Fuerza Transformadora, the Diocese of Little Rock’s ministry to help young Hispanics, was featured in a study titled “Ministry with Young Hispanic Catholics: Towards a Recipe for Growth and Success,” released Feb. 7 by the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry.
The summary report of initial findings from the National Study of Catholic Organizations Serving Hispanic Youth identified 12 successful Catholic organizations across the country and shared what makes them effective in engaging young Hispanic Catholics as a guide for dioceses and parishes across the United States looking to improve their Spanish ministries.
The study identified 10 pillars of success each organization meets: community, sense of belonging, attention to vulnerability, family involvement, leadership, culture matters, empowerment, Catholic identity, faith formation and missionary drive.
Fuerza Transformadora (Transforming Force) was recognized for several strengths, including diocesan investment; aim-specific ministry; personal testimonies that draw others, creating communication, bringing more young Hispanics into parish life; preventing addiction and violent behavior; and filling a needed ministry that promotes healing and transformation.
“I'm really happy, and it's a gift to us that they would include us in this academic study that provides data that administrators can use to improve,” Jeff Hines, diocesan director of the Faith Formation Office, said. “That gives us a validation of what's working. It's not just about publicity.”
Hosffman Ospino, principal investigator, conducted the study to help parishes adapt their ministries to the country’s growing Hispanic presence, which is nearly 43 percent of the U.S. Catholic population.
“Immigrant and U.S.-born Hispanics constitute the largest body of Catholics among those younger than 40,” he wrote. “The median age of Hispanics is 29. About 60 percent of Catholics younger than 18 self-identify (as) Hispanic.
“As the number of young Hispanic Catholics grows in every corner of the country, Catholic structures and organizations have been rather slow adjusting to that presence... and often struggle to find the right approach to reach out and retain young Hispanic people. In the meantime, millions of Hispanic young people have stopped self-identifying as Catholic.”
Fuerza Transformadora was founded by faith formation associate director Serio Torres in 2003 after he was released from prison, turned to the Church for redemption and couldn’t find the right support to help people like him learn about God, change their lives and break free from drug and alcohol addictions, gang involvement and violent behavior.
Concerned about the crowd he would attract, his parish in northwest Arkansas wouldn’t let him hold meetings on its campus, so the group gathered in a public park. An early meeting included an outdoor, public Mass that drew nearly 1,000 people.
That drew the attention of local Baptist and Episcopal preachers who invited him to use their facilities for his use. When the church found out, they offered Torres space, and in 2006, Fuerza Transformadora became a ministry of the diocese’s Faith Formation Office. Two years ago, he expanded the program to evangelize Hispanic teenagers.
“We started holding youth retreats last year. We had 88 teens in May, 90-something in July and the next two had more than 100,” Torres said.
Today, seven parishes in the diocese have established Fuerza Transformadora programs, and churches in Mexico, Missouri, Texas, Tennessee and Illinois have contacted Torres about helping them start the program in their parishes.
“Everybody's calling me from around the country,” he said. “I'm going to Indiana and Virginia in the next two weeks to talk to churches about helping them set up Fuerza Transformadora.”
Although he knows he has an amazing story, Torres said the recognition is humbling and encouraging.
“I'm just trying to do my call,” he said. “I didn't have a future. I didn't think about the future. The only thing that I thought was that I was going to get shot and killed. That's something that I was waiting for. When I got out of prison, I didn't know anything about God. I didn't know anything about Jesus. When I got out was the first time that I spoke to Jesus and told him that I need help. He helped me. I gave my life to him, and my vocation is to do something for others.”
Torres has used his network to become a budding online sensation. His TikTok account with nearly 300,000 followers — @serioside — evangelizes and helps lift viewers’ moods. In one post, his goal was to simply make people smile.
“Oh, that one went viral,” he said. “It got like 10 million views. That was very cool.”
Hines said Fuerza Transformadora was a grassroots effort from the Holy Spirit, and he wants to see the diocese do more to inspire the laity to bring good ideas forward.
“Serio personally experienced that, and he personally wanted to share it with others in response to Christ,” he said. “So, he did that independently for a couple of years. It wasn't a bunch of (diocesan) directors sitting around a conference room saying what should we do. If we will respond to the work of the Holy Spirit, person to person, then great things can happen. We need to recognize that, follow it and support it and don't expect everything to be done in a top down way.
Torres’ dream is to build a Catholic community center to help local support groups and evangelize. After some initial discussions, he said, some of his contacts across the country are willing to back him financially.
“They asked me ‘What do you have now, to start?’ and I said, ‘I don't have anything, just ideas.’ Then they said, ‘Well, that's what we need. Don't worry about the money. Don't worry about anything.’ The talks are still in the early stages, but it is encouraging.”
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