A Lifeline in South Georgia by Margaret Gabriel

ACFF47Carlos opens the side door of the van parked in the middle of the migrant camp where he lives with others who pick Vidalia onions in the fields of South Georgia. He sits on the floor of the van, removes his sneakers—he wears no socks—and shows his visitors a blister that completely covers the ball of his foot. Blisters, broken and drained but still unhealed, cover both of his feet. With Glenmary Father Vic Subb translating, Carlos tells a story of how he got the blisters. He traveled on foot for five days through the southwest desert from Mexico to Phoenix, Ariz. Once in Phoenix, he met a “coyote,” the person who, for a fee, transported him by truck to the migrant camp and onion fields in South Georgia. Carlos spent the last two days of his trip with no food or water. Father Vic explains that the “coyote” allowed his passengers no food during their two-day road trip in order to cut down on the need for restroom stops. Carlos tells of a passenger who spent much of the trip so close to a hot muffler that by the time he arrived in Georgia, he had third-degree burns on his legs. It is difficult to imagine the level of desperation that impels a man to make this torturous journey, leaving family and friends behind. But the reality is this: The $250 to $300 a week that a migrant worker makes harvesting crops in the United States is a fortune compared to the daily wage of 80 pesos ($8) he can make working in the coffee fields in Mexico. Carlos and his compadres are happy to see Father Vic arrive. They know he brings food. These newly arrived workers have gone without food for five days. And it would be several more before they are paid and can purchase food. Some growers make sure workers have access to food, on credit, to tide them over until a first payday. In other camps, like the one where Father Vic visits Carlos, workers have no way to get food until they are paid. This can mean a week without money for food—if they have been lucky enough to begin work immediately upon arriving at the camp. Some migrants, however, have to wait days or weeks before starting work, Father Vic explains, which means their food crisis is even more prolonged. Father Vic, who is a regular visitor to the migrant camps in his mission counties, is the pastor of Glenmary missions in Swainsboro and Metter, Ga. These mission communities, along with St. James Church in nearby Savannah and St. Pius X in Loudenville, N.Y. (a twinned parish to Swainsboro), collect food and clothing for these destitute workers. Father Vic coordinates the effort and then, often accompanied by Anglo mission parishioners, distributes the donated items. “The Catholic Church is, quite literally, a lifeline in this area,” Father Vic says. Some of the migrants Father Vic and his parishioners minister to are documented. But many more, Father Vic says, are not. “There's no great love for the undocumented in this area,” Father Vic reports. “But when I hear people say we shouldn't help them, it makes me furious.” Father Vic sees these migrants only as people who risk death and starvation all in an attempt to provide a better life for their families in Mexico. The men come alone to the United States, very rarely bringing their families. “It's too difficult for the children,” Carlos says. “People die in the desert.” Most of the migrants see work in the onion fields or the poultry factories as temporary. They will work for two years, perhaps, and then return home. In their time off from the fields, the workers play basketball and soccer. “But more than anything, they love to just sit and talk. They love to just ‘spend time,' Father Vic explains. “ I've almost decided that it's best not to visit if I'm just going to run in and out and can't sit and spend some real time with them.” The Hispanic workers “evangelize us,” Father Vic says. “They don't fit into the American mold of ‘every-week churchgoer,' but they have a wonderful sense of community and piety that's just exceptional.” Scripture tells us to welcome the stranger among us. For all those helping the migrant workers in South Georgia, “it's not a question of should we welcome them,” says Father Vic, “but how we can provide the kind of welcome they need.” This article appears on the ‘What’s New’ section of the Glenmary Home Missioners Web site, www.glenmary.org. Please visit!

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