USCCB team visits migrant workers

By Elsa Baughman and Maureen Smith
JACKSON/CANTON – Representatives from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration and Refugee Services spent five days in the Diocese of Jackson in October. They went out into the fields and production facilities in and around Bruce, Houston, Canton, Vardaman, Greewood and other sites in the Delta as well as paying a visit to Jackson. Bishop John R. Manz, auxiliary bishop of Chicago, led the team. He was joined by Sister Joanna Okereke and David Corrales of the USCCB and Sister Miriam Bannon of the Catholic Migrant Farmworkers Association. Sisters Maria Elena Mendez and Josefina Garcia of the Office of Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Jackson accompanied the team on their tour and Bishop Joseph Kopacz was able to join them a couple of times during the visit.
“Every year, usually in the fall, we go somewhere we know migrants are working,” said Bishop Manz. “We want to be supportive to the local church. Sometimes the local church is unaware of migrants in their area, sometimes they are and we support the bishop in his efforts.”
Bishop Manz was complimentary of the work being done in this diocese both by the Office of Hispanic Ministry and the ministers he met during his visit. “Your bishop impresses me. His Spanish is good. His way with people is good. People respond to someone who is open and any effort to learn the language is good. You don’t have to speak it perfectly, if you try it makes a difference,” said Bishop Manz.
Bishop Manz started the tour in Canton on the evening of Sunday, Oct. 11. He celebrated Mass at many of the places he visited, often setting up in a field or community center since the migrants he was visiting were in the fields working. “We go to listen to the people, to find out what they are going through and hear their challenges and to hear the good things,” he said.
At one site the workers were harvesting mustard greens. Bishop Manz described it as back-breaking ‘stoop labor.’ “The foreman let them stop so we could sit down and talk to them,” said the bishop.
Sister Méndez said she was impressed by the many hours and the conditions in which these migrant workers labor. “They start working very early in the morning and they usually don’t know at what time they will finish.” The hours they work depend on the weather and the production, she noted. They don’t have days to rest, unless it rains, she said.
Deborah Holmes, lay ecclesial minister at Bruce St. Luke the Evangelist hosted one of the visits. She said this spring the weather made planting very difficult and some farms were running 24-hours a day in shifts to try and get the crops planted. “I think it was important for the ministers to see this group and be able to say ‘someone who speaks my language is interested in what I am doing,’” Homes said. “It is important for them to know someone cares,” she added.
At the places they visited in Vardaman, Bruce, Cleveland and the Delta area, Bishop Manz spoke mainly with a manager or foreman since the migrants were harvesting. According to Sister Méndez, they stopped briefly for the bishop to greet them and give them a blessing in one of the fields. In Bruce, Mass was at 6 p.m. “Many of our people came right out of the fields. Others could not come because they had to stay and keep working so they sent a child to represent their family. They felt it was important enough to send a child to represent the family. We didn’t expect that, “said Holmes. Those who could come are still talking about it. “They hung on every word. The fact that he stayed to talk to them after Mass – well, many of them just came up to hug him (Bishop Manz),” said Holmes.
Later they visited a catfish farm where they learned about the process of growing catfish. In Cleveland they toured a vegetable farm.
Sister Méndez said these migrants come to the United States with working visas and after about 10 months have to go back to their countries and reapply to come back the following year.
“I would like for all of us to remember, especially during this Thanksgiving celebration, all these people who work so hard and often under deplorable conditions to grow what we eat without even thinking or knowing about their efforts,” Sister Méndez said.
Sister Garcia said she felt bad to see them so sad and looking tired. “We wanted to talk to them using nice words but seeing their faces so sad I thought that there were no words that could bring them joy,” she said, noting that the bishop’s visit was like a ray of light, like a consolation, it said ‘somebody cares about us, they come to see the place where we work, we matter.’ “At the end we saw many of them smiling and they thanked us for visiting them.”
Holmes said this visit really helped her community. “They try to be invisible, to not draw attention to themselves, but this visit reinforced the message of the Holy Father,” said Holmes. “This was not just our parish, not just this diocese that’s interested in them, but someone on a higher level knows about them and cares about them,” said Holmes.
Bishop Manz, who has been making these visits all across the country for 13 years, agrees. “These people are off the radar. You have to go out and meet them. A lot of them work 10-12 hours a day so pastoral care is difficult — even just to get them to Mass,” he said.
The sisters made a point to also speak with the supervisors at the worksites to remind them that the workers deserve to be treated with dignity. “They work hard and suffer from being away from their families, in a place unknown to them,” she said. “They are also isolated from the rest of the world, they don’t have freedom or time to go any places.”
The sisters are very grateful of all the communities who hosted and collaborated with them during this visit of the USCCB personnel to listen about the immigrants concerns about work and safety related issues.