By Jeanne Johnson, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Many Virginians don’t realize over 2,000 migrant workers and family members, primarily from Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador, travel to the Eastern Shore to harvest tomatoes every summer. They live in communal living situations, with little privacy or security and a living space often shared by insects and rodents. Most do not have their own vehicles and are dependent on their ability to pay and the willingness of others to drive them to the market, the laundry mat, a clinic or a church.

Migrant children attending Mass of their baptism and First Holy Communion.

For many years, parishioners from Hampton Roads and Virginia’s Eastern Shore have quietly served as Jesus’ hands and feet by providing aid to migrant workers and their families. Each summer they deliver donations of clothes, shoes, socks, linens, kitchen items, toys, and sports equipment to the many camps normally hidden from the general public. In additional to physical needs, these parishioners have provided fellowship through visits, fiestas, and opportunities for attendance at Mass.

Working with the Diocesan Offices of Social Ministry, last year Father Michael Imperial (Director, Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry) expanded support for those living in the camps through a program called Encounter 2016. Through this program, camp visits and donation collection and delivery were greatly expanded.

Additionally, Father Imperial realized one of the greatest needs for the migrants was the sacraments including Mass, Marriage, Baptism, Confirmation, and First Holy Communion. Together with fellow Eastern Shore priests, Fr. Michael Breslin (St. Charles) and Fr. Roger Abadano (St. Peter), the dream of receiving these sacraments was made a reality for many migrant workers and their families. In fact, over the last two years there were 35 Baptisms, 21 First Communions, three Confirmations, and three weddings. Most these took place in various migrant camps.

The dedicated efforts of the numerous volunteers did not go unnoticed. This past year, their work was formally recognized when the Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry was awarded the Gold Presidential Service Award for 2016. This civil national award, established by President George W. Bush after Sept. 11, 2001, is considered the premier volunteer awards program, encouraging citizens to live a life of service through presidential gratitude and national recognition.

Together, parishioners volunteered over 2,000 hours within a 12-month period working to aid and fellowship to the migrant camp residents. They came from several diocesan churches including St. Peter the Apostle (Onley); St. Andrew the Apostle (Chincoteague); St. Charles (Cape Charles); Sacred Heart, Blessed Sacrament, and St. Pius X (Norfolk); St. Mark and Ascension (Virginia Beach); St. Joseph (Hampton), and Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Newport News).

The President’s Volunteer Service Award presented to the Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry.

“It is our mission to bring the Church to the people, especially the marginalized sectors of our society,” said Father Imperial. “Pope Francis emphatically envisions a Church without frontiers, mother to all.” Through so many churches and volunteers we have been able to show God’s love to our brothers and sisters in Christ on the Eastern Shore. I would like to thank them for their dedicated efforts and congratulate them on this award. We also are thankful for the support and prayers of Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, Bishop of Richmond, and the Diocesan Offices of Social Ministry and Hispanic Ministry.”

Jeanne Johnson is a member of the Eastern Shore Migrant Ministry Team and Coordinator of St. Pius X Catholic Church Migrant Ministry