Putting Down Roots

Putting Down Roots

by Ann Thompson

As more and more Spanish-speaking immigrants settle permanently in North Carolina, Jesuits are there to minister to their needs, both physical and spiritual.

The road to Hot Springs, North Carolina, dips and curves through the Blue Ridge Mountains like a carnival ride. This tiny southern town, home to the Jesuit House of Prayer, a retreat house, is a slice of down-home America. Here you'll find bluegrass music, clog dancing, fried chicken, and tamales.



In recent years North Carolina has become a mecca for Hispanic immigrants. Drawn by many jobs, appreciative bosses, and temperate climes, they flock to the state from Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador, from New York, California, and Texas.

In less than three years North Carolina's Hispanic population has quadrupled. In Raleigh, the Jesuits' St. Raphael Church started two years ago with one mass in Spanish per month for a handful of worshipers. Now there are Spanish masses every Sunday, attended by 500 to 700. Estimates now have the number of Hispanic Catholics equaling non-Hispanic Catholics in North Carolina.

But even boosted by the recent influx of Catholic Hispanics, North Carolina's Catholic population is still only 3 percent. "You have to be ecumenical if you want to be a Christian here," says Fr. Frank Reese, SJ, who has worked in the mountains of western North Carolina for 22 years. That's where the Jesuits' Hispanic ministry began in this state when an ecumenical group called their attention to a growing community of Mexican immigrants.

Collaboration the key

Traces of anti-Catholic bias linger in North Carolina, but the once-vast Protestant-Catholic chasm has virtually closed. "Growing up in the South, I could never have imagined how much the Catholic-Protestant conflict would ease after Vatican II," says Fr. Paul Brant, SJ, who serves Hispanic Catholics in the state. (See Related Story below)

Today, Protestant ministers in North Carolina are collaborating with the Catholic Church in a joint effort to serve the growing needs of the Hispanic community. On the state's east coast, Hispanic Catholics celebrate weddings and saints' days in the Bellhaven Christian church, and the Presbyterian church in Beulaville has opened its doors for regular Hispanic masses. In both cases the Protestant ministers sought out the Catholics to offer the use of their facilities -- without any attempt to compete for Hispanic congregants. Fr. Reese reports that in the mountains, Catholics and Protestants recently met for a series of study circles designed to foster understanding among Anglo, Hispanic, and African-American residents. The nondenominational gatherings took place not only in people's houses but also in Baptist and Catholic churches.

Jesuits involved in Hispanic ministry collaborate with fellow Catholics as well. In Winston-Salem, St. Benedict the Moor pastor Fr. Lawrence Hunt, SJ, works with Franciscan and Oblate parishes as well as with Sr. Joan Pearson, SSJ, who recently asked the Jesuits for help with her camp for Hispanic children. The Maryland Province sent her Larry Yevenes and Gustavo Barrios, two Jesuit scholastics from Chile.

"They are wonderful, young, holy men," says Sr. Joan. "The Jesuit charism is down-to-earth. They did everything from giving homilies to washing cars. Plus, being from Chile, they taught the children how to honor and celebrate their Hispanic heritage."

North Carolina Jesuits also collaborate with laypeople. Sacred Heart's Hispanic apostolate was begun by parishioner Ms. Elizabeth Turner, who continues to work tirelessly for the cause. And late in 1997, Fr. Michael Flynn, SJ, launched the Hispanic program at St. Raphael's with the help of church member and Colombian Oliverio Phillips-Michelson. Fr. Shay Auerbach, SJ, recently came to St. Raphael's and soon found himself relying heavily upon a number of Hispanic parishioners, including Mr. Phillips-Michelson and Ms. Consuelo Kwee, director of the Catholic Social Ministries' Hispanic Family Center. "The center handles all the nonreligious needs of any Hispanic parishioner," she explains.

Ms. Kwee and Fr. Auerbach work with contacts in the legal, medical, and social service fields to develop Hispanic programs. With a core of other parishioners, Ms. Kwee recently helped Fr. Auerbach organize St. Raphael's Hispanic Family Fair, a day-long festival featuring food, games, music, crime-prevention seminars, and a health fair with free vaccinations.

Giving Communion

Fr. Prospero Geronimo, from Guadalajara, lends a hand at first communion at St. Raphael Church in Raleigh, North Carolina; "He'd done a wedding of two parishioners he knew from Mexico," says associate pastor Fr. Shay Auerbach, SJ. "Turns out he knew other Mexican parishioners, including the family of one girl making her first communion, so I invited him to concelebrate." Jesuits in Hispanic ministry here rely on other religious and laypeople, Catholic and Protestants alike, in their work.

