Pastor and Parishioners Build Up Mission Community
After leading the Swainsboro, Ga., mission for six years until it was returned to the Savannah diocese for continued pastoral care, Father John Brown traveled about 200 miles down the road in January 2013 to begin a new Glenmary pastorate in Blakely, located in Early County, Ga.
"It's always hard to leave people I know and love," he says. "But it has been exciting to come to a new place to serve God and God's people."
He's also serving as sacramental minister for Glenmary's new Cuthbert mission in nearby Randolph County, led by pastoral coordinator Susan Sweet. And he'll be providing outreach ministry in adjoining Miller and Clay counties, where there is no Catholic presence.
Father John's Holy Family mission in Early County was served by the Missionary Servants of the Most Holy Trinity for a number of years before the diocese asked Glenmary to assume responsibility this year. In talking to parishioners, he realized his primary focus had to be "working with them to build up an active, involved, close-knit eucharistic community that will also reach out to the larger community.
"I've been impressed by our mission members' hope, desire and willingness to try," he says. His diverse congregation includes Anglos, Latinos and people of Vietnamese, Filipino and Indian descent. About 1 percent of county residents are Catholic. And almost 30 percent of the total county population live below the national poverty level.
With Father John's nurturing approach, Sunday Mass attendance has been on the upswing, with 20-30 people at English Mass and 30-45 at Spanish Mass. Latino parishioners, for example, have felt warmly welcomed by their new pastor, who speaks fluent Spanish, is always ready to talk and help, and is offering new faith formation opportunities. In fact, 15 Latino Catholics from another county are now traveling 25-40 minutes, one way, to Blakely for Mass on Sundays.
The mission's new religious education program has also brought this community new life and increased unity—as have the periodic covered-dish suppers and other mission activities.
"Early this year, parishioners began asking for religious education," says Father John. "So we signed up students and trained six volunteer catechists." For seven weeks in the spring, 30 young people under age 18 participated in classes each Sunday between Masses, with four adult Latinos taking Bible studies. "It went really well and we'll continue this fall. RCIA is also in our plans."
Another new, quickly organized program was the mission's first Vacation Bible School (VBS) in June, with 25 children and 12 adults participating during the week. "It was a very good experience and a great cooperative effort," he says, "with help from a Glenmary seminarian, a priest and deacon from Decatur County, Ga., and a priest from Florida."
Father John believes strongly in building a network of mutual cooperation among Catholic churches in the region. He has reached out to parishes in nearby Georgia and Alabama counties: they now know they can call on him, and he can call on them. "We need to realize we're not alone," he says. "We need each other's help."
He prays about many other plans and hopes, too. For instance, he hopes to further strengthen relationships between mission members, establish a finance council, increase adult education, start an active youth group, and begin English as a Second Language classes. "All these plans depend on the Holy Spirit and the people," he says. In the meantime, parishioners give their time and talents as they help the mission function day to day.
The Glenmarian is also urging mission members to evangelize and reach out to the larger community. "I told them I can't promise that, if we witness to what we believe, there will be 100 more people in our church two years from now. But I can promise there will be hundreds more who think better about Catholics and know more about the Catholic faith."
He says it's particularly important to reach out to the county's African Americans, who comprise 49 percent of the population. When a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration was held at a Blakely church in January, Father John and three Holy Family parishioners were the only white people there. He was even asked to say a few words.
More recently, he stopped his bike at an African American church where people were carrying in food and clothing for distribution to local residents in need. He promptly helped them with their work that day, and he's "going to encourage our mission members to volunteer there." He's also begun donating clothes to a local thrift shop and plans to suggest that parishioners do the same.
A Rotary Club member since 1987, Father John was recently asked by the Blakely chapter to be their chaplain and community service director. In addition, he's made connections with some ministers of other denominations and plans to help start a local ministerial association soon: "I hope with God's grace we can get it moving."
Still another vehicle he has used to reach people is the local newspaper. He wrote a well-received article about this year's papal conclave. And he's been invited to write more faith-related pieces this fall.
And then there are his many one-to-one ministries—helping people with various challenges in their daily lives.
"I pray that God will continue to bless me and the people here," says Father John, "as we build up our mission community and try to do God's work."
This article first appeared in the September 2013 Boost-A-Month Club newsletter.