On Sunday, Dec. 10, Father Enrique Herrera, the pastor of a thriving farmworker parish in California’s Salinas Valley, received Catholic Extension’s 2017 - 2018 Lumen Christi Award.
Father Jack Wall, the president of Catholic Extension, presented his organization’s highest honor to Father Herrera during an outdoor Mass at Holy Trinity Parish in Greenfield, California. The Mass followed the parish’s annual Our Lady of Guadalupe procession through the town.
Lumen Christi is Latin for “Light of Christ.” This year marks the 40th anniversary of the award, which honors an individual or group who demonstrates how the power of faith can transform lives and communities. Recipients are recognized not just for the light and hope they bring to forgotten corners of the country but for inspiring others to be “Lights of Christ” as well.
Presenting the national award, Father Wall said, “Like pilgrims of old, we have traveled from the East, from Chicago, to Greenfield to proclaim to you that we have seen Christ’s light shining brightly among all of you in your love, your care, and your compassion for one another in this wonderful community.”
He added that Catholic Extension was honoring Father Enrique “for your loving service as pastor and for your great personal and passionate commitment to nurture the light of Christ among Greenfield’s most vulnerable citizens. We are especially touched by your devotion to the poor, to youth, to families, to students, to DREAMers, to workers, to migrants and to immigrants. In your ministry you ignite the spark of faith that truly transforms hearts and communities and our very society.”
Handing the award, a crystal cross, to Father Herrera, Father Wall said, “Receive the Light of Christ—Luz de Cristo—with our heartfelt gratitude for your life, your ministry and your wonderful witness to the light of Christ in this community. Amen.”
As part of the award, Father Wall also presented a $25,000 check to Father Herrera and another $25,000 to the Diocese of Monterey. Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, who also participated in the celebration, handed the diocesan portion of the check over to Father Herrera as well.
Father Herrera said he would use the money to expand the parish’s evangelization and Bible study programs to further align people’s lives with the values of the gospel and thereby further transform their community.
The Mass included several call-and-response “viva” chants celebrating Our Lady of Guadalupe, St. Juan Diego, St. Junipero Serra, Pope Francis, Christ the King, and “our Catholic faith.”
Catholic Extension’s history with the Greenfield parish reaches back to 1934, when Catholic Extension helped with the construction of the original Holy Trinity Church.
In his homily, Father Herrera emphasized the comforting presence of Our Lady of Guadalupe, her tenderness, her loving embrace and her mediation of God’s love, especially in the many challenges of life experienced by the community. Father Herrera especially lifted up those suffering from the “slavery of drug addiction,” domestic and other violence and family separation resulting from deportations.
Bishop Richard J. Garcia of Monterey, California, in an interview after the Mass said, “It’s been a great gift to have Father Enrique as the pastor in this parish, because he’s opened these doors for the people and extended a warm welcome. He works very well with the youth here, and he really is one of those shining lights of Christ. It’s so wonderful to have this recognition of the Lumen Christi Award for him.”
Father Herrera said, “I am so happy for the community because this is a great opportunity for them to reflect on their experience of the light of Christ in their own lives and in their families.”
The day’s procession, Father Herrera said, was “a march that publicly expresses our faith. We always look forward to this annual event because we get the opportunity to walk down the Camino Real and to manifest our Catholic faith and then to celebrate in a big, big party Our Lady of Guadalupe. Ninety percent of this community have their roots in Mexico.” He added that the procession was also an opportunity “to ask and to pray to God for a good rainy season. Here in this agricultural area, we need the water and a good rainy season.”
He added, “This morning showed that there is a lot of hope and a lot of opportunity here, especially with our youth here in our community. I am so happy and thankful for Catholic Extension’s presence here today because you are helping us to continue our mission here in town, and your recognition is a good sign, an encouragement for us to continue on this path.”
The colorful procession through the city of Greenfield honored both Our Lady of Guadalupe and Our Lady of Juquila, the patroness for people from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. The feast day of Our Lady of Juquila is on Dec. 8 and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is on Dec. 12.
Holy Trinity has welcomed and integrated the large Oaxacan migrant population, who speak Triqui and other indigenous languages. They are the most recent large group of immigrants to come to work in the fertile fields of the Salinas Valley, and in recent years there has been some tension in the valley between them and some of the longer-established Mexican immigrant groups.
Dressed in bright red traditional garb, an Oaxacan parish group marched behind a banner that read “Triqui Community, Oaxaca” with a statue of Our Lady of Juquila that was dressed in the same traditional indigenous dress.
Thousands participated in the procession, which included 25 parish and community groups—ranging from First Communion and Confirmation classes to a large Aztec Dance Group made up of several hundred teens and children.
The procession followed the route of the historic “Camino Real,” the same road on which St. Junipero Serra had traveled. In fact, St. Junipero participated in the procession in the form of a relic of the saint that the Diocese of Monterey had brought to the celebration.
A vibrant parish transforms its community
When he arrived at Holy Trinity in 2008, Father Herrera saw that the residents of Greenfield were struggling, immersed in poverty and with few opportunities for a brighter future.
