CANTON – Wednesday, Aug. 7, was hot, humid, and the first day of school for the children of Canton.
A father dropped his child off late; the school year already getting off to a rocky start. His job at Peco Foods always came second to his family. Little did he know that his child’s tardiness was the reason he narrowly escaped being picked up by ICE in raids that took place as he drove his child to school.
His wife wasn’t as lucky.
For this father and many other undocumented Hispanic employees at Peco Foods, this day was just the beginning.
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The raids rocked the Hispanic community of Canton, many of them members of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. Around 120 individual parishioners of Sacred Heart were affected by the raids, and it is estimated that about 80 percent of those detained belong to the church.
“It’s like our Katrina,” said Fr. Mike O’Brien, the pastor of Sacred Heart.
In the immediate aftermath, there was only chaos. Family members of those detained and volunteers flocked to the church. O’Brien, and Blanca Peralta, the Hispanic minister, opened the parish to serve as a crisis center.
As in every crisis, confusion and fear ran rampant.
Affected families were unsure of how to find their family members and what would happen next. The questions piled up.
“What can I do? What can I expect? What’s in my future? Does this mean we’re all going to get deported?”
There was a huge need for legal assistance, so legal services set up base in the church to answer any questions the affected families had and help them plan their next steps.
Alongside legal advice, the community banded together to supply the families with the necessities such as groceries, diapers, hygiene products, and, of course, school supplies. Funds were raised to pay legal teams assisting the families.
The relief extended from Sacred Heart to the rest of the Catholic Diocese of Jackson, and beyond.
“In times like this, we tend to forget our differences and come together to help our fellow human beings,” said Patti Greene, a volunteer.
Three months after the raids, the struggle is still very much ongoing.
“As a new tragedy might strike, people tend to forget. The truth is, this is going to be a long process, a couple years at least,” Greene said.
The current focus of Sacred Heart’s relief effort is paying rent and utility bills. Many affected by the raid are unable to work, and without their salary, staying afloat is very difficult for affected families.
The Sacred Heart food pantry hands out boxes of standard items every week and different groups in the community have volunteered to provide meals three days a week.
The church also hosted the occasional art therapy group. Anna Scott, a Spanish teacher at St. Joe and a volunteer at Sacred Heart, has attended one of the sessions as a translator. The sessions are mainly for teenagers to work out their emotions about the raids through art, something many of them enjoy.
“One kid drew a bird, and when the therapist asked him why he chose to draw a bird it was because he wanted to go anywhere without borders to stop him,” Scott said.
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Over the past few weeks, the administration building at St. Joseph Catholic School has become a makeshift food pantry. Rice, sugar, cereal, vegetable oil, beans, and Maseca piled at the foot of the St. Joseph statue in the Administration Building demonstrated the outpouring of support from St. Joe students, faculty, and parents.
Since the ICE raids, the Catholic community has been determined to assist people in need, and St. Joseph Catholic school is no exception.
Becky Adkins organized the food drive as a way for the school community to make a difference. Sacred Heart’s food pantry is always in need of restocking, and St. Joe took on that task.
“The coordinator of the food pantry was overwhelmed when we came in with two full carloads [of food items],” Adkins said.
The numbers are vague, but the drive was a success. Seventh and 10th-grade students brought the most food items, although every grade contributed significantly.
Faculty and staff also played an instrumental part in the relief. Many teachers brought in food items, and others offered extra credit to the students who did.
Matthew 25:35-36 says, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.”
This message is at the heart of Catholic service, and it is through simple acts like the food drive that the St. Joe community lives out the faith.
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Two days before Halloween, there was a definite chill in the air. The parking lot of Sacred Heart Church was just beginning to collect browning leaves. Mississippi summers don’t die easily, but fall was certainly on the horizon.
The brick church loomed over the parking lot, perpendicular to the more humble parish hall. Inside, the parish hall was quiet but lively. The hall smelled how older buildings do when they’ve been cared for meticulously, like lemon soap with an underlying earthiness.
Aside the door to the gym, a flyer hung that said “La Noche de Brujas,” or “The Night of Witches” — what Americans call Halloween. Inside the gym, children ran about while their mothers crafted beautiful paper flowers.
There is something touching about the normalcy of that Tuesday afternoon. The healing process may take years and years. Life may never be truly “normal” again for these families, but they press on with the support of their community.