Diverse North Carolina Mission Growing in Many Ways

Posted: 11/30/2016

By Margaret Gabriel

The defining characteristic of St. Joan of Arc, the Glenmary mission in Plymouth (Washington County), N.C., could well be “growth.” In addition to growing in numbers, the mission is growing in faith formation and community outreach. Perhaps most important, parishioners are growing in understanding of each other.

The growth of the Latino community in eastern North Carolina has meant an increase in the number of Spanish speakers in the mission, but the mission’s diversity is far richer than just having Spanish-speaking and English-speaking members. The Latino community within the Plymouth parish comprises about 80 percent of the congregation and comes from several countries, including Mexico, Peru, Colombia and Honduras. The Anglo community includes people who have lived in North Carolina their whole lives and those who have retired to Plymouth from northern cities because of its low cost of living. Julian Crespo Moncada, St. Joan of Arc’s pastoral coordinator, called the parish’s diversity its greatest strength.

“The cultures are different in all those countries,” Julian said. “Even from different parts of Mexico, people bring different traditions.” Blending the traditions of these cultures is sometimes challenging, but it provides the parish community with a richness valued by Julian and the mission members. He observed that the cultures “complement each other well.”

When Sister Arcadia Rivera Gutierrez became Glenmary pastoral coordinator in 2008, attendance at the weekend Spanish Mass was only about 12, with fewer at the English Mass. But she and Sister Martha Alvarado Moreno worked to gather the Catholic community, and their efforts resulted in an attendance increase to 60-80 people at Spanish Mass and about 15 at English Mass.

The congregation experienced another surge of growth when Julian arrived in 2012. Today, over 100 people attend Spanish Mass and about 20 participate in English Mass. Julian’s home visits are responsible for much of that increased interest: he makes it a point to extend personal invitations to families in Washington and the surrounding counties.

The Impact of Lay Leadership in Plymouth
Having a layperson leading the parish, rather than a priest or religious, was new for the people of Plymouth and took some adjustment. At first, Julian said, he struggled. “They would look at me and say, ‘He’s one of us. He’s not an authority; he’s a man with a family.’ Now they see me as someone with a family, but someone they can learn from.”
Ruben Campos values Julian’s skills as a teacher. Ruben, an agricultural worker, has been a St. Joan member for six years and is a lifelong churchgoer because of the example set by his parents as he was growing up in Mexico. “I go because I need help every day,” Ruben said. “Going to church is life for me.”

Ruben is enthusiastic about the parish’s Bible study group that regularly attracts 25 people because of Julian’s leadership and the knowledge of Scripture he shares. Ruben called Julian “a very good person.”

Susie Jakeman, a longtime St. Joan parishioner, appreciates the effort Julian makes to learn about Plymouth’s customs and culture. “He gels with us,” Susie said. “He’s fluent in English, but he has also learned the jargon of eastern North Carolina.”

Susie described St. Joan of Arc as “a neat little church.” She was raised in a large Catholic church in Greensboro, about 200 miles west of Plymouth. But she prefers the smaller Plymouth mission community with its family feeling, and she appreciates the strength it gains through diversity.

“We’ve been blessed by Glenmary’s presence,” said Susie. “When I first came here in 1969, we had Mass in somebody’s house. And if I told people in the larger community I was Catholic, they looked at me like I had said a curse word. Now we are accepted and participate in the local community with all the other churches.”

Like the leaders of other Glenmary missions, Julian attends regular meetings of the local ministerial association, whose members help plan the area’s interfaith services during Lent and Holy Week. They and their congregations also collaborate on other important community outreach efforts and activities, such as the area food pantry and local fundraising initiatives including an annual festival. These efforts are much needed in a county where nearly 25 percent of the people live below the national poverty level.

Outreach to Others, Sharing of Spiritual Culture
Julian leads the mission in its community outreach, which includes a weekly trip with a few mission members to minister to people (up to 35-40) who work in the crabbing industry in coastal North Carolina. “The mostly female workers have Catholic roots but are isolated by distance from the rest of the deanery,” Julian said.

He and the other St. Joan members travel over an hour to meet with these workers for Bible study, Liturgy of the Word and a Communion service. “We help them nurture their faith,” he said. He knows that the distance between the coastal region and Plymouth makes regular trips to the Glenmary mission impossible for these workers. However, he envisions organizing one-day retreats for them, hoping to help them bond as a community of faith.

