Diocese of Brooklyn Priest Participates in Catholic Extension Mission Immersion with Migrants

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By Jessica Easthope and Bill Miller

A single cherry is a delicate fruit, but harvesting bushels of them is back-breaking for migrant workers in the state of Washington, said a priest from the Diocese of Brooklyn.

In late July, Father Charles Keeney was part of a “Mission Immersion Program” on a farm near Yakima, Wash. He observed how priests, nuns, seminarians, and the laity serve migrant workers confronting such burdens as the cherry harvest.

Father Keeney is director of the Diocese of Brooklyn’s office of Propagation of the Faith. He attended the immersion program sponsored by Chicago-based Catholic Extension, a nonprofit group working to build up Catholic communities in the nation’s poorest regions. It has a longtime partnership with the Diocese of Yakima and its prelate, Bishop Joseph Tyson.

“It was back-breaking work,” Father Keeney said. “They’re going up and down ladders, and every time you fill the basket you have to come down and dump it into the bigger container.”Since 2011, the diocese has provided a ministry that is a bridge between the Church and the seasonal workers who are mostly from Mexico and Guatemala. Each year they come to the U.S. through work visas to harvest crops in the summer and early fall.

The skill involves picking the cherry to keep its stem intact; removing it breaches the cherry’s skin, which hastens spoilage. To avoid that, the workers pull up on the fruit. Pulling downward snaps the stem.

“That’s no good,” Father Keeney said. “So, it seems to be double the work that you would think it was going to be.”

During his visit, he noted that about 230 migrants worked the 175-acre farm.

“And they pick — ready for this? — 14 million cherries a day during the season,” the priest said.

Meanwhile, Bishop Tyson’s team engages the workers, providing sacraments including Mass on Sunday and Wednesday.

“They get up at 3:30 in the morning to get out there and be with the migrants,” Father Keeney said. “They want the workers to know the Church is with them.”

Some workers bring their families, so seminarians lead children in games, arts and crafts, and a literacy program. Bishop Tyson often joins in the fun and entertains with his popular hand puppet — Arthur the Donkey.

“And Bishop Tyson, sometimes he gets up and picks cherries with them,” Father Keeney said. “You talk about being down with people? He’s really down with the people.”

Once the cherry crop is harvested, many of these workers will move on to picking Washington apples. They can earn about $20,000 each growing season, which goes a long way in their native countries, Father Keeney said.

While in Yakima, the migrants have two housing alternatives: a former motor lodge converted into a men-only dormitory, or a camp for workers with families near Monoitor, Washington.

The dormitory was developed by the Washington Farm Labor Association which, since 2007, has connected growers with laborers, helping them navigate various guest-worker visa programs and providing “niche” human resource services tailored for agriculture.

The migrant ministry of the Yakima diocese began soon after Bishop Tyson was ordained in 2011, according to Catholic Extension. The diocese was established in 1951 from counties previously located in the dioceses of Seattle and Spokane.

In a telephone interview, Bishop Tyson said there are about 188,000 Catholics in the Diocese of Yakima, but that population increases by 65,000 workers during the growing season, which lasts until November. The timing allows the workers to get home for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, the bishop said.

“We try to walk the journey with the men,” he explained. “It can be kind of hard, and lonely; they’re leaving people they love to earn money in the North. So what we’re trying to do is provide a sense of fraternity in the absence of their families.”

Bishop Tyson recalled this year’s Father’s Day Mass: “We had the men bring up pictures of their kids and their wives, and they put them on the altar, and we prayed for their families. It was very touching.”

Without this ministry, the bishop commented, “There’d be a lot more loneliness, a lot more addiction, a lot more pornography, a lot more prostitution.”

“And so,” he said, “we’re providing sacraments, a sense of meaning to their life, helping them draw close to God.”

Catholic Extension’s first donation to the diocese was in 1953, when it sent a church construction grant of $10,000 to Our Lady of Fatima Church in Moses Lake, Wash.

But Catholic Extension reports it has been donating to churches in the broader region since 1911.

Catholic Extension’s goal, dating back to 1905, has been to raise money to help bolster poor “mission” churches throughout the U.S.

The immersion trips have been offered for about five years through a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment — the philanthropic foundation created by the family behind the pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly Co.

Joe Boland, the Extension’s vice president of mission, explained that the grant specifically came from the endowment’s “Thriving Ministry” program. About 250 clergy and laity have attended the trips. This summer, participants have traveled to communities at the U.S.-Mexico border near El Paso, as well as the south-central Mississippi region near Jackson.

“The visits take place in the 87 dioceses of the U.S., or in Cuba, where Catholic Extension is providing support,” Boland said. “We plan to sustain this program even after the grant ends next year.”

“They are the best of the best,” Bishop Tyson said of Catholic Extension. “We provide the personnel, obviously, but they do a lot of the funding.

“I think that in many ways Catholic Extension is on the leading edge of Catholic groups that really are embracing the Church in a missionary way. I think one of its big strengths is that they come out and they learn the lay of the land, and really partner with local folks to build up the Church.”

Boland noted that, through the mission immersion trips, “we are doing a service not only to the participating pastors, but to the entire Church, as pastors bring the joy and inspiration of their encounters back to their parishes.”

“Just as Jesus’ ministry grew through his direct encounter with peoples and groups on the margins, so, too, do we grow in our Christian vocations through such encounters,” Boland said.

Father Keeney recommended the mission trips to his fellow clergy in Brooklyn. He can be reached for more information through the Propagation of the Faith office.

“It opens our eyes to what the Church does–not what it could do, but what the Church is actually doing for poor people,” Father Keeney said.

If any pastor in the Diocese of Brooklyn is interested in taking an immersion mission trip with Catholic Extension – they can contact Father Charles Keeney at 917-757- 8862.