On a stretch of pasture nestled between two cattle farms in the Blue Ridge Mountains, Arturo Reyna's dream is nearing completion. A white sign trumpets its arrival. Futura Iglesia Puerta Del Cielo Metodista Unida. Future home of Heaven's Gate United Methodist Church.
Reyna is the pastor. For more than two years, he has prayed for a church of his own to serve the rising number of Hispanics who have settled in the area. Many were lured to the mountains from Mexico to cut Christmas trees in southwest Virginia, which produces half of the state's 1.7 million trees annually.
Groundbreaking was in May, and volunteers from the region have donated time, supplies, money and muscle. This week, they rushed to finish bricking the walls and installing the heating system to give Reyna the greatest Christmas present of his life. A church.
"It will be God's Christmas gift for us, hopefully," he said.
A fitting gift, too, because Christmas is the economic heart of their new home.
Each Christmas season, almost 1,000 migrant workers flood into southwestern Virginia to cut and load trees and to make wreaths and garlands.
The largest Christmas tree farm in the state, in Whitetop, is owned by the Sexton family, which has been growing Christmas trees high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains for three generations. The Sextons grow Fraser firs, whose dark green needles and strong branches thrive in higher elevations.
This season, the Sextons will send about 170,000 trees to market. About half were grown on their 2,000-acre farm, and the rest came from other farmers, who sold them to the Sextons for distribution. Many end up in homes in Northern Virginia, Maryland and the District, but some go as far west as Texas and Nebraska.
And most were cut by migrant workers from Mexico.
"From March until the end of October, we generally have between 12 and 15 [migrant workers] working here on the farm," said James Sexton, whose grandfather, Byron, started growing Fraser firs. "And then at harvest, from the beginning of November to the first or second week of December, we are up to 65 or 70, somewhere in that neighborhood."
Sexton was sitting in a small building on the farm with his mother, Joann. Mount Rogers, the highest peak (5,729 feet) in Virginia, rose in the distance. The hills were lined with rows and rows of Fraser firs not yet big enough for harvest.
"If we didn't have the Mexicans," Joann Sexton said, "I don't think there is any possible way we could do this."
Her son nodded. "Bar none," he said. "That's the end of that show. We'd have to find something else to do. Period."
The number of migrant workers varies from year to year.
"It is a very fluid number," said Felix Acosta, a farm placement specialist with the Virginia Employment Commission. "But it is in the neighborhood of 700 to 900 people. It is kind of hard to gauge, because there are people who work on both sides of the [Virginia-North Carolina] state line."
Acosta said the number of migrant workers has "exploded" since he began his job in 1996 after a career in the military. As the Christmas tree industry has grown, so has the farmers' dependence on migrant workers. Many spend nine months in the area, harvesting tobacco and then moving north to the mountains to cut trees.
"It would be a dead industry without them," Acosta said.
Reyna came here in 1986 with his family not to cut Christmas trees, but to pick apples.
"We just showed up here and turned off the highway, and they told us where the apple orchard was," he said. "My whole family picked apples. It was very hard work. But they told us we could make a lot of money, which we didn't."
When the cold weather came, his family had little money and no warm clothes. People from the Methodist Church gave his family food and winter clothes and lent them money.
Reyna did not attend church back then. But a couple of years later, another area Methodist church called him and asked him to serve as an interpreter.
"I told them I would do it, but I was terrified," he said. "I told the Hispanics who came to church that I was not a Christian because I did not go to church and I did not want them to think I was a hypocrite. Then, I rededicated my life to the Lord, and I was called to be a pastor. So that is how I ended up here." Nearly five years ago, he became a Methodist minister.
When one thinks of the Blue Ridge Mountains, what comes to mind are trees, cattle farms and tobacco. Now the region is increasingly a destination point for Hispanic immigrants.
"When I first got the job," recalled Acosta, the state's liaison with the migrant community, "I was talking to people up in Richmond about the migrant workers down here and they said: 'There are no migrant workers in Grayson County.' And I said, 'There aren't? Who the heck do you think is cutting all those Christmas trees?' "
The Fraser fir tree used to be known as a garbage tree that grew wild on the higher peaks.
