By RUTH E. DÁVILA, Special To The Bulletin | Published August 19, 2010
If the fruits of a thriving parish are a commitment to ministry volunteerism, booming Mass attendance, the capacity to execute wide-scale fundraisers, and a vast network of tightly knit small faith communities, then St. Thomas the Apostle Church in Smyrna is ripe for the picking.
The Hispanic Ministries Encounter, held July 10 at St. Andrew Church in Roswell, spotlighted St. Thomas the Apostle’s method of integrating Hispanics sustainably.
The theme of this year’s “Encuentro” (as it’s known in Spanish), was Matthew 7:16: “By their fruits you shall know them.”
Auxiliary Bishop Luis R. Zarama, who opened the event, said that people are drawn to the Church based on its fruits.
“God is love. And that is what should move our being, our family, our base communities. Love is the fruit that people want to see,” Bishop Zarama said. “That is what is going to attract to the Church the people who are thirsting to be cared for, loved and respected.”
Whether churches accept or reject newcomers is critical, Bishop Zarama said. When a new person sits down in a group, they pick up on its “scent,” which immediately attracts them—or repels them.
“Sometimes we smell more like garlic than love,” Bishop Zarama said.
The influx of Latin Americans over the past decade has changed the face of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. In general, the local response has been to welcome Spanish speakers. Most parishes have enlisted bilingual staff and perform outreach in Spanish. Many also offer English classes and social services targeting vulnerable sectors of the Latino population.
St. Thomas the Apostle has incorporated all of these tactics. But something else transformed the Hispanic side of the parish since Father Jaime Molina, of the Misioneros de la Natividad de Maria, came on board circa 1999.
Father Molina launched the Systematic Integral New Evangelization (SINE) program, which targets unbelievers as well as cradle Catholics.
“It is our job to evangelize all those who have been baptized but who do not know Christ,” Father Molina said at the Encuentro. “We have thousands and thousands of baptized Catholics who unfortunately are being swept away by Protestant brothers and sisters because they don’t know their faith.”
Founded in Mexico by Father Alfonso Navarro, SINE seeks to educate Catholics continually on all facets of their religion.
It starts with evangelizing missions, and before that, actively seeking candidates—at work, on the soccer field, through social networks or even among strangers.
“We like to kid ourselves into thinking that we’re great because we exercise our pastoral duty behind a desk, with a telephone and a computer,” Father Molina said. “But the Good Shepherd left the 99 in the fold and went out in search of the one lost sheep.”
Shortly after arriving at St. Thomas from his native Mexico, Father Molina began to lead a small group of Spanish-speaking volunteers door to door each month, recruiting Hispanics to come to church. To encourage attendance, he would often celebrate Mass in their trailer parks or apartment complexes.
In 2000, he brought a SINE team from Juarez, Mexico, to facilitate the first evangelization retreat. Since then, St. Thomas has offered the retreat at its parish at least twice a year. The evangelizing team has taken it to five more parishes in the archdiocese, two in Chicago and one in Chihuahua, Mexico.
Recently, St. Thomas hosted the retreat for English speakers with the help of interpreters.
Father Molina calls evangelization “an immersion in kerigma,” the first announcement of the Good News. He has packed up to 350 people into the weeklong retreat, which typically meets nightly at the parish Monday through Thursday and then relocates to a campground from Friday night to Sunday afternoon.
On paper, the evangelization retreat might sound academic. It covers topics like the unconditional love of God, sin in the world, Jesus as remedy, conversion, the Holy Spirit, the Eucharist and the offering of time, talent and treasure. (The lineup is a bit more extensive than that, and it never changes.)
In practice, however, the retreat is a life-changing experience, filled with tears and contrition. The guided examination of conscience is soul purging.
“After living the kerigma, no one can resist confession,” Father Molina said. “We encounter people there who have gone 30, 40 years without confessing.”
But the retreat is just the beginning. Next is reintegration into the Church.
