DENVER — An auxiliary bishop in Denver who recently led a special Mass for farm workers is calling for compassion for people who migrate in search of work, saying that “to migrate is a destiny, not a choice.”
Bishop Jorge Rodriguez celebrated the special Migrant Farm Workers’ Mass in September. The Mass was organized by the Spirit of Christ Migrant Ministry, a part of Arvada’s Spirit of Christ Catholic Community. The group visits, collects, and distributes donations to migrant workers and their families in northern Colorado.
“Migrants are not a race, but a social status whose problems are shared by all men and women, our brothers and sisters, that are living outside of their countries of origin looking for a future for their families through very hard work and many times in difficult conditions,” Rodriguez said.
The migrant farmers scattered across northern Colorado and along its eastern plains are a diverse group, working long hours in difficult conditions and sometimes extreme weather. They follow the work which makes it difficult for them to meet their spiritual needs consistently.
Rodriguez is a native of Merida, Mexico but told Crux in an email exchange that is not the main reason he feels so much empathy for the migrants he met on farms spreading from Brighton to Evans, citing instead the enormous personal challenges they and their families face.
Rodriguez was appointed as an auxiliary bishop by Pope Francis in August 2016, and consecrated the following November.
Previously, Rodriguez had served as pastor at Thornton’s Holy Cross Catholic Church since 2014 and before that was the vice-rector at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver. Before he moved to Colorado to be associate pastor of St. Therese Parish in Aurora, he was in Rome. He is fluent in English, Spanish, and Italian.
In years past, the migrant ministry has had a Spanish-speaking priest for the Mass, but this year after meeting Rodriguez at a legal night at the San Juan Diego Center, volunteer Marie Ramos Beeler asked for his card and arranged for him to come and meet the migrants they serve.
Beeler said, “he immediately said he wanted to go out and meet the migrant workers and visit their housing.” Once she saw him in action, she recognized a kindred spirit. “He is a wonderful, wonderful blessed man.”
In September, the Trump administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), and that controversial decision along with the building of a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico has dominated the discussion of immigration and immigrants’ rights.
Beeler who has been working with the migrant population for several years says her “whole purpose (in being interviewed) was to call attention because you don’t hear too much about the migrants’ plight in Colorado.” She wants to “get Catholics to realize that it’s not just people here in the cities that we’re concerned about, but the people who actually harvest our food.” But, she says that even with all they do, it is “a drop in the bucket as far as being of help to people.”
She describes the difficult working conditions, especially during harvest time. “They are at work at 4 in the morning and just getting home when we were there at 7 in the evening. They only have a half day off to grocery shop and get all errands run. They’re so busy and so isolated. They can’t drive. So all they do is work, eat and sleep. They can’t go to a movie or go bowling. They miss their families, they get isolated, they have to wait for the farmer to pick them up and drive them into town.”
While some migrant workers are in the U.S. legally, the National Farm Worker Ministry estimates at least 6 out of 10 are undocumented. Beeler said, “it’s been very frightening for the people out there without documentation.” Especially after the election of President Donald Trump “they were leery even of us.” After the initial shock, “they invited us in to sit down and talk.”
Rodriguez saw the burdens of their daily life clearly when he came with the volunteer organization to meet some of the migrants. Beeler said, “he just shook his head and said ‘this is so unfair’…those are the words he used. He went into another home and blessed the home for the farm workers because they had asked for him to bless their home.”
Rodriguez said, “I saw them coming back from work (harvesting onions.) Their faces look very tired, like eager to take a bath, cook something to eat and go to bed, and get ready for the next work day. They greeted me and asked me to bless the house.”
The thing that struck him was the realization “that in the middle of this situation of poverty and hard work, God was with them, and they wanted to feel blessed by Him.”
Beeler notes how “he really took an interest in the people, and then we had the Mass which was beautiful.”
After experiencing these conditions, Rodriguez said, “They need from us welcoming, appreciation and fair salaries to build a future for their families. Independently of different situations and politics, the United States of America has been and is a loving and respectful country. We want them to experience that.”
Beeler suggested that the spiritual needs of the migrants have been neglected, and that “if we could get more support by getting clergy to go out and minister to people” it could only improve the situation. There’s “so much a priest can do that we can’t.” For example, “babies need to be baptized, confession needs to be heard.”
Rodriguez, for his part, said, “I realized, for instance, that when they come back from work, sometimes late evening, though they are tired out, we could use an evening to offer Bible classes, catechesis or sacramental preparation. It is true that with their schedules it is hard to accommodate and to make arrangements with them, but we must show some flexibility according to the possibilities. For sure we cannot interfere with their work and we don’t want to put an extra burden in their lives, but hearing the Good News of Jesus will always bring them peace and comfort…. Though a little bit late at night!”
Beeler said she and the other volunteers “are all cradle Catholics.” They want the Church to do more. “We’re hoping now that Bishop Rodriguez has seen the conditions I think we’ll get more support.”
Rodriguez says, “in the Archdiocese of Denver we have two important institutions to protect them in different areas, the San Juan Diego Center, and Catholic Charities. Both are very aware of the situation and prepared to help them.”
He says, “yes, I see there is more I can do for them. For instance, I can be more present to them just to let them know and feel that the Church is with them, that they have someone they can count on, that we know and care for them.”
In terms of the volunteers who are visiting the workers and bringing food as well as household items, Rodriguez says, “I could read in their faces how appreciative they are for their visits and care, [more] than even for the food they bring to them.”
As difficult as the situation is now, there is still reason for hope that their situation will improve. Beeler said she does this work because she wants to “make them feel like they’re welcome here. Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger and that’s what we want. We want them to feel like we welcome them here.”