All things to all people

But not all of North Carolina's Jesuits are fortunate enough to have a resource like the Hispanic Family Center. In most cases, the Hispanic community has grown so suddenly that no such infrastructures are in place. The Jesuits end up trying to meet all needs themselves, sacramental and otherwise. In addition to providing religious services and hosting social activities, they help Hispanic newcomers negotiate the immigration process, find jobs, locate housing, obtain health care, and establish bank accounts, among other tasks. "In times of crisis and on feast days, everyone knows about us," says Fr. Auerbach.

For instance, St. Raphael's recently offered a parenting-skills workshop and a seminar on how to buy a home. In western North Carolina, when the health department wanted to inform Hispanic residents about rubella, they called Fr. Reese.

With contacts in the local government and social service agencies, the Jesuits have become active advocates for their areas' Spanish-speaking populace. "Jesuits are visible resource persons," adds Fr. Reese. "They're known as people who will get involved whenever someone in the Hispanic community needs help."

Fr. Reese got involved in Hispanic ministry in 1996. At an age when most people are retiring, he went off to study Spanish, then returned to North Carolina to say mass for Spanish-speaking people in Burnsville. According to his successor, Fr. Ed Ifkovits, SJ, Fr. Reese is now "the primary liturgical resource" for the area's Hispanic Catholics. He offers a mass in Spanish at Sacred Heart every Sunday and helps host Hispanic festivals.

One such festival, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a major holiday for Mexicans, draws up to 200 Hispanic Catholics to Sacred Heart. Celebrations begin with a procession through the streets of the small mountain town of Burnsville, then mass, then a fiesta that includes a customary Mexican feast of tamales and rice, with traditional dancing and, funds permitting, a Mariachi band.

This feast is a huge celebration throughout the state: In Raleigh, St. Raphael's Our Lady of Guadalupe feast drew a crowd of 1,000, so large a number that a Spanish radio station asked to broadcast the mass live.

A hardscrabble life

Such festivities are a welcome break from the difficult life most Hispanic immigrants lead. "They are widely known as very hard workers," says Fr. Reese. "You name it, the Hispanics will try their hands at it: waiting tables, constructing buildings, mowing lawns, picking tobacco, and harvesting Christmas trees, to name a few." Hispanic workers in North Carolina take on the kind of unskilled labor that many U.S. workers will not."

On the move

Hispanics in the state tend to be young, male, and transient; the ranks of farm and construction workers swell in summer and shrink in winter. They live wherever they can find housing, often sharing small quarters. They work long hours and send much of their pay back home to their families. It is a hard and frequently lonely life.

"Alcoholism is a real problem," says Fr. Auerbach. Not surprisingly, auto accidents are a common cause of death. "Nobody dies of old age," he continues. Fr. Brant's observations on the topic are similar to Fr. Auerbach's: "We have no grandparents in the Hispanic community. Virtually all the deaths are accidental."

But the demographics of Hispanic immigration in North Carolina are shifting. Not long ago the state was primarily agricultural, but in recent years its cities have burgeoned due to an explosion in high tech and other businesses, and this has spawned steadier jobs in construction and food service.

With more-dependable income, more Hispanic immigrants are settling in North Carolina and a permanent community is beginning to grow. Jesuits are officiating at more Hispanic weddings, and recently at St. Raphael's, fourteen Hispanic families had children baptized, not all of whom were infants. Many come from rural areas in their home countries with little or no access to Catholic churches; it is not unusual to see four-year-olds being baptized and young adults making first communions.

Praying together

A sense of community is developing among North Carolina Hispanics due to a major change in their immigration patterns: service jobs created in the cities by a high-tech boom cause people to stay year-round rather than leave after seasonal work dries up.

New life, new losses

The emergence of young families will enrich any community, but with this can come a new layer of poverty and loss. In the past eight months, Fr. Auerbach has officiated at four funerals for Hispanics, all young people. One was for a three-year-old who died of asthma. The temperature got to 105 in Raleigh one summer day. Her family's apartment didn't have air conditioning. By the time they got to the emergency room, it was too late.

"In a region of so much affluence, she died because of poverty," recalls Fr. Auer-bach. Such loss is not unusual among a people well acquainted with privation. "There is a customary Hispanic blessing of a child at three years old, because in some Latin countries if a child lives to be three, it's a miracle," explains St. Raphael's parishioner Ms. Maria Timberlake, a native of Mexico.