Other St. Joan outreach efforts range from family counseling provided by Julian to Bible study classes held in the homes of parishioners who live far away. In addition, he said, “We sometimes receive grants that we can use to provide local people in need with financial assistance.”

As autumn rolls around, the mission gears up for its busiest time of year. Beginning in mid-November and continuing well into Advent, the parish prays novenas to Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patroness of Mexico and the Americas, whose feast day is December 12.

“We honor Our Lady of Guadalupe, pray the Rosary, eat and share conversation,” said Julian, describing the novena gatherings that take place at parishioners’ residences. Although most of these gatherings are hosted by Latino mission members, two or three Anglo families enjoy hosting, too.

Soon after the novenas, the celebration shifts to posadas, a nine-day observance that honors the pilgrimage of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem before the birth of Jesus.

Since arriving in 2012, Julian has always made sure that all his mission members are invited to and included in these novenas, posadas and accompanying celebrations, which are an important part of the spiritual culture of the faith community.

St. Joan parishioners are residents of six counties of eastern North Carolina; some drive more than an hour, one way, to attend services. Most who drive great distances are Latino, Julian said. With a bit of prodding, he acknowledged that families make the long trips because of the vibrancy of the community he has called together.

The benefit of the parish’s ethnic, cultural and residential diversity is evident in the feeling of family among members. Julian laughed and said that many members know everything about each other—the good as well as the bad—“and they love each other anyway.”

An Evolving Youth Faith Formation Program
In 2012, all parish catechists were Anglo, and their students were almost all Latino. At the time, Julian remarked, the youth faith formation program was the primary place where the Anglo and Latino communities intersected.

The adults in the Latino community didn’t believe then that they had the spiritual insight or gifts they needed to be catechists. But Julian has helped people recognize how much they are needed to assist parish youth in their religious formation. He gently invites Latino members to take the diocesan training (available in English and Spanish) needed to teach. Sometimes, he said, it takes as much as a year for people to agree.

Today, 60 percent of the mission catechists are Latino. And the growing youth faith formation program now includes more than 60 Latino children and four Anglo children.

To supplement Glenmary missions’ religious formation programs, youth-group volunteers and chaperones from The Covenant Community of Jesus the Good Shepherd parish in Owings, Md., have also conducted Vacation Bible School programs at various missions for 15 years. Every summer since 2011, they have come to St. Joan of Arc. All the children of the mission area have been invited to the Bible School, but attendance has been almost all Catholic, Julian said. “They’ve had a great time every year, and the Owings volunteers said they’ll be back in 2017!”

Adult Formation for Christian Parenting
Julian and his wife, Adriana, the parents of three young children, teach weekly Christian parenting classes. “We hope to train two or three other couples to teach as well,” he said.

The class is a diocesan initiative, but Julian and Adriana—who works  as promoter of Hispanic ministry for the Diocese of Raleigh in the Albemarle deanery—have adapted the class for the people of their rural area. The curriculum includes instruction in doctrine and basic Scripture.

 “We talk about raising children with Christian values in a community that values church, and how they can integrate themselves culturally,” said Julian.

Many Ways to Unify and Empower People
Because it is important for a community to worship together, the parish holds bilingual penitential services in Advent and Lent, bilingual Stations of the Cross during Lent, and bilingual Holy Week liturgies. Julian himself provides a musical bridge between the English- and Spanish-speaking communities by playing guitar as part of the music ministry for both English and Spanish liturgies.

Potluck suppers after Mass on the first Saturday of every month give the entire parish community another opportunity to gather together as one congregation.

Julian forecasts ongoing growth for the Plymouth mission, and he envisions himself helping youth from the parish take advantage of available educational opportunities. More and more young people from the mission are attending nearby East Carolina State University to “invest their talent in the community,” he said.

In Latino communities, many parents want their children to go to college but are often unaware of the process needed to apply and enroll. Julian believes that through education, students and their families can become integrated into the community in North Carolina and the United States, and he works to help St. Joan families with that integration. “I’m interested in empowering families to be part of society through education.”

Father Mike Kerin, pastor of Glenmary’s mission in Windsor (Bertie County), also serves as sacramental minister for St. Joan of Arc. He commends Julian’s effective lay leadership and the vibrant Plymouth parish community that attracts new members.

Parishioner Susie Jakeman said that “the language barrier is hard to overcome. We might have two Masses, but we know that we have a lot to offer each other.”

This story first appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of Glenmary Challenge magazine.