Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Next time you select a tomato in the grocery store, think about from where it came.

That tomato didn’t just jump from being a seed to being a ripe fruit on your plate. Its seed was sown; its emerging stalk and leaves were watered. When the tomato was plump and juicy, someone picked it and someone packaged it.

On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, those individuals were most likely migrant workers from either Central America or Haiti.

Each summer, hundreds of farmworkers come to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to work in packing houses and to harvest crops that include watermelons, tomatoes, corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes. The farmworkers toil at least eight hours a day in muggy weather which has temperatures in the summer ranging from the low to high 80s.

“These workers are our brothers and sisters,” said Carol Zuccarino, a migrant ministry volunteer from St. Charles Borromeo Parish, Cheriton, near Cape Charles. She added that when she and other volunteers visit the camps, “Our very presence shows them that we care and appreciate what they do.”

The Eastern Shore, also known as the Delmarva Peninsula, is located between the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, stretching through Virginia, Maryland and Delaware. It’s the longest stretch of wild coastline left on the entire East Coast.

About 70 of its miles are in Virginia and comprise Northampton County in the south and Accomack County in the north with a collective population of about 44,000. It is accessible by the 17.5-mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel which connects Virginia Beach to Cape Charles.

The exact number of migrant farmworkers laboring on the Eastern Shore in Virginia is difficult, if not impossible, to determine because they arrive at varying times (March to September). Some of them follow the coastline from Florida to Delaware as crops become ready to pick, some stay on Virginia’s Eastern Shore for the summer, and some live there year round.

Father Michael Imperial, parish administrator for St. Andrew the Apostle Parish, Chincoteague Island, and director of the Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry, estimates that there are 2,000 migrants working on Virginia’s Eastern Shore this year, but in the past five years there have been as many as 2,500. There has been a decreased demand for migrant labor — only 14 of 21 camps are open this year, and fewer migrant workers are bringing their families.

Living conditions vary from camp to camp. For example, one community has barracks-style housing with a communal shower and kitchen while another has small homes each with its own bathroom and kitchen, explained Kathy Bredimus, chair of St. Peter the Apostle Parish’s migrant ministry in the central area of the Eastern Shore.

Bredimus explained that all camps have to apply to the local Board of Health for licensing and are required to meet OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) regulations. She added that volunteers who visit the camp are encouraged to report concerns to the Health Department.

Holistic approach to ministry

More than 20 Catholic parishes from both the sides of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel work together to serve the migrant workers by collecting and donating resources. The Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry also coordinates with other organizations such as schools, Head Start, the sheriff’s department, health-care agencies and literacy councils.

Bredimus said it is not necessary to speak Spanish to be involved in migrant ministry.

“There’s the universal language of the smile,” she said. “You don’t have to speak Spanish to let people know you are a friend. They see you as a friend when you go to the camp over and over.”

Barbara Vasko from Blessed Sacrament, Norfolk, shows Maleny Lopez Andrade and her mother one of the books from the donation pile. (Photo/Jennifer Neville)

Father Imperial said that the Catholic migrant ministry takes a holistic approach which has three components: Encounter of the Hands, Encounter of Culture and Encounter of the Hearts.

Encounter of the Hands requires living one’s faith by doing the corporal works of mercy as Matthew 25 commands.

Services offered to the migrants vary based on the parishes administering to them, but generally volunteers give out items their parishes have collected such as toiletries, clothing, bedding, grocery gift cards, sports equipment, backpacks and school supplies, as well as rosaries, holy cards and holy water. Some volunteers drive the farmworkers to doctor appointments, grocery stores, the laundry mat and other locations as needed.

Gaspar Ignacio Mena, left, and Humberto Martinez, center, watch Rafael deJesus Toral try on a pair of shoes he found among the donations from local Catholic parishes. (Photo/Jennifer Neville)

Youth from parishes on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay participate in three-day immersion trips to the Eastern Shore during which they work in the fields alongside migrant workers to glean vegetables such as potatoes and corn. The food is given to the workers and taken to homeless shelters.

Last year, the ministry’s Christmas Campaign gave gifts and stocking stuffers to 450 underserved children living on the Eastern Shore, according to Jeanne McDonnell, a parishioner at St Pius X Parish, Norfolk who coordinates the Eastern Shore migrant ministries of Catholic parishes in lower Hampton Roads.

The Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry was awarded the Gold Presidential Volunteer Service Award in 2018. Individuals from across the diocese representing more than 20 Catholic parishes, schools and organizations volunteered more than 2,500 hours within a 12-month period to provide assistance and fellowship to migrants.

President Barack Obama had also bestowed this distinction on the ministry, according to McDonnell. Bishop Knestout presented certificates before Mass to the parishes which were present.

‘Hunger for liturgy’

Encounter of Culture happens when migrants come together with volunteers and local residents for fellowship, Father Imperial said. Often, a simple reception with snacks and water follow the Masses at the camps, giving the farmworkers and the ministry volunteers an opportunity to mingle. Sometimes the farmworkers play soccer with local residents.

Of the three encounters, Father Imperial said the Encounter of the Hearts is most crucial because it addresses the migrants’ spiritual needs through Mass, prayer services and preparation for the sacraments of initiation – baptism, first Communion and confirmation.

Mike Strub, who coordinates St. Charles Parish’s Migrant Ministry with his wife Terry, said the migrant workers “have a hunger for the liturgy of the Mass,” but most have no way to get to any of the three Catholic churches on the Eastern Shore: St. Andrew the Apostle on Chincoteague Island in upper Accomack County, St. Peter the Apostle in Onley in central Eastern Shore and St. Charles Borromeo in Cape Charles in Northhampton County.

Father Imperial celebrates Masses in the migrant camps three times a week – a Mass in Haitian Creole on Mondays in Accomack County and Masses in Spanish on Wednesdays in Northhampton County and Fridays in Accomack County.

Father Imperial said having Masses in the camp is “a way of ensuring these people that the Church journeys with them.”

Father Rogelio Abadano, St. Peter the Apostle Catholic Church parish administrator, also regularly celebrates Masses in the camps under Accomack area, Father Imperial said.

“We are making the Church alive in the life of these farmworkers,” Father Imperial said.

Farmworkers part of the parish

During a visit to one of the camps on Sunday, Aug. 18, Bishop Barry C. Knestout told The Catholic Virginian “it’s important for us to show that they aren’t alone.”
“The Church is community; not a building,” Father Imperial said. “They are a mobile Church.”

Migrant ministry coordinators from parishes on the Eastern Shore agree.

Strub said, “We see the farmworkers in the camp as part of the parish, as temporary parishioners and part of the community.”

Minh and Melissa Ly, parishioners at St. Pius X, personally relate to the migrant workers because both had humble beginnings when they came to the United States from Vietnam as teenagers. Minh came as a refugee on a boat, and Melissa flew to the United States with her father, a military officer who had been imprisoned in Vietnam. Regardless of this connection though, Minh said, he would still have volunteered to help with migrant ministry.

Sacraments of initiation

Because most of the farmworkers live temporarily on the Eastern Shore, they aren’t in any location long enough to prepare for the sacraments of initiation, which normally requires a year of weekly classes and meetings. The Richmond Diocese, recognizing the pastoral need, responded by allowing Father Imperial to work with the candidates in a much shorter timeframe to prepare them for baptism, first holy communion, and confirmation, he said.

More than 300 people attended the Mass Bishop Barry C. Knestout celebrated Sunday, Aug. 18. During the Mass, the bishop baptized, confirmed and gave first Eucharist to several members of the migrant community. Above, the bishop baptizes Domingo Guzman Santos who lives in a migrant camp in Cheriton near Cape Charles. Pictured with him are his sponsors Mike and Terry Strub, parishioners at St. Charles on the Eastern Shore. (Photo/Jennifer Neville)

During his visit, Bishop Knestout celebrated the Mass in which 14 people received these sacraments. Approximately 300 people, including migrants and volunteers, attended the Mass at the Cheriton migrant camp near Cape Charles.

In his homily, the bishop compared the fire of faith to the wildfires that scourge “the West and the South.” While acknowledging the destruction of forestry, he chose to focus on a particular type of pine tree which finds rebirth from fire because its cones will open and bear seeds only if they have been consumed by fire.
The bishop drew a parallel to the Catholic faith, which sometimes needs to go through fire — through times of sacrifice and suffering — in order to be reborn even stronger than it was. The result is that a seed is planted in the forest and in one’s heart. That seed is love, and it spreads even farther than the fire.

The bishop gave thanks to those who not only experience faith, but also to those who are currently in times of sacrifice and suffering, calling on all his children to remember that their faith, like the pine tree, will grow stronger from their tribulations.