Yet, in the face of such human suffering and struggle, the Hispanic immigrants have an almost unyielding faith. "They are a long-suffering people. They evangelize us in their simplicity and poverty," says Fr. Reese, whose spiritual life has been deepened by his new mission. "I feel very humbled that at age 69 I took up Spanish and begin preaching God's word in another language. It can be a struggle to find words that are a bit of encouragement and resurrection for these people whose lives and backgrounds are so different from my own."

Instinctively Jesuit

The Hispanic community seems to have an instinct for Ignatian spirituality, says Fr. Auerbach, "What some people might mistake for superstition seems rather to be a profound sense of God in the material world. I've been asked to bless all kinds of things: restaurants, medals, cars, candles, even CDs. There seems to be a natural Ignatian spirituality at play, a sacramental view of creation. Hispanic believers are not finding God in all things; they are already convinced that God is present; all they have to do is connect with that presence."

Fr. Auerbach tried a new approach during Christmas mass this year. He quoted Ignatius's Spiritual Exercises in the original Spanish: Abrazar y besar los lugares donde las tales personas pisan y se asientan: "I will touch and kiss those places where these holy people stood." The Hispanic parishioners were transfixed. "They were on the edge of their seats; the language of Ignatius spoke to them," Fr. Auerbach recalls. "It makes sense; Ignatius was a Basque, the product of an Iberian world view."*

Paul Brant, SJ

Ask anyone in the Maryland Province about Hispanic ministry in North Carolina and the name Fr. Paul Brant, SJ, comes up pretty quickly. A North Carolinian by birth, Fr. Brant began his work with the Hispanic community while serving in the Bronx and Chicago. Four years ago he took on the many challenges of serving as full-time itinerant priest to Hispanic immigrants in the Eastern portion of the Raleigh diocese.

Fr. Brant, Padre Pablo, as he is known, drives a 300-mile circuit "down East," through North Carolina's coastal flatlands. This eight-parish region has only seven Spanish-speaking priests for tens of thousands of Hispanic Catholics, nearly a third of whom are migrant workers. Bilingual and indefatigable, Fr. Brant spends all his time trying to meet their needs. He virtually lives in his car, driving to and from rural communities.

Fr. Brant travels the circuit every weekend, saying six to seven masses in Spanish, hearing confessions, administering the sacraments, organizing retreats, and meeting with Hispanics in need. In Beulaville, he launched his ministry by saying a weekly mass in Spanish at a laundromat where Mexicans would gather Saturday nights to clean clothes and call home to Mexico. Eventually, a newspaper article (entitled "Saving Souls and Cleaning Clothes") drew the attention of community leaders, who offered to let Fr. Brant's "parishioners" use a Presbyterian church.

After Sunday services, Padre Pablo passes around cards listing the times and locations of the masses he says in Spanish; on the flip side are his phone and pager numbers.

"We kept hearing about this priest that wanders around, and finally we found him," says Noah Pertin, a parishioner in Beulaville. Fr. Brant also is well known by the local leaders. A member of the Governor's Advisory Council for Hispanic-Latino Affairs, he is often called in to interpret or intercede for Hispanics. Fr. Brant recently helped a Hispanic man who had been arrested. The man's lawyer was complaining that the man kept changing his story. "He wasn't changing his story. His translator was interpreting him inaccurately," he explains.

During the week, Padre Pablo wears many hats: personal counselor, chauffeur, advocate, translator, you name it. "I've helped 150 people get driver's licenses in the last few years," he says.

He also helped out during last year's disastrous floods. "The Hispanics live in the poorest, most substandard housing, so they were hit the worst. People lost homes, furniture, clothing, and three weeks of work." (Later, many Hispanics also were cheated by salesmen who sold them flood-damaged cars that were unusable.) Thanks to a massive fund-raising effort by the Jesuits' Maryland Province, eastern North Carolina received tens of thousands of dollars in flood relief. Fr. Brant is using the money to build flood-proof shelters in preparation for any future storms.

Ann Thompson

Georgetown Prep's former director of publications, Ann Thompson returned to freelance writing and editing. She lives in the Washington, D.C., area with her husband, Ben Williams, chair of Georgetown Prep's English department.

Page maintained by [email protected] Copyright(c) Company Magazine, 2000. Updated: 11/14/00