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Clergy couple offers hope to migrants


1:00 P.M. EST Oct. 15, 2010 | TULARE COUNTY, Calif. (UMNS)

In northern California, grape pickers work from sunup to sundown during the harvest. Temperatures can exceed 100 degrees. When they are not working in the vineyard, they labor in the vegetable field. Work is arduous, and living conditions are poor.

Marcelo and Corazón Escarzaga, both ordained in Mexico, find their mission in rural churches near the vineyards. They minister in Tulare County, the poorest in California.

“It is a very rich experience for any pastor who wants to contextualize it, who wants to work with the field workers and pass through this experience,” says Corazón.

The California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference invited Marcelo and Corazón to plant churches in the Fresno District in California’s central valleys. In Mexico, Marcelo worked in urban churches. The parents of four young children never imagined serving in the field, but they responded to God’s call.

Marcelo is pastor of the Church in Lindsay, and Corazón directs a ministry in Visalia. They have a third ministry in the city of Porterville. They invite local people to share food and to pray together. The pastors encourage their flock to save money for less prosperous times.

The workers once asked Marcelo, “What kind of work do you do?” When he replied that he was a pastor, the workers replied, “This is not really a job.”

From pruning to renewal

Marcelo decided to work in the field for a while. The workers picked him up at 4 a.m. The first day he brought sunscreen, sunglasses and a sandwich. Twelve hours later, he returned home, exhausted. He realized the scope of the workers’ labor.

Corazón Escarzaga leads worship in California. Northern California ministry reaches out to migrant workers in the area. UMNS photos by Francisco M. Litardo.
Corazón Escarzaga leads worship in California. Northern California ministry reaches out to migrant workers in
the area. UMNS photos by Francisco M. Litardo.
View in Photo Gallery

Marcelo also worked on “the ring.” This is a process where workers cut part of the trunk of the vine for the plant to retain nutrients. The workers quickly outpaced Marcelo.

“I always ask them if they have a need and pray with them.” Marcelo says. He also runs along the vineyards carrying cold water bottles to distribute, talks with them and invites them to visit the church.

“During the winter, it seems, the vines are dead. But no; they are alive,” Corazón says. "It is the time where there should be a process of pruning, a time to clean. A time where all seems dead, nothing is happening, but the vine is alive.”

There is great joy,” she adds, when the harvest comes. All work as a team. One cuts, another pushes the wheelbarrow and others pack. She recalls Jesus’ words in the Gospel of John (15:5), “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Corazón likes to see the hands of women in the field. Although small and calloused, they “are strong hands where you can see the earth. When you see the hands of these women, you realize how hard they labor.”

The Escarzagas are a gift for the fieldworkers. On Thursdays, the couple always has plates of food for the workers.

‘You’re one of us’

What most concerns the couple is domestic violence and lack of family support. Most migrant workers come from poor communities in Mexico and have little education. They do not come to study but to work in the fields. They aspire to improve their lives as farmers in the United States. Many do not know how to read or write.

Mothers must leave their children in the hands of strangers. They can spend a little time with their children and provide basic food. The community of faith in Lindsay offers a food bank that distributes fruit, rice, noodles, oil and other necessities.

In Visalia, people are more educated and prepared for other types of work. Many enjoy the benefits of a second and third generation as children of immigrants. They no longer work in the field. College is on their radar. Many are legal U.S. citizens, as opposed to the Lindsay ministry where many are undocumented.

A migrant worker prunes grapevines in Poplar, Calif.
A migrant worker prunes grapevines in Poplar, Calif.
View in Photo Gallery

The Porterville church offers Sunday school and two types of services. The entire Escarzaga family works with the ministry.

Marcelo, ordained in Mexico, is pursuing a master of divinity degree at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif. Marcelo and Corazón would like to continue the candidacy process in The United Methodist Church and become pastors in full connection.

The Escarzagas believe God has called them to work in the fields of California.

When Marcelo picked grapes with the workers, they were impressed.

"Pastor, now you're one of us,” they told him.

*Bachus is director of Spanish Resource Ministries at United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Amanda Bachus, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5113 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

UMTV: Hispanic Clergy Migrant Ministry

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