Two Saturdays ago, four men came into the small storefront where All Saints Episcopal has started a Hispanic Ministry program in Fort Lauderdale. They bolted--almost literally--as we finished the Liturgy of the Word and prepared the table for the Eucharist. I had been touched by their presence. I hoped that I hadn't offended. I went on.
After the Eucharist, our young new community gathered outside the front door, so folks could smoke, where the breeze felt good. We were just saying our lengthy Latino good byes when the men came back, quiet night visitors, not just four but now eight. They seemed bewildered and scared. In a few minutes, tripping over each others words, desperate to tell their story and be understood, they told us that they are temporary workers, here on an H2b visa. At the end of their first week of work in this country, men from Hidalgo, Chiapas, the interior of Mexico, were stunned. They owed their employer more money than they had earned that week. The person their employer had told them they had to rent from was behaving abusively, had even threatened them with a knife. They speak no English and were desperately homesick.
The seed group of this new ministry--some 8 young Latinos from places like Puerto Rico, Venezuela and Colombia--spent a bit of time getting their minds around the migrant experience, so different from theirs. Then they-we-moved straight to action. Some of it has been successful. Our newly found brothers now have pillows and sheets and blankets. They no longer have to rent the kitchen utensils they need to cook.
We had been fighting against disappointment for a while now, this seed group and I, with so many chairs empty for lots of Saturday evenings despite our best efforts. So perhaps we can be forgiven for exulting last night, when our small rental unit, an old upholstery shop that has now become most truly itself, a holy space, was filled almost to capacity. Somehow, we wanted to think that just by getting involved, offering hospitality, gathering the small tokens of our Christian responsibility, we had helped our friends. We were eager to ask how the week had ended.
Hearts broke all over again No, it really isn't better, after all. This week, our friends worked for 40+ hours each. They were paid for 27-32 hours. What good is a pillow if you can't send enough money home to feed your children?
Our ministry, the Centro, is turning my understanding of Church upside down. Men with with so little and a deep Roman Catholic faith, stretched out their hands at the Eucharist to receive bread both enough-- and desperately not enough -- to be life-sustaining. Our numbers, the kind of growth a mainline denomination like the Episcopal Church desperately wants to achieve, are misleading. Our new brothers are with us for only a short time. We won't "convert" them and make our Confirmation/Reception statistics look impressive. We may not even succeed in getting their work conditions improved. We are simply a broken vessel, struggling to hold whatever small measure of grace we might stumble upon. Holding out that broken vessel as steady as we can, with weak and trembling arms, we have to let go of everything we thought we were coming to do and be in this place.