HI! I am Kate, the Campus Minister facilitating this year’s CCME to Immokalee, FL. We leave for our trip on Sunday, so the next couple of days will be about taking care of a few last minute details…. mainly impressing upon our students the importance of everyone meeting at 5:40am on Sunday so that we don’t miss our flight! (If anyone in our group is reading this… SET MULTIPLE ALARMS! 🙂 )
This will be my 9th trip to Immokalee, and I am excited and grateful that i get to introduce a new crop of students to our community partners in I-Town. I love being able to walk with students on this trip and always learn something new from the students as they experience this community with fresh eyes. Immokalee and the work of the CIW holds a special place in my heart and working with this group of inspiring people has truly shaped me into the person i am today.
This blog will be documenting student experiences and reactions of our time next week, so you won’t be hearing directly from me again. However, I thought it might be nice to highlight the history Duquesne Spiritan Campus Ministry has with the people of Immokalee. This will be our 29th trip to the area, and a few years back I was able to write a short piece for the Pittsburgh Catholic and interview the trip’s founder, Fr. Don McEachin. I hope you enjoy learning about the history of our relationship in this post and check back in throughout the week to see how students are continuing that legacy.
DUQUESNE AND IMMOKALEE:
30 YEARS OF SOLIDARITY
Originally published in The Pittsburgh Catholic, Dec. 2014 By: Kate Lecci
Immokalee is a quiet town in southwest Florida with a long history of unjust wages, unsafe working conditions and in extreme instances, prosecuted cases of modern-day slavery for the migrant farmworkers who harvest 90 percent of the United States’ winter tomatoes.
Immokalee is also the birthplace of the awe-inspiring Fair Food Movement, which seeks to better the wages and working conditions of farmworkers. As part of my work in Spiritan Campus Ministry at Duquesne University, I help to facilitate the spring Cross- Cultural Mission Experience to Immokalee each year for students. This trip includes working with local social agencies. However, the most important part of the experience is our advocacy with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to advance the Fair Food Movement. Advocacy frames the heart of the experience, but it was not always that way.
Duquesne University facilitates a relationship that has existed for 27 years. As former director of Campus Ministry, Fr. Don McEachin, C.S.Sp, began taking students to Immokalee during spring break 1988. His involvement in Immokalee began four years before, when a friend of his, John Witchger, was living in Immokalee, working with migrant farmworkers. He invited Fr. Don to visit.
“I went out into the fields at sunrise with John and some Mexican crew leaders that he knew,” Fr. Don says. “We picked mostly tomatoes. I became enthralled with the whole farmworker story.”
His passion for working with this population began a relationship that continues today. The early years of this mission experience were about working with newly established social services to support area farmworkers. The Guadalupe Social Services, now a staple of assistance, Fr. Don reflects, “was nothing more than a large mobile home parked in the rear of the church, stu ed with used clothes, meds and food donated to mostly newly arrived farmworkers.”
During the early trips, students stayed in farmworkers’ homes and worked in the fields for a day or two. “There was a natural evolution over the years of the trips,” Fr. Don recalls. “Slowly the growers began to block us out of their fields, in part because undercover reporters were publicizing negative stories of the farmworker life, and in part because of the adversarial relationship that arose with the coalition. They always invited us with big smiles for tours and interviews, and said, ‘We would love to have you in our fields, but our insurance company won’t permit it,’ etc.”
Fast-forward to 2009, my first trip to Immokalee. It was a huge lesson in encountering “the other”—people and a lifestyle so different from mine. Before the trip, we learned about migrant farmworkers’ struggles, from poor housing conditions to the realities shared by many who travel toward the elusive American Dream. We learned about the Fair Food Movement and how a group of farmworkers began to successfully target corporations such as McDonalds, Taco Bell and Burger King to pay a premium
on the tomatoes picked. We learned how this group of brave men and women came together to negotiate with the agricultural industry to ensure safe working conditions for those in the fields.
Then we met the farmworkers. Something about seeing the face of the “other” struck me. These people were quiet, humble, inviting. They were simply asking for changes. Solidarity was the word that captured me then and continues to define my work in Immokalee. We walk shoulder-to-shoulder with the coalition and add our voices to theirs as we continue to ask for change in how those who harvest our food are treated. This work is the definition of living a radical Gospel life: being different and changing the status quo for the betterment of brothers and sisters in the fields.
The real story is about relationships. Fr. Don recalls when 35 Duquesne students were invited to a wedding of a Mexican crew boss simply because the group was in town. “No one from Duquesne University would ever be a stranger in Immokalee,” the crew boss said.
“It was an incredible, wonderful experience, one that still fills me with wonder,” says Fr. Don, now a missionary in the Dominican Republic.
This sentiment of hospitality and a committed relationship rings true today, as students go each year to Immokalee, encounter “the other” and walk in solidarity with a people of incredible warmth and faith.