Bilingual Retreat Helps Unify Mission

Posted: 7/7/2014

Erwin, Tenn., mission's bilingual retreat

Since Glenmary's Erwin, Tenn., mission was called together by Father Tom Charters and Brother Tom Sheehy in 2011, this congregation of Anglos and Latinos has evolved and grown as a close-knit faith community. And one recent parish effort, a bilingual adult retreat held this year, "took this growth to a whole new level," says pastoral associate Kathy O'Brien.

From the mission's beginnings, Father Tom talked to St. Michael members about fostering unity by having one bilingual (English/Spanish) weekend Mass for the whole parish. The people have always celebrated together this way, say they prefer it, and believe it makes them a stronger community.

In addition, the Glenmary leadership team always "keeps emphasizing that we are one parish. And we keep trying to make that happen," Kathy says. "Whatever we do, we try to do together"—such as worshiping; gathering to share meals and socialize; serving others in need; and celebrating feasts and events. Parishioners have opened themselves up to one another and enjoy being part of the mission, she adds.

Fluent in Spanish, Kathy arrived in August 2012 and immediately began her outreach to Latino mission members and county residents. The number of Latinos at Sunday Mass has grown significantly since then. (Overall Sunday attendance has risen from about 40 in Fall 2011 to 150 today.)

As she established the parish's faith formation program—and later its Vacation Bible School—she invited parents to bring their children. "They definitely wanted religious education for their kids, so this was another major force in drawing people to the mission and bringing them together," she says.

Kathy has been teaching a Spanish/English class, too—which has improved some people's ability to communicate and evangelize and has also attracted more people to the mission.

But beyond all these reasons, "The Spirit has definitely been at work in our mission," she says. "And this year's retreat was an outgrowth of what's been going on here all along. We wanted to have an inclusive, bilingual, inexpensive retreat at the parish house that would further build community and deepen parishioners' faith." A balanced group of 37 Anglos and Latinos registered for the program.

However, finding the best way to carry out a bilingual retreat was a challenge. The planning committee's final consensus was that participants would be divided into five small groups, each made up of both Anglo and Latino parishioners, with a translator at each group's table to assist those who needed it. And the talks on the retreat's major themes would be translated to give all participants equal access.

"We were breaking new ground," Kathy says. "So we just trusted in the Spirit and went with our plan. It worked beautifully."

The "Mission for Our Mission" retreat, which began Friday evening with a meal and concluded Saturday evening, focused on four ways Jesus did missionary work as models for how people can do this work in their own lives today. These four aspects of his ministry were encountering others, using table fellowship, foot-washing, and reaching out to the periphery.

Father Tom gave the opening talks on the first two aspects, while Kathy and Glenmary Father Aaron Wessman made opening presentations on the other two. Each talk was followed by a translated presentation in the second language. (Kathy and Father Aaron provided their own.)

After each lead presentation, a parishioner gave a personal witness talk on the same theme—which was translated and distributed in writing ahead of time to all who needed it. For example, one Latino woman gave a heartfelt talk on breaking down cultural barriers through table fellowship with other parishioners.

Finally, following each personal witness, small groups discussed that ministry theme, then the whole group participated in an appropriate prayer response such as Eucharistic adoration or a foot-washing service.
Each small group also made a chapel visit, during which members took turns praying aloud with the support of fellow members.

Every participant had the chance to fill out a commitment card stating how he or she would try to respond in the future to the baptismal call to mission. The retreat concluded with a time for meditation, repentance and forgiveness, followed by personal confessions.

“It was a lot of work for many dedicated parishioners, but it was worth it,” Kathy says. “And our future retreats will be even better and draw more people. Based on the feedback, I think this retreat made people feel even more a part of the mission community and less hesitant to participate, especially some Latino retreatants.”

Just a few examples: A group of Latino women volunteered to make Mexican food for a parish Cinco de Mayo celebration. Another group offered to make and sell tamales to benefit the church building fund. One woman volunteered to regularly clean the parish house’s main floor. And two nonparishioners who participated in the retreat have begun periodically attending Mass at the mission.

As a participant said on her commitment card, “I will talk more openly about the love I feel at St. Michael. I am so proud to be part of this mission.”

This article appeared in the July 2014 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.