says. “Everything we do, we try to do together.”

Two Latino women volunteered to cook the meat, and one in particular did the majority of this work. She grew up on one of the big farms herself—along with 10 siblings—and her mother used to cook meals to serve workers when they came in from the fields at night. This mission member just wanted to give back; the pastoral team finally convinced her to let the mission pay for the meat she was fixing.

Kathy says the migrant workers “were very grateful for the warm welcome, the kindness of the parishioners, and the meals prepared especially for them. They made a point of coming up to us and expressing their thanks.” Some of them were related to mission members, too, so there was an added dimension of meaning in the welcome they received.

The mission members who took part commented to Kathy that it was a really valuable and enjoyable ministry. “They were very happy they could be there to greet and help the men this way,” she says. The farm owners also thanked the mission community for their work.

Just as the farmworkers were welcomed to Unicoi County earlier this year with meals, mission members also gave a farewell meal in late October—for all those who could attend—to celebrate the near end of the harvest. This gathering also featured music and praying of the rosary. Soon afterwards, the migrant workers boarded buses and headed home to Mexico.

“I expect this ministry will become another annual tradition of our mission community,” says Kathy, “as long as the Mexican men keep making the long trip to Unicoi County to find work.”

But that doesn’t mean the members of St. Michael are finished providing outreach this year to those most in need in the county. For example, they are currently working on another mission tradition: collecting food for the Thanksgiving boxes assembled by the local food pantry for area families in need of assistance.

“Reaching out to all those in spiritual and material need in the county is an essential part of what we do as a Glenmary mission,” Kathy says.

This article first appeared in the November 2013 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.