Building Community in Bertie County, N.C.
Since 2004, Glenmary's young Bertie County mission in eastern North Carolina has been building up its Catholic community as it reaches out and builds relationships with its neighbors in the county.
Story and Photos by Dale Hanson
When Glenmary Father Mike Langell (now deceased) and Brother Virgil Siefker called together The Catholic Community of Bertie County (N.C.) in 2004, the small, diverse community numbered about 30. They soon began renting the Methodist church in Windsor for Mass on Sundays.
Almost eight years later, this Glenmary mission community of about 80 still celebrates Sunday Mass in the Methodist church. But new pastor Father Mike Kerin says the financially challenged Windsor mission has grown in many other ways.
"The Episcopal and Methodist congregations have been here over 200 years, and we've been here less than eight," he says. "But our Catholic faith community has developed beyond its years. It has also made many friends and has had a big impact on the larger community."
The Windsor pastoral team includes Father Mike, Brother Virg, Brother Curt Kedley and novice Jason Muhlenkamp, who's preparing for brotherhood. (Jason's mission placement ends in March 2012. He will conclude his novitiate studies in Cincinnati.)
Father Mike also serves as bilingual sacramental minister for Glenmary's growing Plymouth mission in neighboring Washington County, where Sister Arcadia Rivera Gutierrez is pastoral coordinator.
The English-speaking Windsor parishioners are of Filipino, Anglo, African American and Hawaiian descent. The majority are Filipino immigrants who came to the area starting in 2003, when many were recruited to teach in Windsor schools.
"Our mission has a strong sense of community," says Father Mike. "And our lay leadership is definitely one of our strengths." Parish members gather each weekend at a different family's home for a prayer service, singing, a potluck and social time.
According to Father Mike, parents say the prayer services are also one more way they're passing on religious values to their children. This effort reinforces the religious education program—led by the mission's professional teachers with assistance from Jason.
For the future, Father Mike is planning a "unique resource for spiritual needs" called the Christian Spirituality Institute—which will include presentations on topics such as Christian prayer and forgiveness. Its first audience would be parishioners; he hopes it evolves into an ecumenical effort for the larger community.
But one of the mission's major challenges and concerns is not having its own church building and Catholic space, he says. "The parishioners have been raising funds, but we have a long way to go. We need to keep building up our church community so that it's strong enough to support a church building in the future."
Meanwhile, the Bertie County parishioners and pastoral team stay visible, active and ready to reach out to the surrounding community.
Father Mike is impressed by how well the Glenmary brothers are known and respected in the area. "They really know the community and local leaders....We know many people through our ministries, and that helps the Church be better known." For instance, he's a part-time hospital chaplain.
Parishioners frequently invite non-Catholic acquaintances to Mass because they're proud of their faith community and want to share what they have with others. The Filipino teachers are quiet evangelizers, too, says Brother Virg, through their work with many students and parents.
But the mission's watershed outreach effort has been its leading role in helping establish the Good Samaritan Food Pantry in 2009. This unprecedented ecumenical and interracial effort in the county is now supported by 15 area churches. Brother Curt is a key leader at the pantry. He, Brother Virg and Jason volunteer many hours, and mission members also volunteer regularly.
"Folks of different faiths and races come together there as a united front," says Brother Curt.
The mission community has also consistently helped after area floods and tornadoes. The most recent example: Brother Virg is helping construct new homes for people whose houses were destroyed by an April 2011 tornado.
Another focus is ministering to inmates at the state prison in Windsor. Jason, Father Mike and Brother Virg are all part of this ecumenical effort. The goal, says Jason, is "to help the men recognize Christ's presence in their lives."
Brother Curt's "environmental ministries" have been attempts to evangelize and to help revitalize the economically struggling Windsor community. His efforts include building decorative stone walls around 50 trees on Main Street, periodically volunteering as first mate on a Cashie River tour boat and serving on a civic improvement committee.
Beyond all these endeavors, the men are involved in ministries to the neglected and forgotten—affirming their value and bringing them joy. For example, Brother Curt works part-time at a nursing facility, befriending residents as he works, while Jason visits local nursing homes. And Brother Virg, Jason and Brother Curt also deliver Meals on Wheels.
Members of the Windsor mission continue to witness to their faith, build community and build up the kingdom of God, says Father Mike. "I'm looking forward to walking with them...into the future."
This article first appeared in the Spring 2012 Glenmary Challenge.