June 30, 2016

On a Wednesday evening in July, Bishop Joseph J. Tyson of the Diocese of Yakima, Washington, came to celebrate Mass under a tent at the migrant camp in Monitor, with the beautiful Wenatchee Mountains in the background. The altar was a picnic table covered with a cloth; the remaining picnic tables provided pews for the 250 who gathered. The opening hymn, sung by a group gathered around a guitar, was appropriately called “A Missionary Heart.”

After Mass, the community of migrants was treated to a meal of tacos, rice and beans, prepared by volunteers. Following dinner, the priests held a raffle for religious prizes, and the seminarians hoisted three piñatas over the heads of children who joyfully smashed them into pieces. Lights go out early at the migrant camp, given that alarms will ring at 3 a.m. But after celebrating Mass, in the center of their camp, the migrants were recharged and ready to face the demanding work of picking cherries.

Catholic Extension is funding the Migrant Ministry in Yakima, allowing priests to follow migrants to their camps and to offer the Eucharist there, because a lack of transportation prevents migrants from attending regular Sunday Mass.

“The migrants are hungry for sacraments. Just like everyone, they need God,” said Father Alejandro Trejo, pastor of nearby St. Francis Xavier Church. “We don’t want them to feel abandoned by the Church. When we have Mass in the camps, they say, ‘Thank you, Father, now we have more energy to do our jobs.’ Going to Mass fills them up.” 

Migrant Mass

Every summer, migrants arrive in Yakima for the cherry season, which is fast and furious, lasting only from mid-June to late July. The work is labor-intensive, and a domestic supply of workers is practically non-existent. Given the many unpredictable weather factors that can influence the crop, it is important to pick cherries when they are ripe. Farmers in the state of Washington, which is the top producer of sweet cherries in the country, have long relied on migrant workers to help. 

Migrants start work around 4 a.m. during the cool, predawn hours, an optimal time for cherry picking. Wearing headlamps, they climb ladders and begin their 12-hour shifts, gently twisting bunches of cherries and placing them in pouches around their necks. When their pouches are full, they place the cherries in a box. On a typical shift, a worker can fill 20 boxes and is paid $5 per box. And at $100 a day, cherry picking is a very attractive industry for migrants. 

Some migrants stay in Yakima only for cherry season and return to their homes in California, Texas, Mexico or Guatemala. Others remain longer to pick other crops, such as apples or pears. Migrants stay in temporary housing, including the camp in Monitor, Washington, just outside Wenatchee River Park, which houses about 350 people, including 100 children. 

On one side of camp, several trailers stand. Families with seven people or more live in a trailer to themselves; smaller families share a trailer. On the other side of camp, single men live together in large, white canvas tents. The middle of camp includes communal bathrooms, kitchens and laundry facilities. The place is simple, but functional. 

Most of the 100,000 migrants who arrive each summer are Catholic, doubling the size of the Catholic population in the diocese. But the migrants don’t have vehicles to get to Mass on Sunday. Bishop Tyson realized this problem and wanted to “bring the Mass to the people.” So he created the Migrant Ministry program that organizes weekday evening Masses in 16 different camps scattered across the 37,000-square-mile diocese. 

Migrant tents

Bishop Tyson has moved this ministry into full gear. In addition to announcing the ministry on local radio stations, he also is charging seminarians from the diocese to lead the program. They not only help plan the Masses, but they also work in the cherry orchards, side by side with the migrants. 

“Pope Francis has asked us to go to the edges where people live,” said Bishop Tyson, explaining that seminarians need to understand the life of a migrant. “If a seminarian is not worthy of lifting a box of cherries over his head, he’s not worthy of lifting the body of Christ over his head,” he said. 

The seminarians enjoy ministering to migrants. Jesús Mariscal, who joined the seminary in 2010, said, “In agriculture, we have warehouses to store fruit, so we can distribute it when we need it. We keep the apples cold, so they’re ready when we need apples. The Church is the spiritual warehouse – we can always go there when we need food.” 

Seminarian Tony Lopez continued the agricultural comparison. “If we don’t bring Mass to the migrants, their faithful roots will decay. We need to replenish them. And we need to plant new seeds.” 

“We might be the only people who come to the migrants spiritually,” seminarian Chase Sheperd said. “They’re working hard to give their families a better life, and we want them to know the Church hasn’t forgotten them.” 

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