By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published July 6, 2017 | En Español
ATLANTA—Since relocating to Buford Highway two years ago, the Cathedral of Christ the King Hispanic Mission has nearly quadrupled in size, now drawing some 1,400 people to the mission’s two Sunday Masses.
With hundreds of new members, those coming range from impoverished newcomers to established immigrants from Mexico and across Latin America. Enrollment in religious education has grown to over 300 children plus 25 in the youth program.
On May 19, 82 children received their first Communion. During Holy Week, Father Feiser Muñoz, who has led the mission for several years, heard over 200 confessions and the mission held Stations of the Cross and other daily activities. Members trekked door-to-door beforehand inviting neighbors to church.
The Spanish mission had ministered since 1992 in a converted daycare facility near apartments off Lindbergh Drive under the steadfast leadership of Sister Maria Jesús Sagaseta, of the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. But in 2013, after conditions deteriorated, the mission was forced to relocate to a Knights of Columbus hall. After meeting there for over a year, the cathedral signed a lease for permanent space at Northeast Plaza.
The mission now welcomes newcomers pouring in from as far as Duluth and Lawrenceville to a renovated, nearly 12,000-square-foot space in the back of Northeast Plaza at 3349 Buford Highway where it has been since June 2015.
Before Mass, an introductory video is shown on large screens that also display songs and Scripture readings.
“The first two years have been amazing. The number of people has increased—multiplied. The last location used to have like 350-400 and now we have 1,400 every weekend,” said Father Muñoz.
“The way they have grown is in the way they perceive the church. If the church is open to the people—by open I mean to be kind and gentle to the people—people will start coming. . . . The idea, especially for those coming for the first time, is to welcome the people. They raise their hands, and we applaud and give thanks for them being at Mass,” he said.
“Take the faith to the real world”
After months of church shopping, when Juan Pablo Guerron-Melo visited the mission something finally clicked. There he and his wife were warmly welcomed and inspired to grow in faith and concretize their beliefs in service to their brethren most in need.
After moving from Miami to Atlanta, Colombia native Guerron-Melo joined the mission soon after its relocation to the Buford Highway location. The most active he’s ever been at church, he now serves as lector, representative on the CTK parish council and coordinator of the new Plaza Comunitaria educational initiative to be launched in partnership with the Mexican consulate.
Father Muñoz “motivates the people a lot to be better, to grow as people, and that is the best way to grow closer to God,” said Guerron-Melo, a senior technical consultant for a digital security company.
Service is “a way to take the faith to the real world, to what is really needed. It’s not only the faith of praying and being a good person but giving more to society through actions,” he said.
While children attend religious education classes, the mission offers faith programs for their parents. New ministries include a pro-life group that’s already hosted a baby shower, three choirs, a food pantry, prayer groups and a welcoming team. The booming altar server program has grown from eight to 40 children.
Volunteers have also beautified the converted warehouse space. Members crafted the marble altar, two wooden pews and the presider’s chair and added a baldacchino and stone accents behind the altar. Statues of Mary and St. Joseph were donated by the women’s Bible study at Christ the King Cathedral. Other volunteers serve weekly in cleaning, maintenance and landscaping.
The new educational program, sponsored by Mexico’s National Institute for Adult Education, will empower those members who are illiterate in Spanish or never finished school. About 100 people registered for the online program, but the mission will begin with two classes of 15, having purchased 10 new computers for its lab.
“They have helped me to grow”
Christ the King Hispanic coordinator Angela Almario said that they’ll first start with basic literacy and elementary education and expand to middle and high school instruction.
“I was filling out paperwork for sacraments and they don’t know how to fill out the form. At the mission, yes, they need to learn English, but first of all they need to know in Spanish how to read and write,” she said.
Almario had previously worked in property management and was seeking more satisfying work when she learned from Father Muñoz about the job opportunity. She realized fully the level of need when an unemployed woman told her the mission’s coffee and bread was her only sustenance.
“It’s been very uplifting, very motivating. . . . Now it’s just living in that passion, love and faith,” Almario said. “Every time I go to Mass at the mission, no matter what the weather is, there are Catholic people walking, coming. They are willing to give even if they don’t have anything.”
“I don’t feel afraid anymore or depressed about anything. They have helped me to grow in faith and love for others, to serve people. At Holy Week I was up at midnight and got to the mission at 5 a.m.,” she said.
The mission also provides an oasis for those potentially affected by the increasing deportation rate of non-criminal immigrants. One active member was randomly stopped by police and detained for two months because he had unknowingly missed a court date years earlier. But his wife, Magdalena Mateo, relied on her faith and Father Muñoz’ support during the two-month ordeal before immigration authorities finally released him as having a work permit. She went to Mass early on Sundays to pray as her two oldest children prepared to serve at the altar.
“I prayed so much to God who helped us,” said Mateo, a hotel maid who also volunteers weekly to clean the mission. “God touched the heart of the immigration judge to allow him to go free.”
“The people showed me the face of Jesus”
With such faith, Father Muñoz also sees hope in times of uncertainty.
“Some people are afraid to even go to Mass because of the situation, but the situation also brings people in,” he said. “In times of need, people need God.”
Father Muñoz is grateful for the support of cathedral rector Msgr. Frank McNamee, Hispanic ministry staff and the bishops who have enabled him to lead the mission while also serving Christ the King Cathedral. In late August he will embark upon a new assignment as administrator of St. Clement Church in Calhoun. He said he will always treasure the time spent at the mission, from comforting the dying and consoling their families to encouraging converts and welcoming strangers.
“I stayed with them, heard their suffering, difficulties, fears,” he said. “I said yes to the Lord in priesthood because the people showed me the face of Jesus, that it was my call to be a priest and be able to serve them. It’s a lot of joy and happiness when you connect with people. You see people are sincere, humble and want to do the best they can, not just for themselves but for other people. When we all do things not for ourselves but for the other people, the community starts growing and growing. And that’s what Jesus did, he gave his life for people.”
He believes the mission will prosper with their new priest, Father Carlos Cifuentes, who joined the cathedral staff as a parochial vicar July 1.
“I believe in what they can do and trust in them, and that makes a big difference in the community and with every human being. … That is why fathers and mothers need to trust and believe in their children, that they are going to be great,” he said.
“I feel happy to have had the opportunity to meet with these people, to share my life with these people, to have the opportunity to know more about myself and to feel more deeply the meaning of the priesthood. And Father Carlos Cifuentes is coming. He’s a great man. He’s going to be good for the mission and the cathedral.”
The Misión Católica de Cristo Rey is located at 3349 Buford Highway, Suite 28 C, Brookhaven. Contact Ministerio Hispano Angela Almario at 404-267-3696.