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"Campesino Ministry: Following the harvest – La Corrida (The Circuit)" - by Fr. Mike McAndrew

A Commentary


Fourteen years ago I was introduced to migrant workers in The Dalles, Ore., during the cherry harvest. The harvest brings over 6,000 workers to the area for a period of four to eight weeks. Many of the workers come to The Dalles after the harvest winds down in Stockton, Calif. After the harvest in Oregon they move on to Washington, Montana and Idaho for more cherries or begin work in the pears and apples. This mobile workforce arrives in caravans of trucks and vans following a variety of harvests. These migrant farm workers are a significantly Catholic population and often are on the periphery of our parishes in the United States.

While changes in agriculture have reduced the numbers of this mobile work force, there are parts of this country that still have an influx of workers at certain times of the year. These workers often find themselves outside the normal life of the church and experience difficulties of gaining attention to their spiritual needs.  

One man said, “Father, it is easier to receive food assistance from the church than for my children to receive their First Communion.” Another said, “Rules of the Church in the United States form barriers that prevent us from receiving the grace of the sacraments.” After Mass in a migrant camp, I asked a woman how I could do more for the migrant farm workers and she said, “Father, be our priest. We do not need you as a social worker or lawyer, but we need you to baptize our babies, teach our children and tell us that God loves us.”

Tell us about these people of mobility

The migrant farm worker performs highly skilled labor and technical work that is essential to the agricultural economy of the United States. The migrant farm worker can harvest two or three times the produce of a part time or unspecialized worker. When there is work to be done, the migrant worker is ready and eager to make use of the time that he has in a community. Spontaneity and flexibility mark the worker as he adjusts to changing conditions of weather and conditions of the crop. The migrant makes the most of the moment.

Migrant farm workers are hard working, good people who need more appreciation by society and a more gentle welcome by our Catholic churches in the United States. The life of the migrant worker is concerned primarily in gaining basic human needs of food, shelter and educational opportunity for their children. Issues of immigration keep many from establishing themselves in a town or community. Many men travel alone or with friends while their spouse and children remain in their home. The men may be separated from his family for extended periods of time. If the family travels with the worker, there are many concerns about the health, education and welfare of the children. 

Access to Pastoral Care

People on the move find it difficult to gain access to normal supports for Catholic faith, particularly in sacraments for children and getting married in the Church. Mobility keeps them from participating in programs of a local parish and the work takes them to remote locations. Churches in the towns where they work may be ill equipped to deal with the migrant community especially in the area of language and understanding the cultures of the migrants. Time and transportation problems make it difficult to participate in any regular activities of the Church. People begin to feel unattached to the church. It is easy for the workers to go lengthy periods of time without attending Mass. 

Most farm workers were raised as Catholics, with a religious experience formed primarily by popular religious devotion, more than regular participation in the sacraments of the faith. There is a profound piety as many will gather in camps if Mass is offered, but few receive Eucharist. Migrant camps actually are conducive to gathering people for Bible study or prayer experiences. Often there is not a lot to do in the evenings, so people welcome the activity. If a priest goes to a camp, people bring articles of devotion for blessing as the people seek to have a visible sign of God´s blessing and love for them. 

The Catholicism of the camps is often an uncatechized Catholicism. Yet there is a solid loyalty to the faith even though they may have only been baptized and never received other sacraments. 

When migrants are in your community

There are many blessings for the local parish community that offers a Catholic welcome to the migrant workers during their presence in the community. The program that I developed in The Dalles, Oregon over eleven years created a presence of the church in the rural community. Relationships were made with owners and employers of the farm workers that gave us access to the workers and built a good rapport with the owners. The two week summer catechetical program for the children of workers provided a lot of activity around the church that was recognized beyond just the catechists and the children. Masses took place in a different orchard each evening for nearly 4 weeks. Host families housed lay missionaries and seminarians involving many who may have not been aware of the migrant workers presence. Several members of the parish volunteered to teach as catechists and help in other ways. 

While there remain many hardships for workers, the community of The Dalles, Oregon offered many resources uncommon in the experience of migrant workers. Community service agencies, churches, health agencies and the schools offered other resources to help the farm worker community. 

A migrant story
Paco was 32 years old and enrolled his two boys in the First Communion classes. He told me that his wife was very ill, dying of cancer. He did not want to leave her, but had to work to pay medical bills. It was a particularly poor harvest. The cherry crop was light, then it rained damaging the small crop. Workers only worked half days or had several days off. On the day that the catechism program ended, I spoke with Paco and asked how he was doing. I thought about his wife´s illness, the poor harvest and lack of work. Paco said, “Padre, we are so blessed. My boys will receive their First Communion.” 

In the Church we need to find ways to extend a welcome to those whom our ordinary ministry may not reach. Parishes that actively care for the farm workers who stay for a harvest will be blessed. 

For many years, I told people that I worked ten months of the year so that I could go to spend time with the migrant farm workers during the cherry harvest. May God bless all who extend the love of our Church for the migrant farm worker.

Father 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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