Lessons Learned in Mission Land USA
Many years ago as a young man born and raised in Baltimore, I spent a very different week getting a taste of life in Appalachia. The opportunity to travel from the hustle of big city life to the quiet beautiful mountainous area of eastern Kentucky – to deepen my Catholic faith, experience Christian community with other young adults from around the U.S., and help the rural poor – was an offer this adventurous soul jumped at!
Through a wonderful program which the Glenmary Home Missioners still offer, I and about 20 other guys, under the supervision of two skilled Glenmary brothers, worked on improving impoverished homes of several mountain families. Then in the evenings, we participated in wonderful spiritual retreats.
Now fast-forward 40 years.
Having recently retired after 17 years as a pastoral associate in Baltimore, I contacted Glenmary to see if I could volunteer once again. Father Vic Subb, pastor of Holy Family parish and Divine Savior mission in Lafayette and Celina, Tenn. respectively, warmly invited me to take up residence at his home and assist him in ministering to the folks in his neck-of-the-woods.
And so I packed my bags and headed south, driving over 700 miles to Holy Family and Divine Savor in Tennessee – which are the only established Catholic congregations within a five county radius.
For nearly six weeks, I took the Eucharist to homebound and nursing home parishioners, assisted with R.C.I.A., gave two social justice and peace presentations, and delivered a weekly Scripture reading and sermon on the local country radio station.
It was all a very enriching experience of sharing and receiving God’s love.
But my most insightful experiences were ministering to prisoners and migrant workers.
Every Friday at the Macon County Jail, Fr. Subb, along with a few volunteers including myself, celebrated the Eucharist with 20 prisoners. Their prayerful reverence and sincere reflections concerning the proclaimed Scriptures deepen my understanding that active faith in God’s love and mercy is greater than our sins, and as Jesus often taught, is our very salvation (see: Luke19:1-10).
On several occasions, I travelled to migrant worker camps in Tennessee and Kentucky with Fr. Subb – who for years has traversed many country back roads to befriend and minister to numerous Mexican and Central American farm workers.
During a visit one evening, I asked them to tell me about their work harvesting tobacco. They explained that for 11 hours a day, six days a week, they work non-stop – except for lunch – cutting, stacking, hanging and stripping this hazardous crop – dangerous to workers and users alike.
These very poor migrant workers labour so hard in dangerous conditions, because at about $11 an hour, they make 11 times what they would earn back home.
While millions of migrant workers pick our fruits and vegetables, these men – migrant women also work the fields – explained that tobacco was the only farm job available to them.
Although all of these men have legal worker visas, millions of other migrant workers throughout the U.S. remain in the undocumented shadows, partly because the federal government refuses to issue enough worker visas each year.
Comprehensive, fair immigration reform legislation is sorely needed and long overdue.
Now back home in Maryland, where my county and all of the neighbouring counties have Catholic churches, I realise the final lesson I learned in mission country USA is that in our very secular nation and world, mission country actually starts in our own families, neighbourhoods and parish congregations (see: https://bit.ly/1i8E8ro).
Tony Magliano is an internationally syndicated social justice and peace columnist. He is available to speak at diocesan or parish gatherings about Catholic social teaching. His keynote address, “Advancing the Kingdom of God in the 21st Century,” has been well received by diocesan and parish gatherings from Santa Clara, Calif. to Baltimore, Md. Tony can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.