By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Staff Writer | Published March 16, 2006
Published: March 16, 2006
LAWRENCEVILLE—High school senior Ariana Mendez strengthened her faith and experienced fellowship with other young Hispanics at the daylong archdiocesan Spanish “Encuento” conference held Jan. 21 at St. Lawrence Church, to help her to go forth as a young woman of God and a positive example for her peers and six younger brothers.
Mendez has friends who have struggled with all kinds of problems—getting pregnant or struggling with English or dropping out of high school to work—but her faith strengthens her to stay the course. After graduation she hopes to go to college or join the Marines. When she’s hanging out with those taking the wide, wild path, she is tempted to go along. But “it’s better to be here and do good things,” she said. “It’s very helpful not only for me but for people who look up to me, my friends, little brothers, not to give them a bad example.”
Peers “try to tell you to do something and you want to feel cool and you think that is going to make you look good to others. People say we should skip school. I don’t want to do that. … If they were my friends they’d tell me to do the right thing. I’m not going to do the wrong thing because it will take me nowhere fast.”
Mendez is grateful to the archdiocesan Office of Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry which sponsored the conference and offers a wide array of spiritual, social and service activities, including courses on fundamentals of Catholicism. The January event drew about 400 people from 32 parishes. She and other attendees were delighted to have a visit by Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory who affirmed their gifts and contributions to the church of Atlanta and gave each teen a medal of “La Virgen Peregrina” and a hug and consecrated them under the mantle of Mary, as the St. Thomas the Apostle Church Hispanic choir sang “Ave Maria” and a song they composed, “Pescador” (“Fisherman”). The youth presented the archbishop with roses, a blanket and spiritual bouquet with messages including “you are our shepherd, our hope.”
“This is a wonderful day for our archdiocese because so many of our young people from the Hispanic community are here to celebrate their faith and love for Jesus Christ and for his Mother. It’s a wonderful day for the archdiocese because our young Hispanic community gives life, flavor, joy and hope to the local church. You are the salsa of Atlanta!” the dynamic archbishop told the cheering youth.
The archdiocesan event is part of a national outreach effort sponsored by the National Catholic Network of Pastoral Juvenil Hispana (Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry) that began last year in parishes in the archdiocese and around the country where gatherings were held focusing on process themes of encounter, conversion, communion, solidarity and mission. The goal is to allow young adults to express their needs from the church and their ideas on how to improve ministries for Hispanic young adults to develop leaders.
The process will continue with a Hispanic regional conference gathering to be held March 24-26 at St. Andrew Church in Roswell and open to all who have participated in their parish “Encuentro” programs. Archbishop Gregory will celebrate the closing Sunday Mass. Some 400 families have already volunteered to host youth who will come from across the Southeast, from Kentucky to Florida. Participants will analyze results obtained from the archdiocesan conferences and hear speakers from the national network.
The culmination of all of these efforts will be at the first National Encounter for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry in the United States to be held June 8-11 at the University of Notre Dame, where an estimated 2,000 delegates elected at the regional events around the country will come together. The event, cosponsored by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the university, is aimed at identifying principles and components of ministry; developing more effective ministry models at the parish, diocesan and regional levels; and encouraging fuller participation in the church and society.
Planners call the events a “first step in helping the church as a whole to understand, embrace and affirm the unique cultural identity, reality and gifts of Hispanic youth and young adults.”
This effort is strongly needed as there are an estimated 41.3 million Hispanics in the United States and an estimated 17 million of them are under age 25, accounting for almost half of all Catholics under age 25, reports the Hispanic Network. The number of Hispanics who are Catholic has remained steady at about 70 percent. In Georgia, there are now about 60 churches in North Georgia with Hispanic ministries and 44 Spanish youth and young adult groups.
Leonardo Jaramillo, director of the young adult Hispanic ministry, spoke of the importance of fostering leadership.
“The goal of the entire process is to offer to the U.S. Catholic Church all the potential that our young people have to give. We are doing this to show the church the potential that young adults have and that we must utilize. … We love the church and we help the church and we want to give our best to serve it,” Jaramillo said. “We are putting all our efforts into forming them in values, commitment to the church that a lot of times they didn’t have before. …We are investing in the future.”
Jaramillo also is working to have one section of the national conference address the Justice for Immigrants campaign which advocates for national, comprehensive immigration reform, as so many of the undocumented Hispanics are young who would be affected by any legislation targeting them at the national or state level. Through his office 27,000 advocacy letters have already been sent to Congress. “It’s a time for education and the young people are the ones who are going to have to face this (immigration reform) process, to express themselves in a way that they will be heard.”
For the St. Lawrence event, youth hung a net overhead symbolizing the call to evangelization. A lighthouse made of paper and sheetrock beamed with a revolving light. A wooden boat sat outside. Many youth wore parish T-shirts such as one reading “Amigos en busca de Cristo” (“Friends seeking Christ”). During the day, the youth listened to speakers, attended Mass and reflected on their experiences, which are being analyzed and compiled for a booklet due out by April.
Mass was celebrated by Father Jose Duvan Gonzalez and concelebrated by Anglo Father Albert Jowdy, whose parish, St. Lawrence, is a model participant. Also concelebrating were Father Jesus David Trujillo, Father Carlos Quintero and Father Guillermo Cordoba.
Archbishop Gregory spoke of the rapid growth of the archdiocese. “The archdiocese is so richly blessed by having so many people, such a wonderful variety of brothers and sisters. And that is really the great challenge of the church—to make sure all of us feel at home and know we have gifts and treasures, that all of us learn to love and respect one another.”
He told the youth to be proud of their heritage. “It’s very important that you young people learn to treasure and keep the cultures and traditions that are yours.”
The archbishop challenged them to evangelize with the witness of holy lives. “Without taking the risk, without opening your heart to what the Lord Jesus can do for you, you never will discover the future.”
He explained that Pope John Paul II liked to refer to the church as a great ship with Jesus as the guide. “We have to go out to the deep, far away from shore, and drop the net and see what God wishes to give to us by way of new fish. We are a church that must always seek to bring new people in.”
Father Cordoba challenged youth to give their entire lives to Christ as they establish careers and get an education to live our their mission.
“If I give all and put my life in the hands of God it’s an investment. This is what God calls us for,” he said. “You are the future of this country, of our community.”
In small group reflections, Mendez said she is grateful for the Hispanic ministry at St. Pius X Church in Conyers but hopes they’ll one day get a full-time priest for the ministry. Also a member of St. Pius, Mexico native Jose Angel Hernandez Avila, 19, agreed with that need. Avila works in construction and is grateful for the Justice for Immigrants campaign, as he is concerned about undocumented workers and said their biggest need is for driver’s licenses. They “support this country, and they don’t take that into account because we don’t have many rights here,” he said. “Many people don’t have a driver’s license, and they don’t come to church or to work or pay taxes because of that.”
At another table was bilingual 17-year-old Angie Torres of St. Andrew Church in Roswell, who came from Mexico to Georgia four years ago. She also loves participating in church activities. As her mom helped in the kitchen, she said she likes the opportunity to meet new people and added that the archbishop seemed “very cool.”
“For me it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me to meet friends in youth group and do fun stuff, but it’s not bad (stuff). I just love being involved in it, to learn about God and to help other people,” she said.