Field Hand

Sister Ann Kendrick, S.N.D. Sister Ann Kendrick, SND

Tara Dix

AT THIS YEAR'S MAY 1 MARCH in support of immigrants' rights in Orlando, Florida—the largest demonstration in the city's history—a group of undocumented workers, recently arrived from Oaxaca, Mexico, approached Sister Ann Kendrick, one of the march's organizers. Each held a couple of crumpled dollar bills in his hands, and in Spanish they offered their thanks to Kendrick and gave their few dollars for her ministry.

Kendrick, cofounder of the Office for Farmworker Ministry in Apopka, Florida, recalls it as one of the times she has realized that all her years of formal theological education can never compare to the knowledge of God she has gained by being part of this community of impoverished, powerless immigrants. "They have evangelized me," she says. "They have to trust in God's bounty because they have nothing else."

And sometimes even God's bounty seems in jeopardy. In the weeks leading up to the rallies, government crackdowns on undocumented immigrants increased. When rumors spread that agents might be targeting church services, local parishes reported significantly lower attendance at Mass.

"This is a broken system, and it's breaking people," Kendrick says of U.S. policy on immigration. "There is no current track for poor immigrants to come to this country legally and work." To obtain legal entry, one has to have money or an immediate relative who is a citizen or permanent resident. That means countless desperate people will risk crossing the U.S. border illegally for the chance at a better life.

Kendrick's path to ministry in the farmworker community was part chance and part providence. She was a sophomore in college when John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Second Vatican Council was turning Catholicism upside down, and she struggled with all the big questions of God, justice, and her experience of the sacred in the world. She was impressed by the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the founders of Trinity University, an all-women's school in Washington, D.C., where she majored in Spanish. "They inspired us to be leaders in the world," she says, and consequently she answered a call to a vocation in the congregation.

Kendrick was teaching Latin American literature at the University of Maryland when she decided to make a career change, going to Spanish Harlem in New York and joining the Summer in the City program run by Msgr. Robert Fox. Then she got notice from her provincial that Bishop William Borders of Orlando was looking for a few good sisters to come and start a program for immigrants.

To Kendrick, a native of upstate New York, the rural South didn't sound too appealing, and she gave the idea a firm "I don't think so." But the photos she had seen and the stories of the people there haunted her, and in 1971 she and three other Sisters of Notre Dame were on their way to Apopka to "see how it goes." But as a local man told her shortly after she arrived, "Once you get this sand in your shoes, you ain't never gonna leave it." He was right.

"In my 20s I had an arrogant notion that I could create radical change that would make everything better," she says. But years on the job have taught her humility and patience.

Through Kendrick's office, the diocese offers adult education classes in English, tutoring for children, health care, spiritual and sacramental services, parenting classes, counseling, financial services, and housing assistance. While the office advocates for immigrant rights in local, state, and federal forums, its primary goal is to teach immigrants how to speak for themselves. They assisted community members in establishing their own Farmworker Association of Florida.

Kendrick is proud that through her ministry immigrants have raised their voices. In community meetings and in marches they are starting to be heard, Kendrick says.

"Just that they can stand up and say their names, that someone is listening to them, is an incredible moment for them. That energy is priceless. That is a sacred moment, and it's worth my life to protect it."

Tara K. Dix is a freelance writer in Chicago. This article appeared in the July 2006 (Volume 71, Number 7; page 46) issue of U.S. Catholic.

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