Hispanic youth in Texas are fueled to serve others in mission.
When Gabriela Nieto was 6 years old, she arrived with her family in Houston, Texas. She remembers very little about her native country, Mexico, because she grew up and was educated in the United States. During her teenage years, she had a difficult time because of her legal status as an undocumented immigrant.
One day in her 20s, she was invited to participate in a Youth Mission Encounter that not only changed her attitude but also helped her discover her mission to serve God and her community.
The Youth Mission Encounter is designed to raise mission awareness among young U.S. Hispanics. It began as the brainchild of Sister Maria Dolores Ramirez, a Carmelite Sister of the Sacred Heart, who shared the idea with Hispanic youth in the Galveston-Houston Archdiocese. Excited about the possibility, they sought help from Father Gerald Kelly, director of the Maryknoll Society mission promotion house in Houston.
Father Kelly recalls the day eight years ago when the youths knocked on his door and asked how they could start a mission encounter. “I asked them, ‘Do you have funds and a place for it?’ And they replied, ‘no,’ ” says the 81-year-old missioner. “I helped them find a parish in Houston, where they began the first gathering with 12 participants, who stayed overnight in parishioners’ houses, a model that we still have.”
Every year since then, Father Kelly and other missioners have organized the encounter in different parishes in the archdiocese. Father Kelly says he is proud to support the young lay missioners, who serve in mission with a variety of organizations in Houston and overseas, and develop a deeper understanding of mission during the encounter.
Father Kelly, who is a member of the Mission Council of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston, says, “At the national level, we consider this new movement of young missioners the ‘third wave of mission.’ The ‘first wave’ was the conquest of America by Spain and Portugal in the 16th century, when Spanish and Portuguese missioners evangelized and converted populations to Christianity. The ‘second wave’ was when mission organizations like Maryknoll were sent overseas to evangelize in the 19th century, but now we are getting to know the ‘third wave’ of lay missioners, who serve in mission for a short time, locally or internationally. They offer consistent and varied volunteer service in their communities. These new missioners need a lot of formation and reflection, and we are already seeing good results.”
Nieto is one example. She has been participating in the Youth Mission Encounter since it began and now she helps organize it. After attending the first Mission Encounter, she became a lay missioner affiliated with the Carmelite Sisters of the Sacred Heart (CasaHeart). “I learned that being a missioner is a way of living and it is part of my life,” she says.
Nieto now has a bachelor’s degree in education and is a teacher of mathematics at a public school in Houston. She enrolled in a federal program that allows young undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States temporarily and work legally. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was an initiative of the Obama administration, but its future remains uncertain. “Thanks to God’s hands, I was able to become a professional and although I cannot go back to my country (because of her immigration status), my mission is to live and serve God, my students at the schools, my family, parish and community,” she says.
Dulce Tovar is another young participant who has been attending the encounter from the start. Tovar, who also became a CasaHeart lay missioner, explains how the encounter fosters mission vocations. “In the gathering we present different mission organizations that serve locally and overseas, and if a young person feels the call to serve, they can do mission in the United States, Mexico, Ecuador, Colombia or Guatemala,” she says.
The most recent encounter last November gathered more than 50 participants at Houston’s Holy Name Parish, which opened its doors to welcome the lay missionaries, most of whom are immigrants from Mexico and Central America. The parish hall was decorated with flags of different countries. The center of the floor contained a huge mission rosary forming what participants called “the sacred circle.” Inside the circle was a map and photos from the world’s five continents—Africa, Asia, Oceania, Europe and America—and pots made from car tires that held plants, representing the importance of care for the earth. In the front of the room was a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Participants were dispersed among five tables, each group representing a continent.
During the encounter’s formation program, Maryknoll mission promoters Deacon Leonel Yoque and Yvonne Dilling encouraged participants to live the message of Pope Francis in his apostolic exhortation The Joy of the Gospel in which he says the Church must be missionary. They invited participants to reflect on their own missionary works.
Citing Pope Francis’ recent encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Yoque and Dilling also invited participants to reflect on how to move from an ego system to an eco system. “The ego system is consumption, greed, waste and individualism, while the eco system unites us as a community, teaches us to share, to be generous and helps us to develop a way of love,” Yoque said. “Jesus isn’t an individualist, rather he gives and shares his merciful love.”
The two-and-a-half-day program included songs, group dynamics and conversations about issues affecting the world’s most vulnerable people. A highlight was the Holy Hour where participants knelt and offered their heartfelt prayers before the Blessed Sacrament.
In a “faith walk” they carried the huge mission rosary in procession around the parish, praying for the most vulnerable and praising the Virgin Mary with songs. The encounter ended with Mass and a mission-sending ceremony.
Father Kelly says the young lay missioners have learned to recognize the need to relate to others by creating human relationships and spiritual bonds. “The mission is expanding everywhere, in many ways,” he says. “It is a work of the Holy Spirit. These young people want to cross borders and care for the most needy in their communities so that the Kingdom of God is present among us.”
Dulce Tovar, who coordinates the youth encounter and other missionary projects with Father Kelly, says the Maryknoll priest has been an example and inspiration for her in her own mission.
“He is a man full of God, joyful, generous, helpful and tireless. He is our ‘godfather’ and we respect him as a father,” she says. “Sometimes I wonder how he does so much for the missions. We are grateful for all his love and support.”
But Boston-born Father Kelly, who served in mission in Latin America for more than 30 years, says he is privileged to work with Hispanics in Texas, who, according to the 2010 census, represent 38 percent of the state’s population.
“The contribution of young Hispanics is very important for this new movement, the ‘third wave of mission.’ Hispanics still keep their values and have a close relationship between life and God,” says the Maryknoll missioner. “Hispanics can help Anglos incorporate these values into their lives.”
Featured image: Dulce Tovar (right) encourages Hispanic participants to serve in mission and share their experience with their communities.