By Grayson Hester
Often, we only speak of South Florida when it relates to Miami, national elections or hurricanes. The southernmost tip of the United States sits as distantly from our minds as it does most of our churches.
This is sadly ironic because we literally could not, and do not, live without it.
Across the peninsula from the more cosmopolitan Atlantic coast lies Immokalee, a small farming community of about 20,000. While not nearly as well-known as Palm Beach or Fort Lauderdale, Immokalee is no less important. It provides the bulk of America’s winter tomato crop, thanks to its subtropical climate and to a community overlooked as its environs—migrant workers.
“Florida is not exactly the best place to be a farmworker or a migrant,” said pastor Miguel Estrada, director of Misión Peniel in Immokalee.
These workers, immigrants from Latin American countries like Mexico, Haiti and Guatemala, reside in a portion of our country famed for its vacationing but steeped in dis-ease, boasting world-renowned diversity but subject to increasingly conservative policies and outlooks toward immigrants.
“Workers just leave behind family and relatives at home,” Estrada said. “It’s a sacrifice what they are doing for the rest of their families at home in order to survive for them over there.”
It is not vanity or flippancy which motivates people to migrate thousands of miles away from their home countries. It is a necessity sparked by political instability and fanned by the suffering of loved ones.
Regrettably, what swaths of immigrants face on this side of the border is more suffering.
Those most responsible for feeding the country struggle themselves to be fed. Immokalee sits squarely in the middle of a food desert, a region in which inhabitants face limited access to healthy and affordable food.
“At the end of the day, what they keep for them is hardly enough to have one meal per day. That’s hardly what happens,” Estrada said. “And then sometimes, it’s even less than that.”
Estrada and his church partner with Cultivate Abundance to address, if not end food insecurity in Immokalee.
It is not too fine a point to say that Cultivate Abundance, in tandem with Estrada, and under the leadership of Cooperative Baptist Fellowship field personnel Rick Burnette and his wife, Ellen, invite scores of minoritized people to the banquet table.
South Florida provides a stark backdrop to Jesus’ mandate in Luke 14:12-14, for the poor and the rich, the outcast and the in-group, crowd together between the two coasts, squished by bodies of water and systems of inequality.
It would be easy to invite down from their Miami high-rises the rich and famous. Instead, Cultivate Abundance sets the table for those for whom God exercises preferential concern.
Thanks to Estrada’s shared identity and cultural background, it is done in an equitable, presence-focused way.
“Miguel Estrada is an amazing man. He came from Guatemala with his family in order to do this work in Immokalee,” Rick Burnette said. “He was called to do this work in Immokalee.”
How this work transpires would likely ring familiar to most within the CBF, manifesting as the well-worn system of food banks and distribution centers.
The food they share, however, is specific and unique.
“Misión Peniel has been finding food through local food banks, at least two in this area, bringing the food in each week and distributing it out every Friday afternoon,” Rick said. “We have a food share time from 3:30 to 6:30 on Friday.”
Because the food banks are local, the food is culturally sensitive and appropriate, nourishing the migrant workers’ souls as well as their bodies. Far from standard U.S. American fare, the meals waft of their homes, aromatically connecting them to places they have long since vacated.
It is ministry in sensory, pastoral care in texture and taste.
“When people are eating, they literally open their hearts,” Estrada said. “So when you feed them the culturally appropriate food, you are feeding, not just stomachs, but heart and souls, too. And that makes a huge difference.”
The bread Jesus broke, the ritual he instructed us to do in his remembrance, need not limit itself to one cultural expression or hegemonic liturgy. It is a eucharist communing with a universal Christ, as aptly expressed in bread as it is tortilla, in pupusa and injera, Skittles and iced tea.
Serving familiar cuisine is but one way Estrada establishes presence and trust among the Immokalee migrant worker community. Food, in and of itself, does not constitute the invitation. It is the fruit of a long-term relationship.
“He is basically the pastor of Immokalee in a lot of ways. People know him, they respect him,” Ellen said. “They come to him with their problems…Everyday of his life, he is living it for these people, this community and just sacrificial, loving relationship with them.”
This is no small feat in a town saddled by a 37% poverty rate. It is no miniscule task in a state openly hostile to much of the diversity of which the Kingdom of God is composed.
But the Latin American people who travel internationally simply to feed their own families deserve, at the very least, not to go hungry. Those who help provide hospitality to the rest of the country are entitled to hospitality in their own neighborhood.
It is to this work Estrada and the Burnettes are called; it is to this challenge they rise. And it is to that table they extend an open, hospitable invitation.
“We feel really blessed to have the opportunity to work together with Rick and Ellen,” Estrada said. “They feel exactly our need, they understood what was needed around this community, they have been open enough to learn from the community…and become part of them.”
Since this is the economy of God and all, what the CBF and Estrada and his church reap, they sow. What they dole out, they get back.
It is, not to be glib, a harvest.
“That’s the beauty we have been learning around this place and this ministry,” Estrada said, “that the more you open space on the table, the better the blessing is.”
Watch Miguel’s story:
This article first appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of fellowship! Read and share online at www.cbf.net/spring23.