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"An Introduction to Campesino Ministry" by Fr. Mike McAndrew

A commentary


 
 
The word “campesino” calls attention to a ministry that focuses on the Hispanic farm worker. “Campesino” simply means a person of the fields, one who works the earth. It includes all those involved in agriculture. While for many the term “campesino ministry” has focused on the migratory worker, the ministry must be more inclusive to recognize the outreach of the church beyond the fieldworker, including those with permanent jobs in dairies, feedlots, packing houses and in industries tied to agriculture. It also must include developing relationships with owners, employers and contractors in the agricultural industry.  
 
  My intimate connection with farm worker ministry began in 1998 saying Masses for migrant workers during the cherry

 harvest in The Dalles, Ore. The cherry harvest brings several thousand workers to the area for a short but intense harvest time. The people live in housing provided by the orchardists. For two summers I simply said Mass each evening in different camps. I asked people what I could do for them if I continued coming each summer. Many asked that their children be taught basic catechism and be prepared for First Eucharist. The next summer with the permission of Bishop Robert Vasa and the pastor of St. Peter’s, I brought a team of seminarians and lay catechists to prepare children for First Eucharist. The third year we expanded to provide a program for Confirmation for migrant workers. 
 
After years of working in rural communities I had the privilege in 2007 to take a sabbatical to study of the lives of migrant farm workers. The study included time to tour rural Mexico to study the communities that are sending many of those who work in rural America. I also spent three months traveling with workers in California and Oregon. I picked cherries, pears, grapes and oranges. I lived in camps and in rectories following seasonal workers during fruit and vegetable harvests. It was an experience that makes me appreciate the work of the farm worker. 
 
On my sabbatical my request for the people was always, “Tell me your story.” It was an education in the values of people who are tied to the earth. I listened to stories of faith. Stereotypes fade away when you hear the stories of people searching for a safe and dignified life. 
 
Out of desperation comes hope
 
A priest in rural Mexico made a profound statement about the migration of people. Padre Lupe said, “People do not migrate because of poverty. Here the poor have food to eat. They migrate because of desperation. The cause of desperation may be different in each person. For some it is a case of opportunity, education, employment or some sense of well being.” I thought about Padre Lupe’s words, and what he interpreted as desperation, I tend to see as hope. It is hope for a better life for themselves and their children that enables a person to cross deserts and mountains.
 
No matter how the migrant comes here, whether legally or undocumented, they come with hope that they may make it in a foreign land. They do not know all the trials that they will face, but they believe that a better life is in store for them. Some come with the intention of staying and others with the intention of returning to their native land. The hope of the migrant will be tested often as they try to establish themselves in the United States. 
 
Ministry first
 
Early in my work with migrants I asked a woman what I could do for the campesino. She said, “We need you to be our priest, not our social worker or lawyer. Teach us and bring us the love of Christ.” In my work as coordinator for Campesino Ministry, I am often asked about issues of immigration, housing for the workers, issues of justice and economic needs. Yet I remind myself often of this woman’s words to “be our priest." Collecting clothing and food for the poor is part of the charitable outreach of our church. Working for just immigration reform and working to protect workers’ rights are an important part of campesino ministry, but none of the issues of justice can be more important than what this woman asked of me: “Teach us and bring us the love of Christ.”
 
The campesino asks the Church for a blessing, the reassurance that the person is right with God. The experience of migration erodes the sense of dignity and self respect of the person. The migrant is humiliated in many ways as they lose their own identity having to live with false identification, lying and losing themselves to the system of immigration. The work is difficult and often inconsistent. There is little security and stability in their lives. And too often when they do go to church they experience chastisement. 
 
Sacramental programs for themselves and their children are full of rules that they find difficult to fulfill because of their work and the uncertainty of their lives. At the celebration of a birthday for an infant, a worker told me, “Church rules here form barriers that prevent migrants from receiving the grace of the sacraments.” He was speaking about many obstacles that migrants face in bringing children for First Eucharist and Confirmation. 
 
An extra-ordinary ministry
 
Campesino ministry fills in where the ordinary ministry of the church does not reach. A good example is the story of Juanita. It was the second to last day of a Confirmation program when Juanita came to ask, “Padre, what do I need to do to receive the Body and Blood of Christ?” It was not the normal way a person may ask for First Communion. I told her that our program was for people like her, but it was the second to last day of class and we could not take on new people. She began to cry. I asked her to sit down and tell me her story. 
 
She explained that her family had only arrived the night before and she found out about our program from her cousins who were in the class. She told of having lived in 10 different towns in the past eight years, having three times entered First Eucharist classes but never completing the programs. Each time she had to begin again. I began to ask her questions of faith, it became clear that she was well informed on Catholicism. I asked, “How is it that you know so much about the Church?” She said, “Father, we go to Mass on Sundays. We are Catholic. We are just migrants.” There was no doubt that she would continue to grow in her practice of the Catholic faith. I welcomed her to the class. Four days later she received her Confirmation and first Eucharist. 
 
Campesino ministry is a richly rewarding ministry in the simplicity of faith and the depth of faith found amongst the poor and the marginalized in society. It is not easy to structure programs with the diverse needs found in the agricultural community, but every effort is blessed with the rewards one finds in seeing the joy on Juanita’s face when she completed the sacraments of initiation. 
 
Fr. Mike McAndrew is the Director of Campesino Ministry for the Diocese of Fresno, Calif.
 
Click HERE to read more commentaries by Fr. Mike McAndrew!
 
 
 




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