By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published April 2, 2015
DUNWOODY—The three women and a man kneel in front of the congregation, their sponsors standing behind them. The nearly 70 members in the pews watch as Father Bill Hao says the words of blessing in Mandarin.
On this fourth Sunday of Lent, the Chinese Catholic community awaits welcoming its four newest members at Easter when they receive the sacraments of initiation—baptism, first Communion and confirmation.
“I feel very comfortable. It was a different feeling. It brings me happiness,” said Bee Yean Leong, 47, who will become Catholic. Her 4-year-old daughter knelt beside her during Mass, the youngster’s eyes barely able to see over the pew.
She spoke in both English and Chinese. The only daughter of Buddhist parents in Malaysia, Leong was introduced to the faith three years ago. She attended her first Mass, a Christmas Eve celebration at St. Benedict Church, Johns Creek, with her friend and now godmother. It wasn’t something she had thought long about. “Suddenly, it came to my mind, I want to go to church,” she said.
Chinese converts among new Catholics
Leong is among the 1,956 adults and teens joining the church in the Atlanta Archdiocese at the Easter Vigil on April 4.
The archdiocese is estimated to have more than 1 million members. It’s increasingly a pluralistic church as Georgia attracts immigrants, some 250,000 legal permanent residents as of 2012, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Georgia ranks 12th among states in the number of green card holders.
The church estimates in the years ahead a growing number of Catholics from Asia and Latin America will fill the pews.
The Sunday afternoon Mass at All Saints Church, Dunwoody, opens with a Chinese song, titled “Lord, I just want to be yours only.”
The people read from purple missalettes written in Chinese to follow the prayers. With the diversity of Chinese dialects spoken among the group members, Father Hao has learned it’s best to distribute his homily written in common Chinese characters so everyone can refer to it. He reads it aloud from his computer tablet in Mandarin.
The Chinese Catholic community formed in 1990 for social events. Later, the community wanted Mass and flew in Chinese-speaking priests on special occasions. English-speaking Atlanta priests stepped in when the community asked for Mass weekly. Those homilies would be translated into Chinese.
Father Hao has been the spiritual leader for about five years. He welcomes the ministry. It’s an opportunity to serve people from his own cultural background.
“It’s a real blessing, too, to be able to celebrate Mass and connect with people in a very diverse community,” he said.
To understand the diversity here means understanding the different backgrounds.
There are four groups within the Chinese community: people from Taiwan; from Hong Kong; from Fuzhou, a Chinese city with a large Catholic community; and overseas Chinese, living in other Asian countries.
‘Message of Jesus Christ is universal’
Father Hao’s story mirrors his congregation. He was born to Chinese parents living outside of China. Growing up in the Philippines, he and his siblings were baptized while he attended Catholic schools. It was only later in life that his parents became Catholic. After a career in technology, he was ordained a priest of the archdiocese in 2009, the first priest of Chinese descent.
Before Mass began, he switched between speaking English to the red-robed teenaged altar servers and Mandarin with older members.
The community gathers weekly at the Dunwoody parish, with aspirations to have their own worship chapel. Some 200 people generally attend big celebrations, such as Easter. The community has its own religious education program.
It is estimated there are 120 million Catholics across 26 Asian countries, about 3 percent of the population. In China, less than 1 percent is Catholic.
In the United States, some 8.5 percent of Chinese identify as Catholic, according to a survey done for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“It’s a small community, but the diversity is not any different from a big church,” Father Hao said. Some folks work in nail salons and in the kitchens of Chinese restaurants, while others are white-collar lawyers and professionals, he said.
Long Zhang, a 51-year-old Duluth resident, grew up in a Catholic home, attending Mass with his mother. He said communist Chinese authorities did not give the family a hard time because of their practicing their faith.
His wife and young daughter, who both live in New York, are Catholic. He has long wanted to be baptized and join the church, but never had the time to commit to classes, he said in Chinese.
He looks forward to receiving Communion together with his wife and daughter and expects Easter to be happy, he said, with a smile on his face. Right now, there are no plans for his family to join him at the celebration because of the distance to travel and work.
He hopes as a Catholic he can introduce others to the church, Zhang said. Zhang said he finds “a sense of peace, he forgets his problems when he comes to church.”
The formal process of joining the church consists of attending classes and learning the faith.
