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September 3, 2012 | Volume 87, Number 22


photo: St. Pius teens and their new friends at Kuzzen’s Camp in Exmore on the Eastern Shore.
St. Pius teens and their new friends at Kuzzen’s Camp in Exmore on the Eastern Shore.

Eastern Shore migrant ministry involves many

It was on the front porch at a summer birthday party in 2010 when two “moms from St. Pius” first started talking about a desire to delve into mission work.

For me, it was a longing to return to work once lived on the mission fields of Nicaragua.

For retired Navy Captain Jeanne McDonnell Johnson, it was a desire to more fully understand the transformation in her son who just returned from the very same place.

Little did we know then that our next mission field would be in our own back yard.

I had first discovered the needs of the Eastern Shore migrant farm workers in July 2011 while researching a Catholic Virginian article on St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church in Onley. The small rural parish along with St. Andrew (Chincoteague Island) and St. Charles (Cape Charles) spend much of their summer months helping to clothe, feed, and minister to the thousands that labor their way through primarily tomato fields on the Eastern Shore.

As many as 2,500 to 5,000 mostly Mexican, Central American, and some Haitian migrant workers and their families arrive from fields in Florida, Texas, and the Carolinas to help harvest the vegetables we so readily find on our grocery store shelves.

Laboring 10 to 14 hours a day in 90+ degrees and stifling humidity, there is no overtime pay, no sick leave, no paid vacation, no health insurance and no pension plan. When the weather is bad there is often no work, and therefore no income.

Their meager wages barely cover rent, food and clothing, and transportation to the market, the laundromat, clinic or church. Most live in communal situations, with little privacy or security and inadequate living spaces often shared by insects and rodents.

The three Eastern Shore parishes are a considerable source of comfort and stability, but they are no match for the intense need of the thousands that live and work on these farms. Several parishes, particularly in Hampton Roads, have come alongside those on the shore for decades offering donations and teams of volunteers.

With the guidance and support of Jim Albright, Regional Coordinator with the Diocesan Office of Justice and Peace, and St. Peter’s ministry leaders Shirley Hirsch and Cathy Bredimus, Jeanne and I coordinated our first visit unofficially with half a dozen of our friends and teenagers last August.

As our caravan pulled into the dirt drive alongside an old farm house, St. Peter’s Hispanic worship team was already hooking up microphones and amplifiers. Luis Flores, a seminarian from Miami, set up a make-shift altar and began asking for Spanish speaking lectors.

By dusk, cars full of people began arriving, as dozens of others made their way across a field, coming out of their mobile homes to worship and pray. As St. Peter’s priest, Father Rodrigo C. Mingollo, “Father Rod,” began Mass we were for that moment one people. We were God’s people.

After Mass we pulled out refreshments as well as bags and boxes of donations we had brought with us. Clothing, shoes, socks, toiletries, and religious items including handmade Rosaries, were gratefully and respectfully sifted through by size and need.

Meanwhile the kids (ours and theirs) chased each other with glow sticks, and kicked around new soccer balls. It was a beautiful night, and the beginning of a relationship now a year in the making.

“I think there is a yearning in many of us to follow the advice of St. James when he said to put your faith in action,” said Jeanne Johnson.

“It is especially exciting to be able to give the young people in our community this type of mission experience. We’ve not had one teenager who did not want to go back again,” she added.

At Christmas, Norfolk’s St. Pius X families sent gifts and filled children’s stockings for a party sponsored by St. Peter’s. Fifty of the stockings were donated by St. Pius X Girl Scouts, and the parish also “adopted” a family with newborn twins by helping them with baby clothes and diapers.

Teams of as many as 35 adults and teens from St. Pius and Sacred Heart continue to regularly visit the migrant camps. Members of the Protestant communities of Wave Church, Tabernacle Church, and the Love Now Ministry have also participated with volunteers and donations. Blessed Sacrament in Norfolk and St. Therese in Chesapeake have also contributed greatly with donations to the effort.

“Each visit is a humbling experience,” said Esther Corpus of Sacred Heart. “We want them to feel our presence as we watch them enjoy the gifts that they share and hope that we may continue to provide a just and fuller life for them and their families.”

With the blessing of our pastor, Father Nixon Negparanon, and the parish pastoral council, St. Pius X has officially partnered with St. Peter the Apostle to help further the work being done at the camps.

In July Father Nixon joined the team on a visit to Kuzzen’s Farm in Exmore. While there he celebrated Mass alongside Father Merlito Abiog, the new pastor at St. Peter’s.

“The good work that is now bringing our youth to the migrant workers has spread through our parish so fast,” said Father Nixon. “I have to believe it is the work of the Holy Spirit that is guiding them.”

The work is continuing to ignite new fires throughout the parish. Ali Sobers, a rising junior at Maury High School, has started a project to further encourage teen involvement, turning her efforts into a Girl Scout Gold Star award. She and her father also recently built shelving for a storage unit available to the ministry through parishioner George Stenke.

What began as a simple visit to see what was possible has become a true ministry based on genuine love for the work and the people that we meet. St. Pius X Catholic Church is on a mission, and we never had to leave our area code.

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