A French Insurance executive, a member of the German Bundestag and a Belgian M. D. all decided to visit the Lake Okeechobee area one weekend some 35 years ago. They were visiting the United States for the first time and enrolled in a Professional English training program at Florida International University. I had the honor of presenting the program to them and during that process they became acquainted with each other. Each had also identified themselves as Christians. Rather excited about finally visiting the U. S., they were impressed with the campus and No. Miami Beach area. The beaches were beautiful, the restaurants excellent, nightlife abundant, and the standard of living rather high. Look at the map of Florida, they exclaimed in the middle of a conversation. There is a giant lake in the middle of the state. Wow, this must be a wonderful area - less crowded, more rural, bustling with Florida nature, full of alligators, not cars. Let’s go there during our time off. I remained quiet.
Packed and ready to go on Friday afternoon, they returned Monday morning for classes – mouths dropped! How could this be? This is the United States? I have never seen poverty like this in my life! - mentioned the German. Nothing beautiful about it! - said the Frenchman. This is nothing of what is presented to us when we hear of the United States! - exclaimed the Belgian. The word squalor was used often. Yes, I responded. It is an area totally ignored by the rest of us in So FL. I thought it could be an educational trip for you, so I said nothing.
Pahokee, Belle Glade, and Immokolee had the one-time distinction of being labeled the poorest communities in the United States. Home to predominantly migrant farm workers from Mexico, Jamaica, and Haiti, these communities struggle to barely survive. Yet, they are only 40 miles from the richest community in America, the island of Palm Beach, FL.; a straight shot down Southern Blvd. from the Atlantic Ocean. The majority of its residents live in trailers and shacks in the interior of town and along the miles and miles of sugar fields.
Worlds apart from the rather upscale communities of the nearby Palm Beaches, St. Mary’s Catholic Church is home to a historic 16th Century Russian Icon known as ‘Our Lady of Bethlehem.’ Previously owned by the 1st Czar of Russia and the Romanov family, this Icon of Jesus and Mary was prayed before many a Russian peasant for nearly 500 years. After the 1917 Communist Revolution it was mysteriously transported to the United States and landed in the possession of the Edward Kahn family of Palm Beach, FL. A story in itself. Upon his death, this wealthy Jewish philanthropist decided to donate the Icon to St. Mary’s Church along with $2 million, saying that the Icon must be in the hands of the poor to serve the poor.
Pahokee was a one-time agricultural community of Irish settlers from the north. It is home to country singing star Mel Tillis. Today the newly constructed church of St. Mary’s serves Pahokee’s poor migrant farm worker families with the ‘Our Lady of Bethlehem’ Icon prominantly displayed. It is a sight to behold.
St. Philip Benizi Catholic Church also had a distinction. It is located in the town of Belle Glade, once labeled as the AIDS capital of America. It is also located directly across the street from the one-time community hospital where so many AIDS patients resided. So overwhelmed by this catastrophe, upon the subsiding of this epidemic, Palm Beach County decided to close the hospital in Belle Glade and rebuild approximately 2 miles to the north. The majority of the Haitian and Afro American community it serves are migrant farm workers who also survive through the generous contributions of St. Vincent de Paul and other Catholic charities such as the Knights of Columbus throughout South Florida.
An acquaintance and former heavy weight professional boxer once had the unfortunate experience of having a flat tire while driving through one evening. Five toughs approached him, beat him up and robbed him of all his money. Actually, not far from the church. Don’t drive in Belle Glade at night.
Our Lady of Guadelupe Parish in Immokolee is located another 40 miles west. Clearly it is the largest church in the area, again predominantly poor migrant farm workers. All masses are in Spanish or Haitian Creole. When you visit, you know you are not in the United States but rather a transplanted rural community from the central areas of Mexico. Its prime characteristic, not so much a parish of immigrants but rather of an elaborate social services system of Catholic Charities offering the basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, household items, stability and education. To say this is an impoverished community is no exaggeration.
A resident confided in me some of the unfortunate activities forced upon the local police department. Once after a murderous altercation, the local government had the responsibility of returning the deceased [an illegal] back to Mexico. Occasionally the locals get into a little clamor after some beers at the cantina or home parties in their dilapidated trailers. Tempers flare, punches thrown, gunshots fired. People die. Mostly illegals with little information about them, the city has the responsibility to take care of the deceased. This is Immokalee! With no funds in the city government and with no information coming forth about them from the local population, how are they to return the body to Mexico? Who is he, where to in Mexico, and who has the money to do so? So, occasionally the local gator population will have to take care of it. Yes, that’s right, they dump the body deep into the Everglades - problem solved.
For sure, these communities and churches are worlds apart and with a different mission from the neighboring rat race and modernistic, traffic dominated cities of Miami, Naples, Fort Lauderdale and W. Palm Beach. Bougie the young people say. You might want to get away and visit for a weekend but don’t forget to bring your fishing pole, bring your gun, maybe bring your bourbon and six pack. Definitely your rosary. But I wouldn’t tent out and sleeping bag it. Swarms of grasshoppers and sundry other insects during the summer months notwithstanding, with perhaps an occasional bear, panther and /or boa or two. Yes, the Catholic Church struggles in the Everglades.