Skip to main content

Hundreds of migrant workers gather for special day


NC Catholics, September, 2016

For nearly 300 migrant farm workers, Sunday, August 7 was a relief from their back-breaking toiling in tobacco and sweet potato fields. It was the day for the 5th Catholic Encounter of Farm Workers, hosted by the diocesan Hispanic Ministry Office and held at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Newton Grove. (The event was previously called Migrant Family Day.)

“Each year we really look forward to it,” Héctor Bartolo, 47, said. A native of the state of Michoacán, México, he was attending his third encounter. “We like to come mostly because of the Mass, which we cannot attend regularly; to spend time with one another, and for the chance to see a doctor.”

Mr. Bartolo, like other workers enjoying the day in Newton Grove, comes to the United States legally every year to work the fields from April to November. Now a 19-year veteran, he sends the money he earns to his wife and four children, the youngest of whom should see his father home for his ninth birthday on November 23.

The encounter, which was developed by Father Carlos Arce during his years as vicar for Hispanics, offers participants the opportunity to receive the sacraments and also have some fun.

There was, for instance, a soccer tournament and live music provided by the eight-member band Ministerio Caliz. There were games, a meal and services such as haircuts and medical exams. Everything was provided by volunteers of 10 parishes in the diocese.

The medical exams, for instance, were organized by members of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Cary. This year, eight doctors and eight nurses worked the encounter, checking 123 workers for ailments such as diabetes, heart conditions and allergies.

“Last year we only had three doctors,” Martha Smith, Hispanic Ministry assistant at St. Michael Parish, said. “[But] this way, the doctors are able to spend more time with each patient.”

Volunteers from Sacred Heart Cathedral were in charge of cooking. First-time volunteers Eva Peña and her husband, Arnulfo Cisneros, worked the kitchen and served food.

“It was marvelous,” Mrs. Peña said. “We definitely plan to come again.”

This year being the Jubilee of Mercy, the encounter carried the theme: “Opening Doors with the Key of Mercy.” Shortly before 4 p.m., the participants, led by Bishop Michael F. Burbidge, processed into the church of Our Lady of Guadalupe through the Holy Door. It was an opportunity to obtain a plenary indulgence.

Seeing Bishop Burbidge was listed as the first reason to attend the event by Marco Antonio Sandoval, a 39-year-old man from the Mexican state of Morelos, who was in line to see the doctor. This was no surprise to Lettie Banda, of the Office of Hispanic Ministry in the diocese.

“The first year was strange for the workers,” she explained. “Now they feel like they belong in this diocese, and that he is their bishop. After all, many of them spend more time here, in North Carolina, than in their home country.”

Mrs. Banda and volunteers from some 10 different parishes visit the camps where the workers live, often under tough conditions. This year workers from 17 camps managed to make it to Newton Grove.

“Transportation is a challenge; and sometimes it’s also difficult to persuade their foreman to let us minister to the workers,” she said.

The annual event, she explained, “is a way to thank them for their sacrifice, what they do for us.”

That sentiment was also echoed by Father Arce in his homily during the Mass he concelebrated with Bishop Burbidge.

“Thank you,” he said to the workers. “You are a reflection of Jesus’ living and suffering face. Let us pray to be merciful, but with deeds, not with nice words.”