As our second season in the migrant ministry draws to a close, I’d like to reflect on some of the things I’ve learned since June of 2011 when we began this ministry.
I’ve learned that if you are out in the fields and a storm comes up, you can take shelter by standing on the side of a telephone pole that’s away from the wind, and making yourself as thin as possible.
I’ve learned that when cooking in migrant dwellings it is wise to bang your pots on the floor to knock off any cockroaches that might not be visible against the dark metal of the pot. Also that the best defense against cockroaches is to caulk the cracks and holes where they come in, or fill them with steel wool.
I’ve learned that food tastes better when you scoop it up with a tortilla instead of a fork. Also that if there are no tortillas or forks, you can eat with your fingers.
I’ve learned that people who have nearly nothing can be some of the most generous people around. In recent weeks, St Joe’s has received donations of onions, potatoes and winter squash, all from folks in the migrant community. I also think of the man who, on learning that one of his companions had arrived from Florida without a blanket this past spring, gave him – not just any old one of his blankets, but the best one he had, the big thick white one that you could fold over to make two blankets. Gave it without a second thought.
I’ve learned that even the worst behaving people, people that you would think would be ostracized for their unacceptable actions, are not abandoned by the community. Folks might breathe a sigh of relief when they finally go, but they will not be forced to leave until they choose to. When you need each other for survival, you quite literally grin and bear it.
I’ve learned that language doesn’t have to be a barrier. Just jump in and use what Spanish you have, and communication will usually happen. There is almost always someone who can speak at least some English. And, even after a year and a half of knowing someone, they might turn out to speak way better English than you ever knew! It also helps if you are not afraid of looking stupid. Recently I asked Alex, our new Catholic Worker who has been coming along on Thursdays, how my Spanish was (He’s bilingual). He told me I was like the Yankees. ?? “Usually, you hit ‘em,” he explained.
Speaking of Alex, I’ve learned to trust that as a community we will have what we need: the people we need, like Alex and Librada, the weather we need, the ability to find our way out in the country in the dark. Last fall, the day that we learned that the first of our men had been taken by immigration and was in the detention center, was the very day that I toured the detention center with a group from the Presbytery. The very day. I was able to say, “he’s safe, it’s clean, there’s good medical care, the guards are not cruel.” AND, I knew how to get there and what to do when I did. God is so kind, so good, so totally in charge.
And finally, I’ve learned that as a nation we are relying on a cruel, hypocritical and unjust system for our food production. Folks in our community work as much as 95 hours a week doing work that folks who are born here simply will not do. The farmers say that when they find someone who is born here to do this work, they typically last three hours. Personally, I don’t think I could do what they do for more than about ten minutes. They are in shape like athletes, but without anything of the prestige or compensation we give our athletes. They come here out of desperation, because they cannot find work in Mexico. They cross the desert at great peril. They live their lives in fear of la migra, the border patrol and other immigration authorities. They work desperately hard and get little rest. They are abused by bosses, reviled by citizens, separated from their families. They live on the margins of our society, surviving outside of the structures the rest of us live by, without bank accounts or drivers licenses or insurance or credit cards. We need the work they do, and they do not deserve to live this way.
I’ve learned that we can make a difference simply by showing up each week, by learning names, hearing stories, sharing cookies, celebrating Mass. The difference we make may be more in ourselves than in their daily lives, but that’s a difference worth having. One by one, we learn to see, not “illegals,” but friends. Brothers. Sisters. People whose lives matter every bit as much as our own. And maybe the difference in ourselves, in our point of view, will set us on fire to change the world.
Oh, may it be so.
Love to all,
Oscar Romero Church
An Inclusive Community of Liberation, Justice and Joy
Worshiping in the Catholic Tradition
Mass: Sundays, 11 am
St Joseph's House of Hospitality, 402 South Ave, Rochester NY 14620