By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published June 2, 2005
Hispanic parishioners from St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna packed their tuna sandwiches, tortillas and tacos in coolers, dressed in red, loaded themselves and their children in their cars, and traveled across town on the drizzly Sunday morning of May 15 to the Mable House Amphitheater for a Pentecost day of revival.
Families locked arms and swayed and some of the children wept, as they experienced a wellspring of God’s love and committed themselves anew to live in the truth of “Cristo Jesús” and allow Him to transform and renew their lives, marriages and families.
Manuel and Leticia Franco, speakers from the Texas border city of Ciudad Juaréz, Mexico, encouraged the largely Mexican immigrant congregation from the amphitheater stage as two of their daughters stood quietly at their side. Mr. Franco encouraged attendees to bring their problems to God, as “Jesus comes and says I am the solution … Scripture says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life,’ and we don’t believe it. At times we say, ‘Yes, Lord, but you ask a lot.’ God comes and says, ‘I want to be your Savior,’” he said. “Here are my wife and children in this team I have … You have blessed us to be here united in one Spirit as a couple in God. Thanks, Lord, for being my director, thanks for being the Savior of our home.”
Leticia Franco lovingly called on the Lord to act in the heart of each person. “Jesus comes for each marriage and family. Jesus lifts his powerful hand and revives us … Keep walking toward God. Begin to know Jesus as your director. With Jesus you are a team. Feel the love that He has for you, especially for you.”
The theme of the family day, filled with prayer, testimonies and praise in Spanish, was on strengthening families in Christ and crossing the border to walk in the Spirit. The event drew an estimated 1,200 people of all ages.
Pentecost is the church’s birthday, held 50 days after Easter, and the day commemorates the descent of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles, the preaching of Peter and other apostles to Jews in Jerusalem, and the baptism and aggregation of some 3,000 persons to the Christian community, as described in Acts 2:1-41. On Pentecost, red is worn to represent the flames of the Holy Spirit.
Topics at the Mable House event included resisting temptations like adultery, substance abuse and selfishness, changing one’s lifestyle and healing relationships. Despite the light rain, those gathered trickled in throughout the morning into the sheltered amphitheater, which to one side had neatly manicured shrubbery, and on the other had mowed green grass and tall trees sheltering the area from the surrounding commercial district. Parish volunteers manned booths selling religious books and other items.
Father Jaime Molina Juarez, MNM, leader of the Hispanic ministry at St. Thomas, paced the stage energetically in his black jeans and bright red polo shirt, calling those gathered to find rest in Jesus and invoking the Holy Spirit.
The event was part of a larger parish evangelization initiative begun three years ago called Integral System of the New Evangelization (SINE). SINE, which originated in Mexico, involves this event and two other retreats per year on Christian growth and the Virgin of Guadalupe. The program has resulted in about 80 small faith communities that meet weekly for catechesis. Members are also invited to become more involved in other ministries. A Marian group for children ages 4-16 meets every Saturday and focuses on Christian living and early intervention to steer youth away from the negative influences of drugs, alcohol and gangs. Prince of Peace Church, Buford, and Our Lady of the Americas Mission, Doraville, also recently participated in SINE retreats.
SINE is a parish model designed to develop a vibrant, evangelizing parish through small faith-sharing communities, to bring people closer to the Lord and to a more active faith and apostleship. St. Thomas is one example of the transformation through evangelization of Anglo parishes across North Georgia over the past decade, as non-Spanish-speaking parishioner Pat Burns initiated its Hispanic ministry in 1998 with a monthly Mass drawing around 75 people. About five years ago Father Molina, after coming to the church, began offering a weekly Spanish Mass with around 20 people and also began a mission every Saturday to visit area residents in their homes and invite them to church. The parish now has three weekend Spanish Masses as well as one on Mondays and Thursdays, and about 900 families.
“There was a need to visit families and inform them. It worked,” said the priest who is from Mexico.
Among those attending the Pentecost gathering was Teodoro Silva, who recalled how Father Molina had visited him at his home. He had believed in God but was very far from Him and “preferred the things of the world,” but he never found peace. When he visited St. Thomas, Silva gradually began, for the first time, to experience God and the community. He now believes he’s a better husband to his wife of 21 years and a more loving father to his four children.
“For me this day is very important because it’s a day that God is manifested through the Holy Spirit. Today I’m united with all my brothers and sisters in the community. I believe that on this day God is among us, and for this reason I anxiously awaited to be here in this place to praise God with all my brothers,” he said. “It’s very important because at St. Thomas the Apostle I have come to know God and my brothers and sisters, and I give thanks because He has given me so many joys and marvelous things at every moment of my life and I feel happy today.”
The Mexico native, who wore a crucifix necklace, recalled that a SINE retreat he went on was particularly helpful, and he is now involved in a small faith-sharing group as well.
“That helped me a lot to change my life because in my family there wasn’t unity before. I lived my way without thinking about my family. I was a very tough father, but now I feel I’m a different person … I try to teach my children about God, to grow close to the church, and I love my wife more.”
The first speakers of the morning, Francisco and Dora Alcántar of Ciudad Juaréz, Mexico, spoke on the stage, before a red-colored crucifix, of the healing power of Christ in the family. Mr. Alcántar emphasized that parents must live holy lives for God, for themselves and for their children, who follow the example they set.
