By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published August 3, 2018 | En Español
ATLANTA—Some two dozen women and men will represent the Archdiocese of Atlanta at the National Fifth Encuentro, as Hispanic Catholics gather to strengthen the Latino presence in the church.
Drawing together believers from around the country, V Encuentro (Spanish for meeting) maintains an effort begun more than 40 years ago “to continue our walk as God’s people, to raise our prophetic voice,” according to the organizer’s website.
The expected 3,000 leaders will convene Sept. 20-23 in Grapevine, Texas, outside Dallas, focusing on the theme, “Missionary Disciples: Witnesses of God’s Love.” A commissioning Mass in Atlanta is scheduled for Sept. 8 at the Archdiocese of Atlanta Chancery.
Hispanic Catholics, both natives and immigrants, today make up about 40 percent of all Catholics in the United States and more than 50 percent of Catholics under 35, according to Encuentro organizers. With the estimated one million Catholics in the Atlanta Archdiocese, about 50 percent identify as Hispanic.
The local Encuentro effort examined the Archdiocese of Atlanta Pastoral Plan, established in 2015, in preparation for the national meeting and identified nine areas of concern to bring to the national conference.
The months-long experience of preparation has lead Dr. Jaime Altamirano to “getting deeper in my relationship with the Spirit,” he said. “It doesn’t matter which position I am. I am a tool for the Spirit,” said Altamirano, who attends Flowery Branch’s Prince of Peace Church. He is one of the Atlanta representatives attending the Texas meeting.
Jairo Martinez, director of the archdiocesan Office of Intercultural and Ethnic Diversity, said the archdiocesan representatives at V Encuentro can share local successes with the national audience, in addition to learning from others.
“We are trying to empower the Hispanic community to serve the whole church. They are part of the church,” he said.
Martinez recalled how at the Atlanta Archdiocese in 2003 the office of Hispanic Ministry was the go-to place for answers on serving the community. Now many archdiocesan ministries have bilingual staff with expertise to serve Spanish speakers, from answering questions about the archdiocesan tribunal to faith formation training, he said.
Also, many Hispanic and bilingual priests and deacons serve, with increasing number of priests appointed as spiritual leaders of parishes with Hispanic, English-speakers and other diverse members, he said.
Representing Hispanic Catholics of Atlanta
The Atlanta representatives to the national meeting worship in 10 parishes. There are eight women, nine men and three deacons among them, along with archdiocesan staff. Two young adults—a man and woman—are also attending. Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory and Bishop Bernard E. Shlesinger III are scheduled to participate.
Altamirano, 65, is a leader in the Hispanic charismatic community. He works as a medical epidemiologist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. His office is decorated with photos of his children, a statue of St. John Paul II and butterflies and floral paintings from his native country, Ecuador.
Altamirano is going to Texas with an open heart.
“You never know when the Holy Spirit may touch you, or may give the right idea or the right message,” he said. Sharing ideas and successes, led by the Holy Spirit, “is always a win/win situation,” he added.
The Pastoral Plan sets goals for the Atlanta archdiocese, but the current immigration challenges facing the Hispanic community require nationwide church attention.
“We are living day by day during the immigration situations. We hope it’ll be a strong voice, a strong approach to situations like that,” he said. “Those are broad issues that are not necessarily addressed at the archdiocesan level. There are national issues.”
The gathering comes on the heels of an immigration policy that separated Hispanic families who crossed into the United States unauthorized.
Altamirano said people hope bishops will be outspoken in support of fellow Catholics. He said people understand priests serve a parish community, including those who support a strict immigration policy, but bishops have the ability to be the voice for Catholics caught in the situation and to accompany the people. Fellow Catholics count themselves as pro-life, but these are policies “attacking the family,” he said.
Sonia Aguero called immigration “the main social issue the Hispanic church is facing.”
Aguero has worshipped at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, Atlanta, for more than 30 years. She serves as a lector, an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, among other roles.
“I swept the floor of the church,” she said laughing.
In preparing for the national V Encuentro, Aguero learned how people face similar concerns, whether they attend a rural parish or an urban parish.
“The most significant part for me was the sharing of common problems and our successes,” she said about the lead-up to the Encuentro.
Aguero said people in her organizing group talked about the need to bridge a shallow understanding of the Hispanic community and its concerns. Some of the responses from English-speakers lack sensitivity and don’t acknowledge the different cultures, she said, adding, “there is still room to grow.”
“We have a people hungry for the word of God,” said Aguero, who is Cuban-American.
Daniel Hernandez, 25, served for four years as the youth minister at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Smyrna. He recently earned his master’s degree in social work from Fordham University. His family roots are in El Salvador.
Hernandez said he hopes the conference “encourages us as leaders to be bold, to help us speak to other communities in the church.”
Working with teens, Hernandez said he’s seen young women and men struggle between being pulled by the American culture and the expectations of their parents. That struggle, in addition to the politics around immigration, places a burden on young people, he said. Church leaders can listen to them and encourage them in their faith, he said.
“I want to be able to empower young people to continue their faith journey, but really pursue their dreams, aspirations and goals,” he said.
Family, youth leadership top priorities
A series of local reflections and consultations allowed organizers to develop a picture of the fast-growing Hispanic community leading to a fall 2017 meeting. Close to 100 delegates named by pastors participated in the archdiocesan preparations. Members examined the needs of the community at large. The goal was to build on the Pastoral Plan developed as guide for archdiocesan ministry.
Topping the priorities for the Atlanta group is developing leaders in the faith among Hispanics. A goal is to tap parents as religious teachers with their children to foster a close relationship with Jesus and the faith, for a life beyond the mindset of simply going through the motions of checking off a list of sacraments.
Another focus is on how the faces of young Catholics in the United States are increasingly Hispanic. The Atlanta leaders prioritize empowering the youth.
Organizers expressed concern for young people who “have no sense of belonging.” These first- or second-generation Americans “who think and speak English, understand Spanish and try to live their faith as Hispanics, (and) live in both cultures but have no sense of belonging.”
Creating “intentional promotion of youth leadership” and developing “environments where they are accompanied in their journey” could help strengthen ties between the church and the youth, said local leaders.
Another concern is “integration of cultures.” The Atlanta group would like to “inspire integration between our different cultures as brothers and sisters in the world.”
Organizers identified a desire to have parish members come together “with an open heart rather than feeling less or superior.” The Hispanic members are working to help their fellow Catholics “recognize and respect the language of the heart.”