Mass of Welcome for Haitian Farm Workers: June 24 in Hammonton

By Corlis Sellers, Associate Director of Lifelong Faith Formation for Black Catholics, Diocese of Camden

In search of their piece of the American Dream, more than one thousand Haitian migrant workers travel from Florida to Hammonton, NJ, each summer to harvest blueberries.  The work is backbreaking and arduous and the journey can be prove deadly.

Although this migration has taken place for over 20 years, their presence was virtually unknown by the Diocese until recently.  I learned of these workers during the course of my previous position with the U.S. Department of Labor, as Regional Administrator for the northeastern U.S.   The U.S. Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division enforces labor standards (e.g. minimum wage, overtime pay, child labor, and migrant housing and transportation safety) for some of the nation’s most vulnerable workers.

As a result of migrant camp investigations during the June and July blueberry harvests in South Jersey in the early to mid 2000s , wage and hour investigators came across hundreds of Haitian workers and their families often housed in overcrowded conditions. As these workers are transported from Florida up to NJ and elsewhere in the migrant stream by crew leaders in vans and buses, vehicle safety inspections are also conducted by Department of Labor investigators.  In fact, last summer, a tragic van accident in Florida claimed the lives of  three  Haitian workers on their way to NJ.  Two of these workers sustained critical injuries.

Even though many of these farm workers are Catholic, they are unable to worship in local parishes because they do not have their own transportation.  Further, as Haitian Creole (a Haitian French dialect), is their language, many are unable to follow masses celebrated in English.

Two years ago, with the support of a local blueberry farmer, the Haitian Farm Workers Ministry was established by the Black Catholic Ministry Commission and St. Monica’s Parish led by Father Yvans Jazon, a Haitian-born priest.  During the last two summer harvests, a Haitian priest from outside of the Diocese was assigned to minister to these migrant workers in the labor camps by celebrating weekly masses and administering the sacraments in their Creole dialect.

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To mark the return of the workers, the Black Catholic Ministry Commission and the parish of St. Monica’s (which has a large Haitian community) welcome them by joining in the mass celebration on the farm and by serving dinner to the workers and their families.  The farm workers assist the priest in the preparation of these liturgies.

After working all day in the field, the workers return to camp in the evenings.  The children also return to the farm after spending time in the migrant education summer camp.  Many teens work in the fields with their parents earning piece wages for harvesting the blueberries.  Most of the teens speak English and like other young people in America, they express their desires to attend college and voice their career aspirations beyond the migratory life of farm work.

Upon returning to camp, the women go to their residences, freshen up, and come to the veranda proudly donning their Sunday best.  The workers who attend the mass after a hard day’s work in the fields are fully engaged in the celebration.  Workers of other denominations who do not participate in the Mass quietly and respectfully observe the celebration around the perimeter of the veranda.

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After the mass, the community lines up for a dinner of Haitian chicken and rice prepared and served by the parishioners of St. Monica.  The lines are orderly and workers wait patiently to be served. The parish estimates that over 1,000 farm workers were served after the most recent mass last June.

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Each year during this dinner, a farm worker and self-appointed broadcaster known as  “Radio”  announces over the camp’s microphone in Creole how blessed the community is to have the Catholic Church of South Jersey once again welcome and minister to them.  Although not Catholic, “Radio’s” broadcasts serve to amplify our efforts to evangelize.

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This community acknowledges the efforts of the Church and humbly expresses its gratitude. The most moving testament to this ministry was provided by a farm worker who coordinate the farm worker’s preparation for and participation in the liturgy.  He said, “For years we return to these fields searching for God.  Now we know that God has searched and found us.”

The 2013 Mass of Welcome for the Haitian Farm Workers will be held on Monday, June 24 at 6:00 pm at Columbia Fruit Farms in Hammonton.

Information on needed items:

Thanks to all of the parishes, youth groups, organizations and individuals who contributed to the success of last year’s summer program for migrant and homeless children.  Last summer we requested swim suits, towels and flip flops for these children and youth.  As a result of your overwhelming support, program needs were met for these nearly 300 children for last year and this year.  All of the children in this program were able to swim last year!

I reached out to Program Director Kathy Alves this week and asked about this year’s program needs.  She indicated that the following items would be very helpful:

–arts and crafts for children of all ages (e.g. paint-by-number sets, bead sets, and model car and plane kits)

–pool toys (e.g. noodles, balls, etc.)

–red t-shirts in all sizes (children, youth, and adult) to identify the children when they go on field trips

In addition, their families can use toiletries and nonperishable food items.

If you are able to donate any of these items, please donate them directly to:

Migrant Education
Gloucester County Special Services School District
1340 Tanyard Road, GCIT Building, 600 Wing
Sewell, NJ

The contact person is Kathleen (Kathy) Alves, kalves@gcecnj.org and 856-468-6530 ext.1057. The building that houses this program is at the back of the campus.

If you have any questions, you may contact Corlis at 583-6184 or email corlis.sellers@camdendiocese.org.  Thank you.

Directions to the Mass:

From Camden, take Route 30 East (White Horse Pike) towards the shore.  When you get to Hammonton, follow the signs to Route 206 North (Trenton Road).  In order to make a left turn onto Rte 206, you will have to bear right onto the jug handle.

Follow Rte 206 for a little over a mile (past St. Anthony of Padua Parish) and turn right onto Columbia Road (693 East).  Columbia Road will take you to the labor camp on the right side of the road, where the Mass will be held.  The mass will be held outside under a veranda in the labor camp.

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