A Death in the Family

The migrant workers who toil in the chicken processing plants across Mississippi are a close-knit group. Their sense of community extends to the missionaries who serve them. When Edgar Lopez died trying to get back to his family in Carthage, Mississippi, following his deportation, it left a hole in this faith-filled community that may never be filled.

Even after he had been deported to his native Guatemala, Edgar kept in touch with Fr. Odel Medina, S.T., back in Carthage, Mississippi, via WhatsApp. “He would say, ‘I’m here, Father, I’m doing okay.’ He was missing his family in Carthage, but he was trying to be involved with the local parish in Guatemala,” recalls Fr. Odel. 

A faithful Catholic, Edgar had sent money back from the States over the years to help pay for a beautiful new Church in his birthplace of Comitancillo. Now that he returned, he regularly attended Mass, evangelized and helped his fellow parishioners, just as he had in Carthage. He was doing his best under the circumstances, he told Fr. Odel during their last conversation in December 2020, but it was grueling to be away from his wife, Sonia, daughters Jennifer and Evelin, and son, Darby.

Fr. Odel had no idea that Edgar was planning to reunite with his family in Carthage, until he learned of the tragic outcome. On Jan. 22, 2021, as he was attempting to cross back into the United States, Edgar and 18 other migrants were shot and set on fire by Mexican police officers. Of the deceased, Edgar was the only one who had previously lived in the United States. He was 49 years old.

Edgar’s death shook Carthage, population 5,075, 15% of whom are migrant workers from Latin America. His death also deeply affected Fr. Odel and Trinity Missions, which serve the St. Anne’s Catholic community in Carthage. 

In migrant communities, priests and parishioners form a sacred bond that goes beyond Sunday Mass. In addition to meeting their spiritual needs, the Missionary Servant priests and Brothers help parishioners find resources they desperately require, including legal aid when necessary. “I truly believe it’s not only with our preaching that we help them,” says Fr. Odel, “but it also has to be with our feet. We and the Church are advocates for these people. They have the right to a better life.”

Trinity Missions in Carthage

Trinity Missions’ history in Carthage dates back to the 1950s. At that time the population was predominantly made up of African Americans and Native Americans who worked the rural land. The missionaries helped the residents for several years. When they appeared to be self-sufficient, the missionaries left. 

About seven years ago, Trinity Missions was asked by the Diocese of Jackson, Mississippi, to return to Carthage, which now had had added a large number of migrant workers from Central America. “The Diocese of Jackson includes 110 parishes and missions, and the diocese probably has 40 priests,” explains Fr. Michael Barth, S.T., President of Trinity Missions. “They are highly dependent on religious orders to help underserved areas in the diocese.”

Life in a Migrant Town

In the Carthage mission, the services go even further, as Trinity Missions helps the migrant residents navigate their lives in an environment where their freedom is constantly at stake. “Just driving to work or a church event can be risky,” says Fr. Michael. 

Fr. Odel has established a strong connection with the migrants who work in the chicken processing plants and attend St. Anne’s. “He is an outstanding missionary,” says Fr. Michael. “He has put himself at risk many times to help the community.” The residents rely on him for moral support, spiritual guidance and connections to a variety of amenities. And, when the worst happens, they look to him for Christlike compassion.

Over the last few decades, the availability of work and the chance of a better life have drawn migrant workers to the processing plants in Carthage and surrounding areas. The work is hard and the wages are low. Still, it affords much better opportunities than their home countries. 

Whether their actions are right or wrong, legal or illegal, is beside the point in Fr. Odel’s eyes. “These people aren’t coming because they want to do something bad,” he says. “These are our brothers and sisters. We have to open our hearts to them.”

The migrant workers who come to Carthage have two very important characteristics: a strong work ethic and a deep devotion to the Church. “They are taking jobs that nobody else wants to do,” says Fr. Odel. “They bring a lot to our economy. And they are bringing us their faith.”

They accept the arduous work at the processing plants to escape the poverty and danger in their home countries. They carve out a life for themselves and their families. They rent or buy homes, send their children to school and center their lives on their Catholic faith. 

Everyone in the community recognized Edgar for his devotion to Catholicism. He regularly attended Mass and prayer groups and evangelized to bring others closer to Christ. He shared his strong faith with his wife and children. By all accounts, the Lopez family lived a simple but happy version of the American dream.

