MISSION TRIP A group of seminarians from the Diocese reached out with a mission trip to the Low Desert to pick lemons alongside farm workers. The trip was intended to give the seminarians a way to live out their faith with concrete action.
By Anneliese Esparza
Miles east of the urban heart of the Inland Empire lies Mecca, a small agricultural community not far from the north shore of the Salton Sea. A group of seminarians from the Diocese traveled to this remote community last month to put their faith into action, picking lemons alongside the agricultural laborers who work hard every day to put food on our tables.
The mission trip was planned by Father Javier Gonzalez-Cabrera, who took on the role of Director of Pastoral Formation at the St. Junipero Serra House of Formation this past summer. It’s one way that Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera is accomplishing his goal to encourage the seminarians (and everyone, in fact) to become what he calls an “active missionary disciple.”
“Our faith has two dimensions. One is what is called the fundamental theology, which is the knowledge, the substance of our faith. It’s good to know that ... but there is also the other dimension, the living experience of our faith,” said Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera.
There is often a gap or a disconnect between what we teach and believe as Catholics and how we put it into practice in concrete ways, he says. “By doing these simple things [like working in the fields], we come to eliminate that gap,” he said.
“That means we get a little tired,” he said with a laugh, “but we also enjoy it very much.”
The seminarians were certainly in high spirits as they reached high and low to pick lemons in the sunny October morning. Prickly branches and 80° weather didn’t stop them from joking, chatting, laughing and loudly singing Spanish songs in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Minh Hoang, who entered the seminary in August, said he found the experience “very exciting and very humbling.”
“I feel like humbleness is very necessary as a priest and of course, I’m trying to be a priest in the future. I think this is good practice ... This is God’s creation, all these lemon trees. I’m just thankful to be able to pick them,” said Hoang.
After several hours of hard, sweaty work in the hot sun, the group took a break for lunch, enjoying homemade burritos and cold drinks that the farm workers had brought to share. In the afternoon, they ministered in a different way, by making home visits to local families.
Second-year seminarian Christopher Rodriguez said that it was “amazing” to work with the people in the lemon groves. “It’s one thing to read the Gospel ... it’s another thing to live out the Gospel in yourself in your own ministry,” he said.
“By us being here, and later when we visit the families as well, we’re the face of Christ. We’re the ones who will be there to show the love of Christ, whether they know him or not. I think it’s a great opportunity for all us seminarians ... it’s not just all about studies, although that plays a big part, but it’s a balance between that and practical, real-life ministry,” said Rodriguez.
“This is what it means to truly be a servant of Christ,” he added.
The seminarians and Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera were also accompanied by Fr. Emmanuel Ukaegbu-Onuoha, Serra House’s Director of Academic Formation, who found the experience enriching as well. “For me to share this moment with them is what I think Pope Francis is talking about, formation in missionary discipleship just by bearing witness. If I celebrate Mass and just talk to them in the classroom, yeah, maybe they will still believe, but it’s a stronger example if they see me doing it with them,” he said.
As for the agricultural workers, they were glad to have the seminarians join them in their labor. “For us that work here in the fields, it’s not easy ... we are often cold or hot; sometimes it rains and we get wet; there are thorns ... it’s difficult,” said the supervisor, a woman named Hilda Elias Clemente, speaking in Spanish. Elias Clemente has been working in the fields for about 20 years, and she is an immigrant from Mexico, like most other agricultural workers in California. “I am excited and grateful that [the seminarians] came,” she said.
Fr. Gonzalez-Cabrera plans to begin taking the seminarians on mission trips at least twice a year, perhaps returning to the fields or perhaps finding some other way to serve God’s people in a concrete way.