By RUTH E. DÁVILA, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 6, 2009
Nearly 300 Hispanic leaders of the Archdiocese of Atlanta packed into a large hall at St. Andrew Church by the Chattahoochee River July 11 for the sixth annual Encounter of Hispanic Ministries.
“It is an opportunity to share experiences, services and pastoral knowledge with ministry leaders, which will help them in the integration process of our Hispanic brothers and sisters into the parish community,” said Jairo Martinez, Hispanic Ministry director.
A series of religious speakers addressed the central theme of discipleship as well as the challenges faced by Latinos in Georgia. Foremost among their needs is to connect with social services—and with each other through their faith.
“Hispanic Catholics in the Buford Highway area were not being served before,” said Ana Gutiérrez, a 45-year-old from Venezuela. “The people were there, but there was no space.”
To fill the void, her church, the Divino Niño Jesús Catholic Mission, started up in a Duluth strip mall. When it burned down two years later, a nearby church, St. Monica, offered parishioners a place to continue their ministries.
“Right now, we’ve grown so much—we’re about four times larger—that by necessity, we need our own space again. It’s being remodeled now, so in two or three months we can move in,” she said.
Finding worship space and conducting outreach to the growing Latino community tops the archdiocese’s agenda, according to Salvador Arias, who led the first presentation at the Encuentro (as it is called in Spanish).
Based on official estimates—compiled from census data, zip code reports, birth records and other sources—Hispanics represent the largest group of Catholics in Georgia. Among those registered in local parishes, Hispanics also make up the majority, slightly outnumbering Anglos.
“The message is that this is a very large opportunity to bring Hispanic Catholics into our Archdiocese of Atlanta churches—possibly over 200,000,” said Arias, master planner for the archdiocese.
On an archdiocesan map, Arias indicated four “hot spots” with high concentrations of unregistered Catholics (heavily Hispanic) and new growth (Hispanic and Asian): Dalton and Calhoun; Gainesville; the I-85 corridor spanning Duluth, Lawrenceville, part of Sandy Springs, Lilburn, North Atlanta and North Druid Hills; and Forest Park and Riverdale.
In a later statement, Arias said that parishes have been urged to target these zones with new initiatives and possibly facilities expansion.
Balancing Activism, Spirituality
Mercedes Hoffmann, a Miami-based lay person, shared her personal testimony in the Encuentro’s second presentation. Summarizing her speech, she said that God calls us all to holiness.
“Jesus shows us a concept of how to be human but with a capacity to be perfected and overcome mediocrity and to continue to become more and more perfect,” Hoffmann said.
With myriad social issues to fight for and the burden of organizing start-up ministries, Hispanic leaders are often stretched thin. As a master’s degree candidate at Barry University’s Southeast Pastoral Institute, who works a full-time job and helps care for her father, Hoffmann can relate.
“There’s a time for everything,” she said in an interview, reminding her fellow activists to stay in tune with the Lord and cut back on activities when necessary.
Following her talk, Father Salvador Valadez Fuentes, a diocesan priest from the diocese of Chiapas, Mexico, gave a three-part presentation emphasizing the core of good leadership: a profound, ongoing, radical conversion
When he asked the audience how many of them felt they were living their Catholic faith more deeply in the United States than in their countries of origin, virtually all raised their hands.
Whether here or in Latin America, he added, ministry heads often fall into certain traps. He spoke of personality tendencies to avoid: false messiahs (who believe they are sent to undo or redo all the work that was done before them), bureaucrats (called “burro-crats,” a play on the Spanish word for donkey), overly zealous activists (who he warned can detract from Christ’s mission) and fame seekers (who get caught up in the glow of a job well done).
As a young priest, Father Valadez Fuentes, now middle-aged, said he learned to check his ego.
“I realized it’s not important how much I do, but rather that with what little I do, I manage to be a sign of Christ,” he said.
Speaking To The Culture
The midday intermission was animated by the Emmanuel choir. Attendees lined the walls to pick up a distinctly Mexican boxed lunch: burritos, salad, chips and hot salsa with a typical gelatin dessert.
Father Valadez Fuentes wrapped up afterward, followed by a diversity speaker, Martin de Jesus Martinez, from the Mexican American Catholic College. Located in San Antonio, Texas—where the U.S. Hispanic ministry began in 1945—the MACC hosts retreats, missions and workshops on multiculturalism for priest groups, religious, parishes and dioceses.
Martinez’s main goal, he commented after his speech, is for ministry leaders to learn to honor everyone’s story—and to look for a common thread.
“Then we’re not threatened by people that are of a different culture or ethnic group, but we get an opportunity to remind ourselves of our own history,” he said. “That is really living one faith, one baptism, one Lord.”
Unity—how to get it and maintain it—was the undercurrent of the day. As an example of success, Misioneros de la Natividad de María Father Jaime Molina Juarez concluded with a talk about an evangelization program built on small faith communities.
With emphatic, colloquial speech and dressed in northern Mexican dress (down to the cowboy boots), Father Molina Juarez is a priest of the people. His parish, St. Thomas the Apostle in Smyrna, is the largest in the archdiocese, boasting over 6,000 families, half of whom attend his Spanish Masses.
For Father Molina Juarez, the SINE program (whose acronym translates as the Systematic Integral New Evangelization) has been the key to serving and expanding this flock. Some 1,000 of his parishioners are active SINE members, participating in progressive, annual retreats and weekly faith formation meetings.
“How many of you, when you make your confession, say, ‘I haven’t made any disciples?’,” he asked, gripping the large crucifix he had held throughout the speech. “Evangelization is not an option; it’s a command. It’s a sin to not evangelize. Christ said: Go to all the world and make disciples.”
After the Encuentro, Adrian Alvarez, a 53-year-old construction worker from Holy Family Church in Marietta, said he takes this call seriously. He has been attending his parish since 1988 but only recently have official liturgical ministries been assigned for Spanish Mass. As a pillar of the Hispanic community, he feels compelled to recruit new leaders to help out.
“What I find most inspiring is when these people, out of love for Christ, offer to donate their time to a ministry,” Alvarez said. “It shows that they have Jesus in their heart, and that’s the greatest thing of all.”