Creating parish communities that focus on spiritual formation, youth, vocational culture, family and economic stability are priorities for Hispanics in the state as a way to establish a closer bond to the Church and feel welcome, according to findings from Arkansas’ V Encuentro or “Fifth Encounter.”
“It does become like our second family, the Church does. That’s where we feel at home and not feel threatened. I think we have to be a more welcoming community,” said Sister Norma Edith Muñoz, MCP, diocesan director of Hispanic Ministry.
Twenty-five Diocese of Little Rock delegates, made up of parishioners, a priest, deacons, sisters and seminarians, discussed this information at the Region X Encuentro, April 13-15 in San Antonio, Texas, sharing their stories and learning from other dioceses about how to best keep the evangelization spirit alive.
The four-year evangelization initiative was created by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops with the goal of reaching out to the Hispanic and Latino communities throughout the country to share their faith. About 24 parish teams knocked on doors of people in their communities, many fallen-away Catholics, to evangelize. St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Rogers alone sent out 350 missionaries, Sister Norma said.
The program’s spirituality is stemmed from the story of the disciples at Emmaus, Luke 24:13-35 and focused on five sessions from Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.”
About 500 people were trained to be a part of a parish team starting in October 2016. Following the evangelization efforts, each parish held its own parish Encuentro to reflect and report on the fruits of the program. A Diocesan Encentro was held Nov. 18 at the state fairgrounds in Little Rock with about 2,000 attendees. The day included testimonials from parish teams and a bilingual Mass concelebrated by Bishop Anthony B. Taylor.
The regional Encuentro this month is a step before the V National Encuentro in September outside Dallas, Texas. There were 15 submitted results from Arkansas parish programs and Sister Norma, along with Sisters Ana Luisa Díaz Vázquez, MCP, Silvia Garza, MCP, and Mayela Baez, MCSC and St. Mary in Batesville parishioner Ligia Lawson, created a working document with statistics and findings that was approved by Bishop Taylor and submitted to the Region X Encuentro committee. From there, the committee will create a regional document, listing priorities and findings from Arkansas, Texas and Oklahoma.
The most telling data of the diocesan working document detailed top priorities for Hispanics that led with formation at all age and Church levels, from catechists to youth ministry leaders. With youth as the second priority, the needs were focused on creating a “vocational culture.”
“To create a vocational culture is just to get everybody involved. You are called to live a vocation, I’m called to live as religious, others are called to a vocation to matrimony or priesthood,” Sister Norma said, adding that Hispanic parents need to include religious life as part of the conversation when talking about a vocational path for their child. “… We talk about needing priests that … not only speak our language but understand our culture, but we don’t promote vocations within our families here.”
Families also need to be the focus, including promoting the dignity of women, marriage counseling and couples helping other couples, the document stated. The fourth priority titled “economic funds” detailed the need for workshops to guide parents and youth through scholarships and financial aid programs, workshops on financial education and providing more food banks for families in need.
It also lists several concerns held by Hispanics including feelings of being unsafe and unwelcome, racism, economic challenges and lack of knowledge about the faith and Scripture, creating feelings of abandonment by the Church.
“We kind of talk about the second and third generation and they did express they did not feel welcome,” Sister Norma said. “They did express that they didn’t find that sense of belonging in the Church.”
Activities that helped affirm the presence and contributions of Hispanic Catholics included Masses in Spanish, home visits, having a Hispanic pastoral council and promoting cultural religious activities like posadas or live Stations of the Cross.
While evangelizing in her local community of Batesville, Ligia Lawson had heard concerns ranging from a lack of transportation to a lack of people who speak Spanish in the parish.
“I hope to talk about the different answers I heard in our community and try to work with the other people to do something to help or do something to change … some things in our community,” Lawson said of her involvement ahead of the regional meeting.
Sister Norma said she hopes those who attend the Region X Encuentro will continue to be “missionary disciples” and bring new ideas back to their parishes.
“Keep knocking on doors, reaching out to the people that are out there. There’s a lot of people that are willing to be a part of society and to be a part of the Catholic community,” she said. “Once they feel welcomed, they get involved. And really, the Church becomes like a second home to us, I say that as an immigrant myself.”
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