North Carolina mission ministry connects crab workers, hundreds of miles from home, to their faith
It is a gift that comes with strings attached. They leave their families behind for months at a time, live and work alongside the same people and find independent work during their slow periods. As Catholics, they also face the daunting task of keeping the faith in an area where few share their beliefs.
“It has been a little difficult, because the learning curve is so big,” said Luis Frias, a first-time crabber, shortly after he arrived in August. “This is the hardest thing I have ever done. It is a very fast job, and it is hard to get the rhythm. Right now, I am only observing how others do the job.”
But, Luis realizes what a financial windfall the job is for his family. Many people in his community long to find a job, but cannot. When they get one, it does not pay much money. Crab processing at Mattamuskeet Seafood, a processing plant about an hour away from Glenmary’s St. Joan of Arc mission in Washington County, N.C., can help feed a family like Luis’ for a year.
Luis’ wife worked for eight years at the plant, but now the couple has five children, and his wife is staying home. The family needs the crab income, so Luis headed north.
The work is not easy, and training is difficult to find. Crabbers stand for eight hours a day, often hunched over the table for their work. Luis had to learn on the job how to pick through the crabs and crab legs to find usable meat. An added difficulty is the clash of cultures. The workers hale from Tabasco and Senado, Mexico, and sometimes their different traditions, cultures and ways of thinking and acting make it hard to coexist.
“We are all Mexicans, but sometimes the differences among us make it difficult,” Luis said. “I wouldn’t enjoy living here. There is no family, no social life. I didn’t want to come, but I did because of the need to feed my family.”
During his first week in August, Luis was counting the days until he could leave in December, but a visit from Julian Crespo, pastoral coordinator at St. Joan of Arc, gave Luis hope.
Every year, Julian visits the crabbers within their first week of arrival. He offers them a Liturgy of the Word and Communion service to welcome them to North Carolina. The majority of the workers are Catholic, and the church service provides them a sense of peace and community, as well as a connection to their faith while they are so far away from home.
Glenmary started ministering to the crabbers about three years ago. Julian heard about the workers from his friend, Father Paul W. Brant, a Jesuit priest in the Diocese of Raleigh who met some of the crabbers in Tabasco and told him about their trek north.
Ruben Campos, a parishioner at St. Joan of Arc, is a native of Tabasco and knows some of the crabbers. He accompanies Julian many weeks to the crabber camp to help with the Communion service. The processing plant is far from any Catholic church in the area, so the St. Joan of Arc mission adopted the crabbers.
“That is what I love about Glenmary,” Julian said. “It is a religious organization committed to the most vulnerable people. They really walk the walk.”
Julian offers a service once a week in a picnic area between the trailers where the crabbers live for four to six months each year. Father Mike Kerin, former pastor of the Bertie County, N.C., mission, visited and offered Mass for several years, and Father Aaron Wessman, Washington County’s current pastor, has begun saying Mass at the camp.
The latest additions to Julian’s flock, the crabbers are by no means the farthest from his church. Julian is often on the road visiting people and providing outreach in his mission. His parishioners come from the six surrounding counties and can travel up to an hour for Mass.
But Julian is never lonely on his commute. On his hour-long trip to Mattamuskeet Seafood, Julian has many visitors. Frogs of all sizes jump in front of his car. Rain or shine, the frogs dive-bomb his car along the remote, two-lane road. On his first visit of the season, the culverts alongside the roads were nearly full of water, threatening to flood the streets.
“There are also bears and wolves out here,” Julian said. Bears frequent the abundant cornfields and forest lining his drive, and the wolves creep into people’s backyards nightly. It was possibly the worst place to be stuck in a flood, but he was on a mission.
For Julian, the first service of the year is a bit of a reunion. The regular crabbers remember Julian. They look forward to his coming and enjoy having a church service. As visitors on a work visa, they do not have the time or transportation to regularly attend Mass in Plymouth.
Others are brand new and, like Luis, often a little unsettled in rural North Carolina. The service gives them a sense of familiarity. Also, Julian comes bearing gifts. Usually, he brings clothing or nonperishable foods donated by his parishioners.
Julian’s visit is a welcome diversion. Throughout the day, the Mattamuskeet processing plant is a frenzy of activity. As ladies pick through crabs, separating the meat from the shell, men dump another bucketful of crabs onto the sterile, steel tables. They hose off the floors, pouring bleach and water on the ground to sanitize the area and to sweep away the seafood debris.
Women quickly remove the crabs’ legs and detach the crustaceans’ main outer shell. They dig out the lump crab meat and pack it in containers separate from the smaller, looser back fin meat. The legs are taken to a different room where men and women crack the legs and remove the claw meat.
The workers have a long trip to the United States. On a predetermined route, they take a bus from Tabasco to Monterey, Mexico, followed by a three-day layover in Monterey and another two to three days traveling to North Carolina. After that, they spring into action, working nonstop depending on the volume of seafood.
While the people cleaning are paid by the hour, the “pickers” are paid by the pound, which can be an overwhelming task for newbies like Luis.
This year, the volume of crabs was down. When it is busy and crabs are abundant, the crabbers can work seven days a week. When it is slow, they work three days per week, sometimes four if there are oysters to process.
Many local residents work in logging, agriculture or on an egg farm. Ruben Campos, a St. Joan of Arc parishioner and Tabasco, Mexico, native, works in a cotton mill, picking through the fibers to separate the trash from the usable cotton. When the crabbers cannot work at Mattamuskeet, they help in the fields, on farms or doing any other job to stockpile their savings.
At night, the camp is quiet. The crabbers hole up in their trailers, cooking and resting for another hectic day. The church service breaks the monotony.
Typically, Julian commands a crowd of 25 crabbers, most of whom have cooked a feast for after the service. But on Julian’s first visit in 2017, the group was feeling effects from Hurricane Harvey, which ravished Texas. The storm dumped rain on coastal North Carolina for days.
A group of 10 gathered around 6 p.m., huddled together in the dark, damp picnic shelter waiting for Communion. They read by the light of a cell phone screen, but they were unfazed by the weather. They needed Christ that day.
After Julian gave a reflection on the readings, the group began to share what the readings meant to them. Crying, one lady said she was missing her daughter’s quinceañera — a coming-of-age celebration for young Hispanic women on their 15th birthday. It is a major event for the family.
Another woman shared that while she was in North Carolina, two of her relatives were killed back home. It had been a rough day for both of them, but they say their sacrifice is worth it. They are providing a better life for their families back home.
For Luis, the Communion service was a chance to connect with Ruben and Julian and an opportunity to get away. The processing plant announced that the crabbers would be off the next day, so Ruben invited Luis to join him at the cotton plant.
He jumped at the opportunity and noticeably perked up on his ride to Ruben’s, talking about his children and swapping stories about hometown festivals and how his native dishes differed from Ruben’s and Julian’s. The service helped him realize the blessing of being able to work to provide for his family.
“It is a great opportunity for me and my family,” Luis said. “I will be back next year.”
This story by Molly Williamson first appeared in the Winter 2017 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.