By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published December 24, 2020
SMYRNA—Heart-felt handwritten prayers hung on a large tapestry of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
“Thank you for being with us through the times of the virus,” wrote one believer.
“Thank you for interceding for us so we can live the will of God,” said another. “I ask that you protect the ones that are still sick and the ones who have passed away.”
Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations on the feast day of Dec. 12 traditionally bring the faithful together, especially those from Central and South America. But not this year. Even the Mexico City basilica at the site of the apparition went dark to keep crowds safe.
Father Jaime Molina of St. Thomas the Apostle Church and parish lay leaders had a different solution to uplift people spiritually.
At the Smyrna parish, the festival moved primarily online for a 24-hour celebration of culture and faith. There was no need to limit participants. Organizers said a global audience of tens of thousands watched from Africa and Asia to Mexico and Brazil.
Our Lady of Guadalupe is the patron saint of the Americas. The feast day is one of the largest celebrations for many Mexicans and other Latinos in the United States.
The parish for 20 years took over the city’s Jim R. Miller Park for the holiday. It is a popular day of ethnic dancing, mariachis and eating folk food. Some 10,000 people come out to the park to participate.
Large crowds are notorious for spreading the coronavirus, and it’s having an impact on the Latino community. In Georgia, Hispanics account for some 15 percent of new COVID-19 cases, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.
Parish leaders offered believers a drive-through experience of what Latinos call Guadalupano as they broadcast on social media.
Migual Mendoza, who has been an organizer for a dozen years, said the parish pulled together a prayer-filled show open to anyone anywhere to experience.
He was there at 3 a.m. as dancers led the Blessed Sacrament outside church to begin a holy hour of prayer.
Standing in the rain praying with a small group of people was a powerful moment in the parking lot, compared to the usual crowds pressing in, he said.
Adriana Murillo worked for months at the parish to get the folk dancers ready. Murillo said many of the dancers are teens whose lives had been disrupted, away from friends and attending online classes. Dancers were excited to finally be a part of something positive after a bad year, she said. A usual year would have had 60 performers, but this year, it was limited to 25, she said.
“Every year we tell them to offer the dances to Our Lady of Guadalupe. We tell them to focus on that,” said Murillo.
Special Masses in English and Spanish were limited to 100 worshippers.
In his homily, Father Molina shared how Our Lady of Guadalupe “is the mother of hope” and consolation, most especially during this pandemic, he said. The Virgin Mary’s message is to not be fearful, but look to the future, he said. Pope Francis reminds people how the pandemic will end and then people have the responsibility to build lives better than before, said the priest.
At the drive-through, a line of cars snaked for hours through the parish parking lot on Saturday, Dec. 12, where Father Molina greeted passengers and offered blessings. The devotees then stopped at the large prayer tapestry and ended in front of the towering reproduction of the mountain—where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared—for more prayers.
Event organizers said they will not go backward. They expect to always offer online video now. English speakers will continue to be part of the feast, with Mass and rosaries. Many people built home altars to enhance prayer and that’ll be encouraged after the pandemic is over.
Murillo gave birth to her second child, Carlos, on Dec. 13 so she did not dance to honor the Virgin Mary. But Mary’s words to trust in God touched Murillo’s heart: what are you afraid of?
“It is definitely something we should think about, with COVID and cases rising. I think we have to have faith,” she said. “We have to keep living.”