“Campesino Ministry: A migrant farm worker family story” – by Fr. Mike McAndrew
During the Christmas season, I met Abel and Maria (not their actual names). Their story is one so typical that I wish to give a glimpse of life for migrants. Their story is one of striving for a better life for their children and the difficulty of conveying dignity to their children. The Church can and should play a role in their lives, but often we miss the mark. The story shows some of the complexity ministering in the farm worker community.
Abel and Maria began their marriage 16 years ago and migrated to the United States shortly after their marriage. They spent three years in Los Angeles working temporary jobs in gardening, construction and at restaurants. When both were out of work at the same time they moved to a small town near Fresno. They began working in agriculture. They began to work what is called the “circuit,” following harvests of berries, tomatoes and other field vegetables to northern California, Oregon and Washington. Each winter they returned to California to work in oranges, pruning trees and vines.
In 2007 a farmer in Oregon offered them a job in a nursery, so after the harvests in Washington, they moved onto the farm. They had finally found stable work and everything looked good for them. Their children were more secure in their school. Seven months later as the economy turned sour, they were laid off. They had to return to seeking seasonal work and they had no place to live. In three years they lived in four different towns, sometimes living on farms, at times living in shelters and spending significant time living under bridges.
They were grateful for several Church sponsored shelters, mostly in Protestant Churches, that helped them in those years. They were grateful that they were respected for their Catholic faith and through all this time, they continued attending the Catholic Church and taught their children their faith. While keeping their Catholic faith, they met with several disappointments. They wanted to have their marriage blessed and that the two older children receive their First Eucharist. Their mobility made it impossible for their children to complete any ordinary religious instruction program. Their two oldest children are 11 and 14 years old.
They were unable to find sufficient work during the winters in Oregon and in October. In 2011 they moved back to California with hope to find more seasonal work year round. The children have been enrolled in migrant education programs wherever they have lived and commend the schools for their efforts, but all the moving around is difficult for them. Maria had tears in her eyes when she said that her daughter (11) said, “Why can’t we live in a home like other children?”
Concern for children receiving sacraments
They have lived in the same home since October and hope that they can find consistent work so that they do not need to move again. In all this movement, they have found it difficult to have their children receive the sacraments of Initiation. They wanted their youngest child (6) to be baptized and for their daughter and son to receive First Eucharist. At one parish they were told that the children would have to be in a two year religious education program before receiving First Eucharist. They left discouraged. A friend told them to call the diocese.
The first responsibility when a person comes to a parish asking about receiving a sacrament is to listen to their request and discovering what the person or family needs to encounter Jesus Christ and the love of the Church. We need to step back and assure the persons that they will receive the grace of sacrament and that they are loved by the Church. The question of a migrant may only be part of what is necessary to lead them to a deeper relationship with Christ and the Church.
Learning the history of this family did not begin with answering their first question about the First Eucharist of their children. Listening to their story of migration gave a context that can guide the Church leader in a path to preparing the children for the sacrament and learning of other needs so that the entire family is welcomed into the Church. The discovery that the parents were not married in the Church only became known after gaining their confidence. When asked if they wished to have their marriage blessed, they responded, “We don’t have money for a marriage.” The question was restated, “I did not ask if you have money for a marriage. I asked if you wished to have your marriage blessed.” They responded, “Yes.”
I asked the children what they believed. They started, “We believe in God.” I asked, “How do you pray?” The 11 year old said, “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” They even knew to say this is the Holy Trinity. When asked what prayers they say, both responded that they pray the rosary with their mother. They said they attend Mass “almost every Sunday and feasts of the Virgin.” The boy said that Communion meant to receive the Body and Blood of Christ.
This family is mobile because of issues of immigration and the work of agriculture. They are poor, but have a sense of dignity and faith. The response of the Church is to prepare them to put in order the sacramental live of each member in a timely manner. It is important to allow people a chance to reflect on and reveal their faith.
Some may think that this family was exceptional and of course need special attention. The interview process to get to such depth with the family took time. There was special attention needed to gain their confidence and to let them know that the priest was listening. Many of our migrants who have lived in the shadows because of immigration issues have had their dignity and confidence shattered. Many have come to believe that they are not “good Catholics.” They need to hear the “good news.” When they gain a bit of confidence, great faith may come into view.
A great compliment
Some critics say people are just looking for an easier way to get what they want. Over the past 15 years I have worked with a large extended family that travels up and down the west coast following various harvests and have baptized their children, given First Eucharist and blessed marriages for this family. One man said recently, “Father, we do not come to you because you make it easy, we come to you because you give us personal attention and know our life.” May God bless all who extend God’s blessing and love to migrant farm workers.
Fr. McAndrew is the director of Campesino Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno.
Sr.Miriam Hogan | Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Good for you Fr. McAndrew. We pray for your ministry and for the people you serve. May Jesus be your guide and companion as you continue his work.