By Grayson Hester
It’s no secret to any American in any corner of this country that we’re enduring a seemingly endless housing crisis. Rent, from coast to coast, rises like sea levels while wages stagnate.
This presents a problem to almost everyone, except for those rich enough to be insulated with their money. To the migrant workers of places like Immokalee, Fla., it poses an existential threat.
Underpaid and overworked, these workers, immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico, Haiti and so on, provide the United States with the bulk of its winter tomato crop yet are denied a piece of the abundance they help harvest.
Those who flee their native countries often have a hard time finding housing, let alone a place to call home.
The skyrocketing cost of living in Florida, which recently claimed the title of the country’s most expensive place to live, impacts migrant workers painfully.
“Here in Immokalee, in order to rent, sometimes three or four families have to live in a trailer,” Felipa Jarquin, a volunteer with Misión Peniel, said. “Sometimes a family has only one room to live in.”
Misión Peniel, the host partner of CBF-affiliated Cultivate Abundance, exists to serve the migrant worker community of Immokalee by providing them culturally appropriate food and other services.
Despite working long hours and providing an essential service, these workers are exploited by many agricultural corporations that provide meager pay and nonexistent benefits.
It is not that they are a willing workforce; they are a minority with no options.
Although Jesus exhibits a preferential option for folks like Jarquin and immigrant communities, it is through organizations like Cultivate Abundance that this option is made manifest and given legs.
“I have seen that Misión Peniel and the garden have helped people like that with rent, or, like now that there is the pandemic, they have helped when someone comes out infected,” she said. “They have helped them with their rent.”
The lives of immigrants already exist on a knife’s edge, made precarious by systems and politics that would rather demonize them than welcome them into community. But in places like South Florida, routinely threatened by hurricanes, this precariousness deteriorates into outright danger.
All it takes is a particularly galeful wind gust or violent water surge to completely upend a life.
All it takes is an organization committed to doing God’s work to put the pieces back together.
“When Hurricane Irma happened, they helped me at that time. I was pregnant with my daughter Magali, and she was born a few days later, and they helped me with the expenses we had, we paid for the hotel,” she said. “Because we left from here, from Immokalee, and they helped me with diapers, they gave me a crib, they gave me clothes for my daughter. And they also gave me things for my son, José Luis.”
Extraordinary as her story may sound, it is part and parcel of the work Misión Peniel and Cultivate Abundance, co-founded by CBF field personnel Ellen and Rick Burnette, do every day.
Through gardening, a food pantry and other services, these partner organizations aid in the survival of a community many of us would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.
“I’m just grateful to be able to be in league with gardeners, whether it’s Immokalee gardeners or Naples gardeners or Atlanta gardeners,” Burnette said.
True to the org’s name, they don’t exist merely to perpetuate survival, noble a goal as that may be. They exist to extend to people the tangible expression of Jesus’s mandate to offer life and life abundant.
Capitalist and profit-driven systems intentionally deprive people of the things they need to thrive. God’s economy, however, knows no such ends.
“We come together and we do what we do so that others have more,” Burnette said. “That’s the abundance. That’s God’s economy.”
Once these material needs are met, true community – a key ingredient to flourishing – can begin to grow. Even in – or especially in – Immokalee, where 37% of its residents live under the poverty line, this community is perpetually in surplus.
“I have felt God’s love in this community,” Jarquin said. “I’ve been blessed by God, by all the people, because with anything they help you.”
A place at the table looks like this. While eating alone certainly has its benefits, it is when we dine together, when we break bread in tandem and laugh in symphony, that we truly begin to understand the holy magic of the table.
It’s a place to call home; it’s a house to live in. It’s a meal to share; it’s food for the soul.
It’s what Jarquin and migrant peoples all over the world are entitled to. Short as many of them may be on financial wealth, they are rich in fellowship, teeming with mirth and support.
It is this table that we, the relatively privileged of this world, are called to set. It is to this table we are tasked with extending an invitation. It is at this table we will find something akin to the Kin-dom of Heaven. “A place at the table, meaning we would have what’s needed to live with the family. To have what is necessary…the food to live together,” Jarquin said. “I feel grateful because this is a beautiful community to be in.”