In essence, SINE participants belong to a lifelong support group that bonds them to their parish. The newly evangelized are organized into small faith communities based on where they live. The communities receive “organized, gradual and complete catechesis.”
Every two weeks, they study a new lesson. On week one, they discuss its theology—from beginner subjects, like how to pray, to more complex issues, such as responsible procreation. On week two, they discuss how the lesson applies to their lives.
For ongoing growth, two annual spiritual growth retreats are offered to the evangelized at St. Thomas, as well as retreats for couples, single parents and youth, and a children’s camp.
Moreover, a central component of SINE is the individual’s commitment to ministry. St. Thomas’s Hispanic community is active in liturgical, social service and spiritual ministries, and even has four choirs.
Community Of Communities
The backbone of SINE is structure, much like the Catholic Church.
Every community has two leaders. The catechist directs the lessons, and the community’s pastor handles administrative duties. Both attend weekly trainings at church to learn the lesson from the founder’s tapes.
Each community falls under a sector, of which there are five at St. Thomas. (Marietta, the largest, has more than 50 communities alone.)
Every sector has several coordinators, who report to Father Molina and oversee the small faith communities with periodic visits.
“The parish, then, is a community of communities,” Father Molina said.
SINE promotes social interaction, and communities engage with one another in the parish in frequent activities.
At St. Thomas, the sectors organize sector gatherings a few times a year. All of the sectors converge for three principal festivals: Pentecost, the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and an annual Summerfest, near the feast of the Assumption.
SINE works because it addresses the person as a whole, Father Molina said—in family life, at work, as a political and social being.
“This is body, soul and spirit … the totality of the person in all his or her endeavors,” he added.
A Living System
Today, St. Thomas has grown to be the most populated parish in the archdiocese, with more than 6,000 registered families and four weekend Masses in Spanish. This is in no small part due to SINE.
Thanks to the leadership of Father Molina—with the approbation of pastor Father James H. Kuczynski, MS—and the ardent work of an evangelization ministry, the parish boasts approximately 160 active small faith communities.
“Why is it that we find some churches with only old people in them?,” Father Molina asked. “It’s because they aren’t evangelizing their own congregation. Where are the young people? We need to maintain that freshness.”
St. Thomas boasts a large population of young families, celebrating three Spanish Masses every year just to accommodate First Communion.
SINE targets anyone 15 and older. SINE youths meet in regular small faith communities of mixed age. The young people contribute energy, while elders offer wisdom, and they journey together as a family.
After Father Molina’s presentation at the Encuentro, dozens of evangelized from St. Thomas stood at the front of the hall to give their testimony—women, men and teens from various Spanish-speaking countries, predominantly Mexico and Central America.
Taking the microphone, Maria Elena Salinas, a mother of five, said that before SINE, she loved to swig tequila and had a foul mouth. But after joining St. Thomas, she was overwhelmed by people’s prayers for her during hard times.
“The Lord has performed many miracles in my life; he has delivered me from a desert greater than that of Moses,” Salinas said. “I am very thankful to God and to Father Jaime, because he was the instrument.”
Joaquin Sanchez said he lived in a common law marriage for 18 years and was invited to the retreat four years in a row before he attended. It turned his life around.
“My life revolved around material things, the latest truck, money,” said Sanchez.
After living his retreat, he married in the Catholic Church and became a sector coordinator.
“This isn’t the only method,” Sanchez said, “but this is the one that saved me, that delivered me from the world I was living in.”
Some Encuentro attendees, such as those of the charismatic movement and Cursillo, questioned why such movements are not promoted in SINE congregations.
Jairo Martinez, archdiocesan director of Hispanic ministry, responded to this concern, before Father Molina’s closing Mass.
Martinez said that of the 450,000 or 500,000 estimated Hispanic Catholics in the area, only about 50,000 attend Mass on any given weekend.
“The reality is that the harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few,” Martinez said. “We have to take the Word of God to them. For this, we need everyone to pitch in. We’re not trying to fish in an aquarium (detract from other movements); we’re only beginning to take small steps to address a very large need.”