Vardaman group serves taste of the South at Thanksgiving

By William Moore Daily Journal
VARDAMAN – Catholic Charities provided around 100 Thanksgiving dinners Thursday evening to migrant workers in Calhoun County.
For organizer Danna Johnson, it was much more than just giving away food.
“The beauty of this is how we can integrate a multicultural community through food,” Johnson said. “We wanted to make sure it was a traditional Southern meal – no beans, no tortillas.
“For many of the workers, it might be the first time they have ever eaten turkey.”
The event started last year when the group served meals to around 40 workers at the downtown Vardaman location and sent out another 15 meals. It was a way for several cultures to come together. A migrant worker said grace before the meal. A board member shared the story of Thanksgiving and the reasons behind the traditions of turkey and dressing.
Officials hoped the second year would be even bigger, but then the pandemic hit and forced this year’s event to become carry-out only.
To make sure as many of the workers as possible knew about the event, Johnson enlisted the help of Paola Diaz to get the word out. Diaz works for a company that brings the migrant workers in from Mexico, processes the immigration paperwork and allocates the workers to the various farms around the area.
“I work in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, and I love this place,” Diaz said.

Since she deals directly with the workers, Diaz was an integral part of getting the word out. She not only knew the rural county roads where the workers live, she was the ticket in the door.
“These people don’t go out much and avoid a lot of new places and new people,” Johnson said. “They are not used to coming to places they don’t know. If I went to the door by myself, they wouldn’t answer the door. When I showed up with Paola, we were welcomed in.”
So, the two women spent the last couple of weeks riding around county roads, letting the workers know that a special meal would be waiting for them, if they wanted it.
“The goal was to show them hospitality and many of the workers were actually working until noon today,” Diaz said.
Heidi Stephens, a retired teacher who helps with the Catholic Charities after school tutoring program, said they worked for several weeks to organize the event. Two local churches prepared the food.
“Last year, St. Christopher in Pontotoc did the food,” Stephens said. “This year, St. Christopher and St. James in Tupelo took care of the food.”
Some of the items were purchased while three different groups at the Tupelo church did the bulk of the cooking, including three men from the Knights of Columbus who cooked the turkeys.
While the meal is prepared by Catholic Services and most of the migrant workers are Catholic, the meal is not a religious event or church service.
“They don’t have time to go (to regular church services),” Johnson said. “They work every day when the crop is coming in, even Sundays and holidays.”
The event does help to introduce the workers to the church, but officials wanted to make it more about hospitality, with thanks to God present, but in the background.
“It’s a ministry of presence, we are not looking for recruits,” Stephens said. “It is good for the community to see an ecumenical project take off.”

(This story was reprinted with permission of the Daily Journal. Follow the author on Twitter @WilliamMoore_DJ, photos by Thomas Wells)