Immokalee, Florida is only 30 miles from some of the toniest resorts on the Gulf Coast, but it might as well be in a developing nation far away. There, thousands of people who pick Immokalee’s winter tomatoes live in rotting shacks and fill their 32-pound buckets of tomatoes in horrid conditions.
It is here that Jimmy Menkhaus, Ph.D. goes to see the face of God.
Menkhaus, assistant professor of theology, has brought Gannon University students to Immokalee through the Gannon: Inspired Faculty-led Travel (GIFT) program for the past two years to serve and learn about economic inequality, social justice and human dignity.
The ten students who have accompanied him on each of the trips work at one of the area’s service sites in the morning, spend the afternoon with Immokalee’s children and listen to speakers who help them put the experience into a social, cultural and economic context in the evening. It’s not as grueling as carrying 125 32-pound buckets of green tomatoes in 95-degree heat, but it’s not a typical spring break in Florida, either. It’s not for everybody. So how does Menkhaus attract students for the trip?
“In my Moral Responsibility class I do one lesson on Immokalee, and I ask if anyone is interested in going,” he explained. “I was lucky to have 10 excellent students who were up to the challenge and who were transformed by the experience.”
Menkhaus himself has been transformed. “Immokalee means ‘My Home’ in Seminole, and every time I go I feel like it’s my home,” he said. “The generosity and care of the people we encounter makes you feel at home, but the heartbreaking reality of the place is just below the surface.”
“It’s a real paradox,” he said. “The average people, many of whom are undocumented and who are trying to raise money to send home, have risked their lives for their families. People want to share their stories, and they don’t want handouts. All they want is for us to tell their story when we go home.”
“The more we can bring the reality of the world to students … the more they’ll be inspired to challenge that notion of the globalization of indifference.”
Menkhaus does just that, using Immokalee in his ethics class to teach about what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference.” The message of the first Jesuit Pope resonates deeply with Menkhaus, who had a thoroughly Jesuit education at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School and at John Carroll University in Cleveland.
When asked why he goes to Immokalee, Menkhaus quoted another Jesuit, the Rev. Peter Hans Kolvenbach: “When the heart is touched by direct experience, the mind may be challenged to change.”
“A Catholic education seeks to create an environment that touches the heart,” Menkhaus said. “You can’t take every student to a location, but the more we can bring the reality of the world to students and show how it connects to their experience, the more they’ll be inspired to challenge that notion of the globalization of indifference.”
For Menkhaus, inspiration came in the form of a boy with a tattered backpack.
“His school folders were falling out because it wasn’t really a backpack anymore,” Menkhaus remembers. “His teacher explained that the boy’s mom told him that he has to go three more years until they can afford to get him a new backpack. I thought how I have several backpacks in my house, and I thought about how he was trying to carry his stuff home, physically and metaphorically, but that it might fall out through no fault of his. There are a lot of kids who are trying to do the right thing, but the system is fighting against them. When I think of Immokalee, I’ll always remember the sight of that boy’s folders just barely hanging on in his backpack.”