At All Saints Church, Father Hao said, “The message of Jesus Christ is universal. It transcends culture.”
“The basic articles of faith are what we have them exposed to and then nurture a desire to go deeper at a personal level,” said the priest.
Spanish-speaking mission prepares 222 for sacraments
At Our Lady of the Americas Mission, in Lilburn, parish leaders learned years ago many of the immigrants have faith “practiced by tradition.”
Religious education in parts of Latin America is very basic. Priests may only visit a parish a few times a year, said Leonardo Jaramillo, the director of religious education. The Catholic instruction done in the United States “doesn’t exist in many parts of the world,” he said. People grasp at it when it’s offered.
“We have 22 classrooms, and they are full all the time,” he said.
The focus at this Gwinnett County church is on reintroducing the already baptized to the sacraments.
“The church needs to invite the people to participate again,” he said. “When the church invites people, they respond. They have faith inside,” he said, meaning the faith is carried in their hearts.
That’s why Hispanics in the archdiocese numbering in the hundreds participate in the Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion. Our Lady of the Americas Mission has more than 220 members joining the church.
Stephanie Garcia is one young woman who came here with a basic knowledge of the faith. Finding a community and her confidence here, she embraced the responsibilities with confirmation.
The way she sees it, being faithful means following God’s mandate.
“It is a big mission as Catholics. God brings us here to serve,” she said. “We’re serving God by serving others.”
Garcia, who is almost 20, wears her brown hair up in a bun, with stylish tortoise shell glasses. Her hands cut the air when she makes a point. She is attending an online college to earn a degree in criminal justice, with a goal to work crime scene investigations.
Garcia is part of a generation changing the face of the church in the United States, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University.
Among Catholics born before 1943, 76 percent were non-Hispanic whites. That percentage drops to 39 percent among Catholics born after 1982. In the millennial generation, 54 percent are Latinos.
The percentage of Catholics who self-identify as black or African-American, Asian or Pacific Islander, or Native American hasn’t changed substantially.
In 2010, CARA stated, “generational changes are underway that are transforming the demography of the U.S. Catholic population.” Experts identified immigration and different fertility rates among groups as driving the change.
Overall, non-Hispanic whites still remain a majority in the church, some 54 percent. Hispanics make up 38 percent, according to a 2014 study of diversity by CARA.
Two-year journey to confirmation
A Florida native with Cuban roots, Garcia moved to Atlanta five years ago. She said she survived living in a home where her father abused alcohol and was brought up by her grandparents. Church attendance was “here and there,” and if she had any faith life, it was colored by the alcohol abuse. “If there is a God, how could he allow this to happen to me?” she said she pleaded to God.
Her options before connecting with this community at Our Lady of the Americas weren’t good. Her mother’s encouragement to get involved with young people at the mission led her to a faith study group geared toward young adults. While she’d been baptized, she had not received first Eucharist. Two years ago she received Communion.
“I’ve come to make new friends. I’ve come to make family,” she said.
Garcia is now prepared for confirmation on Holy Saturday when the priest is to bless her with the oil of chrism. It is also her birthday.
“My faith wasn’t fully ready,” she said. “Within that two-year time period, my faith has grown so much. I practically live in the church. I’m here 24/7.”
Looking back, her childhood was “torture,” but it also shaped her, she said. “Everything I went through made me who I am,” she said.
Seeing how she’s grown as a young person, her faith has given her confidence. Some who attended class with her walked away, she said.
“In serving God, you have to be your own leader,” she said.
Our Lady of Americas Mission is a center of faith for 10,000 families, nearly all from Mexico. The campus is a hive of activity. The family center is filled with parents and children, adults taking up one floor and young students another. In a small classroom, a group of women and men talk to the screen about faith as their teacher-priest is broadcast live from Belgium via Skype. A large portrait of Our Lady of Guadalupe hangs in a meeting room. In a chapel a woman polishes a large glass coffin where inside the figure of Jesus rests. A sign above the altar reads, “Manos de Cristo que se nos da,” meaning “Hands of Christ given to us.”
Garcia’s faith life has been shaped here. However, she witnessed the church’s diversity of cultures and languages at February’s Rite of Election and Call to Continuing Conversion.
She said, “We all believe in one God. We may look different and come from different backgrounds, but when it comes to God, we all become one.”