Beneath the outward peacefulness lurked an unspoken tension. Edgar and most of the other workers at the processing plants did not have citizenship. Their American dream could be taken from them at any moment if immigration services stepped in. And that’s exactly what happened on a rainy August morning in 2019.

ICE Comes to Carthage

Edgar texted his wife to tell her that immigration officers had swarmed the processing plant. In fact, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) was in the process of raiding seven chicken plants throughout Mississippi, leading to the arrest of almost 700 people, including Edgar.  “People were calling me upset. ‘Father, my husband. Father, my wife,’” recalls Fr. Odel. 

The needs of the Carthage community were immediate and great: comfort for the family members who anxiously awaited the fate of their loved ones; financial resources for those who had now lost their family income; and pro bono legal services for those who had been arrested.

Fr. Odel admits that the issue of helping undocumented workers is “tricky,” but also obligatory. “I believe it’s in the Bible,” he says. “That’s how you enter into the kingdom of God. It’s what Jesus said.”

And so Trinity Missions got to work, requesting legal aid for the people of Carthage who had been arrested in the raid. Some were released and permitted to stay because they had lived in the United States for several years without incident. Others were immediately deported. Some are still fighting to be released from prison nearly three years after the raid.

Edgar’s situation was tenuous. He had come to the United States 23 years ago and was deported. He returned soon after. For more than 20 years, he worked in the processing plants, helped build a community and lived a quiet life. But his previous deportation was a huge strike against him and in late 2020, he was deported to Guatemala.

The faith of the Lopez family sustained them throughout this ordeal. But for Edgar, being back in Comitancillo after so long, without his wife and children, was extremely hard. “It’s a very, very poor community,” says Fr. Odel. “They don’t have the facilities that they have here. It’s a very difficult place to live.” There was the beautiful church, of course, which Edgar and so many other migrants had helped to build with their modest wages earned in the United States. But although Comitancillo was his hometown, it was not his home. That was far away in Mississippi, with Sonia, Evilin and Darby. It was at St. Anne’s Catholic Church. And, yes, it was at the chicken processing plant.

In the Shadows of Death

Last January, after the Mexican police officers massacred the group of migrants, DNA records were needed to identify Edgar’s body. His family in Carthage was notified and left deeply distraught. Fr. Odel was there for them, offering consolation, leading a Mass of remembrance for the close-knit community and eventually accompanying Edgar’s body back to Guatemala for his funeral. His death left a hole in Carthage. And it serves as a jarring reminder of what could happen to any of the migrants at any given time.

“The people in Carthage are traumatized by the ICE raids and the deportation and murder of Edgar,” says Fr. Michael. “Especially the children.”

For Sonia and the children, the pain is especially intense. At her father’s funeral in Guatemala, Evilin was inconsolable as she questioned what good could come from her father’s death. “I told her, ‘Your father, he fought to give a better life to your family,’” says Fr. Odel. “And he fulfilled that mission. Your life is now different because he sacrificed his life for you.”

The Work Continues

The incidents in 2019 didn’t slow production at the chicken processing plants. Just a few days after the raids, signs went up advertising for more workers. The work of Trinity Missions continues in Carthage as well. Fr. Odel still celebrates Mass at St. Anne’s, tracks down resources for the community and encourages migrant workers to learn how the immigration system works so they can keep themselves safe. He is in need of Spanish-speaking behavioral health professionals to help those still traumatized by the raids. And of course, he could use our ongoing prayers. 

From the tragic ending of Edgar’s life emerges a powerful example of faith that bolsters the migrant community in Carthage. “The depth of Edgar’s faith was incredible,” Fr. Michael says. “Even in prison, facing deportation, he was evangelizing. He was saying to them, ‘Stay strong. God is with you.’”

 That’s the message that will live on, in memory of Edgar Lopez.

Trinity Missions, which is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, seeks to preserve the faith for the spiritually neglected and abandoned. Their missions provide food, housing, education, sustainability, medical care and other services to people in the United States, including Puerto Rico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Honduras and Mexico. 

“Our missionaries provide a faith perspective by offering Masses and religious education,” says Fr. Michael. “Above that, they provide social types of services, such as food, clothing, housing and supplemental funding for emergencies.” Monetary donations help the missionaries meet the ongoing needs of the people they serve.

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