James Sexton's grandfather Byron was a farmer who liked to experiment. Local legend has it that Byron Sexton went into the woods, pulled up some Fraser fir seedlings and planted them.
Joann Sexton, who married Byron's son Kenneth, said that her father-in-law was fascinated with Fraser firs because he thought the sturdy branches would be good for holding heavy ornaments.
"I guess people thought he was wasting his time," said Joann Sexton, but "he was not one to let other people's opinions affect him one way or the other."
Fraser firs take about 12 years to mature. Byron Sexton planted his first trees in the early 1960s. By 1977, he had more trees and business than he could handle. Kenneth Sexton was a manager with a retail store chain in North Carolina at the time. But his heart was always in the mountains. So when his father said he needed him, he moved back to the mountains to handle marketing and sales. His two sons and wife went to work on the farm, too.
They used high school students to plant during Easter break and then to cut the trees on Thanksgiving break. The demand for Fraser firs kept growing, but the available labor pool couldn't keep pace.
"Labor in the agriculture market has always been difficult," Joann Sexton said. "It has just gotten worse every year . . . . I can't remember exactly when we started using the migrant workers. But I feel quite sure that word got out among the migrant workers that there was work in the mountain areas, and they just started coming here and looking for work."
Now they get the migrant workers through the U.S. government's H-2A program, which allows employers to use foreign labor if they can prove U.S. labor is not available.
The workers live in a dormitory James Sexton built with input from Acosta. The farm pays each worker $7.53 an hour, plus travel costs to and from Mexico.
As the number of workers has increased, so, too, has government monitoring. Last year, the U.S. Department of Labor investigated five companies employing migrant workers. Three "had violations, for a total back wage compensation of $13,400 for approximately 210 workers," said spokeswoman Kathleen Harrington.
Harrington said the department is in litigation with a consortium of Christmas tree growers, including the Sextons, to resolve a disagreement about whether the migrant workers have been correctly classified, which has an impact on wage scale and whether they are entitled to overtime. She said she could not comment on the litigation.
"For the most part, the workers are treated well and live in good conditions. But the point has to be made that the exceptions get the publicity," Acosta said. "The bottom line is the workers need the growers, and, of course, the farmers desperately need the workers."
Santiago Guel, 38, has worked at the Sexton farm for four years. He spends eight months a year in the United States working tobacco fields in North Carolina, then cuts trees.
He said that if he stayed in Mexico, he would make about $150 a month in the orange groves. In the United States, he makes about $1,200 a month cutting trees, which he sends home to his wife, son, 11, and daughter, 16.
"My daughter is going to college, and I need money to send her," he said. "Even though I am away, they live better there because I send them money. My wife and my daddy and my mom and my wife's daddy, they all live better."
Guel said he loves the mountains and would like to someday live in the area permanently.
That draw is why the year-round Hispanic population has increased to the point where it needs a church, a church Hispanics hope to open by Christmas.
Reyna said that when he first moved here, he could count the number of Hispanics in the area on one hand. "I don't know how many there are now," he said, "but I would say maybe 3,000 or 4,000."
And those who have settled in the region have been accepted and welcomed. "They are hardworking and very spiritual people," said Dick Carrico, a retired Virginia state trooper and former Carroll County sheriff, who oversees construction of the church.
While most Hispanics are Catholic, those who have settled here in the Blue Ridge have flocked to his weekly service. "We are Methodists because it is the Methodists who opened up their church for us," Reyna said. "They are very good people. Very Christian people. They are open-minded, they are inclusive and, most of all, they let us worship God our way."
The church will hold about 200 people and cost about $250,000, but that doesn't include the volunteers' labor, savings on materials from contractors and the price of the land, about $50,000.
Reyna, 33, has come a long way since he arrived with his family in the mountains. And he understands why more and more migrant workers who come here to cut trees and pick tobacco want to stay and make a life for themselves.
"This is a beautiful place to live," he said. "It is just an awesome, peaceful place."