He said, “My bishop told me, ‘Take care of your people. They suffer a lot. They have come from another country. Many are here without documents. They don’t have a decent place to live. On the fields they are not treated well, and they are not paid enough.’”
Father Herrera believed that the Church could make life better. He understood that his parish had to go beyond just the spiritual needs of the residents and also address the economic and social challenges of their daily lives. And he learned that the best way to reach his parishioners and to motivate them, particularly the young ones, is to respect them.
“The people know that I am here to serve them,” Father Herrera added, “I am the son of a migrant farmworker myself. I am part of the family. We are brothers and sisters. And if I have a voice as a priest, I would like to be a voice for the voiceless.”
Over the past nine years, Holy Trinity Parish has thrived and grown into a bustling community, with more than 2,000 people attending its six Masses every weekend and hundreds coming during the week for programs and classes that keep young people safe, educated and focused on faith.
“Every night our parish parking lot is full,” said Holy Trinity parishioner Gloria González, who has been teaching confirmation class ever since Father Herrera recruited her nine years ago. “I have been at this parish for 40-something years, and it has never been this active, this full. There is something going on every night.”
Being young in Greenfield
A city of 17,000, Greenfield is home to many migrant families who come to harvest lettuce, broccoli, grapes and strawberries in the Salinas Valley, which has been dubbed “America’s salad bowl.” Nearly half the city’s population is under age 25, and the annual per capita income is about $14,000.
Most adults are farmworkers, working long days for low wages and leaving children to fill many hours on their own. Life is not easy, and many of the city’s young people have come to rely on Holy Trinity.
“It’s difficult growing up in a low-income community, with parents who are away in the fields and pressures to do well in school and to help the family by working in the fields during the summer,” said parishioner Jaime García, who is planning to become a teacher and coach in Greenfield. “Just as Father Enrique has been a mentor to me, I want to be a mentor to young people in our community.”
“Holy Trinity is like a second home to me,” García added. “Father Enrique is always there for us. He wants us to know that it doesn’t matter where you come from and that when you are raised with faith in God and the Church, you can do anything. He has helped us believe in ourselves.”
The youth in Greenfield has faced mounting challenges without many breaks.
“People from immigration farm communities are never given a chance to succeed,” said Damien Trujillo. Raised in Greenfield, Trujillo is now an NBC reporter in San Jose, California, but he returns to his home parish often. “Father Enrique has given them a path to follow. He helps them eliminate the negativity in youth. His presence and how he carries himself makes young people believe in the Catholic Church. He is a beacon of hope.”
Strengthening the community and promoting education
This year more than 400 children received their first Communion. He has also ramped up the number of teenagers, now in the hundreds, who are confirmed at the parish each year and encourages and recruits many of them to lead the parish programs for younger children.
With Catholic Extension’s help, the parish started a new summer camp for children this year that focuses on faith, music and science. It was a hit. For adults, Father Herrera works around their demanding schedules. When agricultural fields are dormant, he holds Bible classes.
He also started a group of “Soldiers of Christ” who help at the parish with painting, fixing pews and other small repairs as well as work at the youth retreats.
José Luis Aguilar, one of 30 participants, has been a parishioner for 17 years. He has seen a big change since Father Herrera arrived.
“Before, the parish was mainly elderly, but now it is full of young people,” he said. “Father Enrique helps us talk to our children and to support their education. Greenfield used to be a tough place to live, but since Father came here, it has changed.”
The parish has English, nutrition and parenting classes, a food bank and immigration assistance. Father Herrera has worked with Catholic Charities and the Mexican consulate to assist many of Greenfield’s young people in obtaining their DACA status. Every spring break, 300 high school students attend anti-bullying and anti-violence classes. And the parish has created sports and after-school programs to keep young people busy and out of trouble.
Father Herrera dreams that all his young parishioners will attend college. Most of their parents did not have that opportunity.
Celeste Castro, a confirmation mentor, is grateful for his encouragement. Her older brother graduated from UC Santa Cruz, the first in the family to attend college, and she started this fall at UCLA. More and more students now attend college; the parish even holds fundraisers to provide scholarships.
“Father Enrique advocates for our community to ensure that we get what we need spiritually as well as physically, emotionally, intellectually and in other aspects that are needed for a balanced life,” said Jesús Olvera García, the mayor of Greenfield and a Holy Trinity parishioner. “Our parish has its doors open to welcome everyone to be part of their events and services.”
Filiberto Camacho, a longtime parishioner, said, “Father Enrique’s dream is to help our young people become good citizens, so no one is ever ashamed to say, ‘I grew up in Greenfield.’ This is a small community, divided in some ways, but united in our faith and in the light of Christ.”
“People here need light in the darkness of their lives,” Father Herrera said. “I am helping them put the values of the Gospel, the light of Christ, into everyday life.”
Ten years from now, he added, “the teens we work with today will be parents. Those graduating from college and university will be back here contributing to the community. My hope is that because of what we are doing now, because the Church became a very important part in the lives of these young people, they can be the future of the Church here in Greenfield.”