Fr. Mike O’Brien doesn’t speak Spanish, though he still speaks English with the Irish brogue of his homeland.
However, that didn’t stop the priest from stepping up to the plate to help his parish after hundreds of people in the surrounding area, including many of his Latino parishioners, were arrested during U.S. Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) raids at seven local food processing plants in early August.
“It was a big shock for us. We weren't prepared, so it's hard,” O’Brien told CNA. “We're just winging it.”
Federal authorities told Fox News that investigations would be made into the food processing plants where the raids took place as well, to determine whether the owners knowingly hired undocumented workers.
O’Brien said he estimates that about 80% of the Latino families at his parish alone were affected by the raids, with one or more family members detained.
With help from outside agencies and lawyers in the days following the raids, O’Brien and his small, part-time volunteer staff at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Canton, Mississippi set up a crisis management center, where they are now helping 85 affected families.
“We're not just trying to serve Catholic families, but everybody who was affected by the raid,” he said. “Of course they lost jobs, they lost income... they're trying to pay their rent for their for homes and utility bills and all that kind of thing.”
Besides financial assistance, affected families need help with meals, legal assistance, psychological counseling, childcare and other services. They need to keep their phone bills paid, so that they can be contacted by the lawyers working on their cases.
O’Brien said he has been amazed by the “tremendous work” done by lawyers and counselors who came from throughout the country to offer their help. One group of lawyers from Colorado shut down their main office for a week and set up shop at the parish in Mississippi, O’Brien said, offering pro bono legal counsel to anyone who needed it.
He is also proud of the generosity of the rest of his parishioners, he said, noting that his parish is made up of a diverse group of Latino and non-Latino people.
“They’ve been very supportive, I must say. I'm very pleased with that. I'm very happy with that,” Father said.
Immediately after the raids, parishioners set up a fun event for the affected children after the Spanish Mass the following Sunday to try to lift their spirits, O’Brien said. They have also provided families with meals and childcare while the adults meet with lawyers in the evenings.
O’Brien said the parish center has also been helped by Catholic Charities and by other Christian churches in the area. Other Catholic parishes in the region of the raids have set up similar crisis management centers, he added.
Father said from the outset, he wanted his parish to put politics aside and help out the families affected by the raids.
“I didn't give them (the parishioners) too much of a choice, you know, either,” O’Brien said with a bit of a laugh. “I let the people know in no uncertain terms...these are my parishioners, and my parishioners are in trouble. Many of them are in jail, and this is a major crisis.”
O’Brien said he’s been calling it the parish’s own Hurricane Katrina. In August 2005, Katrina devastated parts of Louisiana and Florida, sending people whose homes had been damaged or destroyed flooding into Mississippi.
“The whole state was traumatized by that,” O’Brien said, “and this, that's how I'm feeling. We're right in the middle of Katrina, you know, people’s lives have been turned upside down and they're in great distress and greatly struggling to respond.”
Right now, O’Brien said, he and the crisis management team and lawyers are working to get the detained workers out on bail before their immigration hearings, so that they can be with their families in the meantime.
The priest said it was “shocking” to talk with another crisis management group in Iowa that helped about 35 families after a similar ICE raid. The group told O’Brien that it took more than $350,000 and more than a year to finish the work of helping families recover.
“So that's kind of shocking,” O’Brien said. “I thought if we got $20,000 or $50,000 we'd be in great shape.”
He added that he’s “purposely” stayed away from any political talk about the raids, and has focused on helping the families and parishioners in his care.
“What I need right now is not to talk about any political party,” he said. “I'm trying to keep my parish united.”
“And you know, there are two sides to the argument, and neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have solved it. Nobody's been able to solve it. Everybody is talking around it and sometimes it’s made into political football, and they play to their base and nothing gets done, except talk.”
But despite the difficulties, O’Brien said he believes he will look back on this time in five or ten years as one of the “highlights of my life as a priest.”
“I must say, in fairness, it's been an awesome experience, spiritually for me,” he said.
“I've seen the Holy Spirit like I've never seen the Holy Spirit, you know? Just things falling into place, events happening. I found myself making very fast decisions with very little thought...but that’s because I had to do it. That's just it. You have to jump in,” he said.
“I've seen the hand of God all over the place,” he said, including in the Gospel reading the Sunday after the raids.
“In the Scriptures the Sunday after it happened, oh my gosh. It was very powerful - Abraham leaving his home place, called by God to go out into the desert and to go to a new land and living in tents and depending on God and trusting in God.”
“And God could take care of them,” he said. “So the word of God came to life big time.”