“Sin wants to destroy the family. We must be alert to these things that can destroy the family.”
Faith sustains families through the storms of life, he said, and couples must not be caught off-guard by Satan, as was Eve in the Garden of Eden, but should prepare themselves to resist the temptations that arise. He, too, has fought for his marriage, as he overcame alcoholism that nearly destroyed his own family.
“Today we look for weak points in our families, our marriages so that we don’t do bad things, that seem to be good, in front of our children,” he said. “We have to be careful so that sin doesn’t begin to destroy our families, so that we can try to be true examples for our children, so that we do what should be done in a marriage formed by God and blessed by God as in front of God we declared eternal love to our mate, to be faithful.”
And he warned against the most forbidden fruit of adultery.
“That is the sweetest fruit that hurts the marriage; how the women suffer. Our children follow our example and are going to follow what you are doing,” he admonished. “The enemy knows that when the marriage is destroyed, it’s easy to destroy the family … Parents, at times, bring bad habits to our children and at times push our kids to the street.”
Mrs. Alcántar, in ministering to married couples, has found that many struggle with jealousy, as well as pride, which prevent them from seeing the relationship clearly. She spoke of how her husband had been an aggressive alcoholic, which made their children struggle with feelings of shame and caused her and her husband to fight often. But finally he decided to walk with Christ, and she felt a calling to testify to his transformation. Her husband began to pay more attention to the children.
“We were a new family with children who saw that we live with the love of Christ,” she recalled. “I never thought he’d change. For 17 years my husband hasn’t drunk because when he decided to follow God he left it all behind. This is what Jesus does in our lives; this is the marvelous presence of Jesus in our homes for all who want to follow Him … The Lord wants for each family to have new life. He doesn’t force us to do anything. He only wants us to have very happy marriages together with our family.”
Another family who spoke to the congregation was Alfonso and Margarita Enriquez, who have been married 24 years and minister to married couples in El Paso, Texas. Mr. Enriquez, in an interview afterwards, spoke of how couples often become apathetic and forget to focus on their love, their family and on God.
“We know that God has a plan for the family. God created us to be a happy family, an integrated family, a family that loves each other and helps each other, but we can only do it if we get close to God.”
He spoke of the need for healing and forgiveness, adding that parents must also ask children for forgiveness for their wrongs.
“We need to heal the wounds we inflict on each other, to forgive and forget, to reconcile the family and to make our family a community of love,” he said. Parents must “trust God and make a priority to get closer to God, to make it as urgent a priority to feed the mind as to feed the body. If they’re only giving food and clothing to the children, it is not a complete task.”
He emphasized the power of prayer, adding that he and his wife pray together as does the whole family. “That is what keeps us united.”
They’ve also ministered to many Catholic couples suffering from the pain of infidelity by one spouse, and spoke of one couple facing this that separated for three weeks and began to find healing through Christ.
“They came back to God and got back together in three weeks and are renewing their love. Their faces changed and they started to heal these wounds, but it’s only done with the help of God,” he said.
Mrs. Enriquez said she strives to share with couples the hope that God can bring to their marriage and families. She urged parents “to fight for their children and to try to be better parents.”
Their children, Francisco and Clara, are leaders in youth ministry. Clara said one challenge she faces is changing the attitude of youth who see consuming cigarettes, alcohol and drugs as normal behavior. She tries to encourage youth to grow in faith and “to set an example for the whole family and to try to convince them to follow God.”
Victor Meza, who attended the gathering, spoke of the effort he and his wife make to foster better communication in their family. They are helping to raise an 11-year-old niece whose parents are in Mexico. The couple encourages her to talk about her feelings and the many negative pressures.
“School is difficult. What she learns from the church is helping a lot … There must be communication to make a more united family. She tells us about things at school, she tells my wife,” he said. At the event “we can hear the call of God and are waiting for the Holy Spirit so that we can live in grace. We feed our spirits.”
Maria Ines Aguirre wore on her necklace an image of Toribio Romo, who she said is a beloved Mexican saint who is the patron of migrants. She feels blessed to live in Atlanta and to have found her husband and this St. Thomas the Apostle family. She also attended a parish retreat that also transformed her faith, helping her to develop a more intimate relationship with God.
“My husband and all the people here, we are family. We love each other and we share what we have, the love God has for us.”
Parish secretary Patricia VanBuren said that the SINE program “is like the main engine pulling all the people together. The reason people attend and like all these activities is they are integrated into the program … It really is starting to bring the community together.”
Father Molina said that he encourages couples facing difficulties to become involved in SINE programs and experience Christ’s healing, while adding that those with deeper problems are referred to Catholic Social Services for counseling. The parish offers a healing prayer service every Friday focusing on various themes. The SINE implementation has helped to increase both the quantity of people involved in the ministry and the quality of their commitment to the church and to live out their faith, said Father Molina.
“It’s a system that supports the quality of participation as the people study, read, have retreats and prepare themselves to grow religiously as well as intellectually, to know the Bible, the catechesis of the church and the documents of the Magisterium … to live the faith.”