Mississippi Pastor, Parish to Receive 2020 Klingler Award
On a quiet Thursday afternoon last August 7, the area around Canton, Mississippi was surprised by a massive arrest of 680 undocumented workers at the Peco Foods poultry plant. The impact on the community was dramatic. Many were Catholics, 120 of them members of Sacred Heart Catholic parish in Canton.
Fr. Michael O’Brien, the pastor of Sacred Heart, first served at the parish as a young priest in the 80’s, at which time there were no Latinos in the congregation. Today they make up the great majority of the parish’s 450 members. “Most these days are from Guatemala,” explains Fr. O’Brien, because of the terrible economic and human rights situation in the poorest country in Central America. He believes many of the undocumented from Central America were “probably” recruited by area food processing plants.
Fr. Mike, as most call him, had returned to the parish as his last assignment before retirement, and imagined a quiet last assignment. He set about slowly developing a group of parish leaders over his first five years. Then came the raid. The first anybody knew were the sound of helicopters overhead and police sirens everywhere. The federal ICE arrested over 100 people that day, most of them parishioners at Sacred Heart. Those taken included mothers and fathers of children, sometimes both of them, while their children were at school. Almost immediately, people began to arrive at the parish crying and asking for help.
“Those taken were kept all day and into the night,” said Fr. Mike, but eventually ICE allowed about 40% of those arrested to go home, but if there were two parents, only one was released. Ultimately, many of those detained were taken as far away as Louisiana and Natchez, Mississippi, hundreds of miles away from their families. Some have already been deported, others are still awaiting their deportation hearings.
Fr. Mike was serving in Jackson when Hurricane Katrina struck, and ministered to many of the displaced “internal refugees” who fled New Orleans. Like then, with no immediate assistance coming, “we had to start from scratch,” he remembered. One of the first groups to reach out were union organizers, who’d experienced these raids elsewhere many times, and he decided to turn over the parish center to them as a crisis center. That generated some controversy among a few Anglo members who didn’t like unions. But Father was adamant that the parish would put their members first and take what help they could get.
Offers of financial help started to come in, and before long the crisis team was able to pay 80% of families’ rent and utilities for 3 months. During that time, they also gave food baskets every week. Later, the local Episcopalians became heavily involved, as did a Presbyterian lawyer who Father said provided invaluable pro bono legal services and advice. Today, because of Covid-19, they are still mailing out checks to families in need for 50% of rent and $100/month for food.
One of the many volunteers who showed up to offer their help was Br. Diego Diaz, SCJ. The parish is a long way from Nesbit, where he lives and ministers, but he started making the trip and told Fr. Mike that he wanted to help in whatever way was needed. Fr. O’Brien sang his praises: “He didn’t come in with his own ideas, he really listened to what the needs were, and has been so creative and helpful.”
A couple of months ago, Br. Diego returned the praise, nominating the parish for the Klingler Award. In his letter of recommendation, he wrote, “Fr. Michael told me that the city looked like a city at war that afternoon. He and (Pastoral Minister) Blanca Peralta tried to sustain the people who arrived. Many families were torn apart. The mass detention affected children, youth and adults. The role of the parish was very important in coordinating help, supporting people, and following cases. Food pantries, financial assistance and counseling were organized”
Br. Diego concluded, “Undoubtedly, Canton Sagrado Corazon is a church that came out of the sacristy. Fr. Michael opened the doors and was with his suffering people offering love and compassion. I was only a witness of what God in those people did through Fr Michael and Blanca.”
Br. Diego also supplied us with this Associated Press article about the raids and the response of local churches, including a children’s protest organized by Sacred Heart. The story points out that a number of churches are “going beyond comfort and material aid, with their response flaring into political opposition. The state’s Catholic, Episcopal, United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran bishops denounced the raids in a joint statement two days after the raid. “We are called … to speak the truth. And the truth is, this is not right,” said Bishop Brian Seage of the Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi at a news conference one day after the raids.
Because of their ongoing and comprehensive response to this humanitarian crisis and the policies that led to it, the Justice, Peace and Reconciliation Commission is pleased and proud to name Fr. Mike O’Brien and Sacred Heart Parish of Canton, MS as co-recipients of this year’s Johnny Klingler, SCJ, Social Action Award, on behalf of the U.S. Province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart.
To read about their co-recipient, Frank Wittouck, SCJ, click here.
As of this writing, plans are for Fr. Frank and Fr. Mike to receive their awards in the mail, and then join us virtually for a brief program on September 18 as part of the U.S. Province Jubilee Celebrations. We will update this post as further details are available.