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Macon Telegraph

Churches Reaching Out To Growing Hispanic Population

By Liz Fabian

May 16, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Macon Telegraph. All rights reserved.

For Jose Maria Garcia, answering God's call means answering the phone at all hours of the night.

Garcia is the Hispanic minister at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Macon. He's one of several people employed by the Diocese of Savannah to minister to the increasing number of Hispanic Catholics living in central and south Georgia.

The needs are not always spiritual.

Garcia helps his Latino brethren find food, open bank accounts and cope with immigration laws.

He moved to Atlanta from his native Venezuela in 1989 because he recognized the suffering of Hispanic people who were forging ahead for a better life in the United States, he said.

"I have a Mexican heart," said Garcia. "I've been a long time working with people from Mexico."

* * *

Children, wearing traditional native Mexican costumes, walk with an image of the Virgin Mary in a procession to the church during one of the biggest feast days of the year for Hispanic Catholics.

Each Dec. 12, Hispanics at St. Peter Claver honor the Lady of Guadalupe - the Virgin Mary - patroness of the Americas, who is said to have appeared to a peasant outside of Mexico City in 1531, triggering a major conversion to Catholicism in the pagan region.

It's one of several feasts celebrated by the parish's growing Hispanic congregation.

Hispanic ministry topped the list of needs presented in the $1.7 million fund-raising campaign for 2004 for the Diocese of Savannah, which includes Macon and communities farther south.

"Effectively ministering to the estimated 80,000 Hispanic Catholics in our midst is the single largest challenge facing the Diocese of Savannah," Stephen B. Williams, director of pastoral services, said in a news release kicking off this year's appeal.

The Rev. Brett Brannen, pastor of St. Peter Claver, said the Hispanic ministry at his church is like having a parish within a parish.

"They have all the social problems of poor people. They're poor," he said.

Brannen described the Hispanic parishioners as hard-working.

"Few of us would do this back-breaking work."

Each Sunday evening, Brannen gives his native English tongue a rest and presides over Mass in Spanish. On any given week, about a hundred Hispanic men, women and children congregate under the wooden beams of the small mission-like church.

The congregation was founded by Jesuit priests in 1903 to minister to black Catholics.

"It's always been our tradition at St. Peter Claver to reach out to the minorities and the disadvantaged in the community," Brannen said.

Although he knows the Hispanic population is growing, Brannen said it's difficult to put a concrete number on the size of his congregation, some of whom might be in the country illegally.

"They live in terror they're going to be deported," Brannen said. "Many don't register in the parish. They're afraid (immigration officials) will get the list and come to their houses."

During harvest times, the congregation nearly doubles, he said.

Brannen didn't speak Spanish until after he was ordained. He learned the language by vacationing in Hispanic countries.

Now all new seminarians in the Savannah diocese must be able to celebrate Mass in Spanish, he said.

But not all Hispanic people understand the Spanish language, said Mary Boyd, a Warner Robins Police Department employee who serves as a translator and also runs a store catering to Hispanics.

Boyd is often called to assist Latinos from a variety of countries, including Mexico, Puerto Rico, Honduras, San Salvador and Guatemala."When you speak Spanish to the Guatemalans, they don't understand what you're talking about," said Boyd, who is of Mexican descent.

Guatemalans speak 26 different Mayan dialects, she said.

In recent weeks, Boyd has been helping her Guatemalan friends arrange for a visit from a padre from their native land to bless the people, she said.

Hispanic people often do not feel comfortable in English-speaking churches, said Abimael Rodriguez, pastor of Iglesia de la Vision, or Church of the Vision, in Macon.

"To take an Hispanic person to an Anglo congregation is hard unless a person knows real good English," Rodriguez said. "They love to worship in their own language."

At Iglesia de la Vision, the congregation is a Hispanic melting pot, but united in faith, Rodriguez said.

"That's my focus always to make like we're one person," he said. "Regardless of where we're coming from, here we are one."

The congregation of about 60 is affiliated with the Methodist church and meets at Bloomfield United Methodist on Bloomfield Road.

The church provides a variety of programs and services seven days a week.

In addition to Bible study, Iglesia de la Vision helps its members develop preaching and teaching skills and provides English classes through Central Georgia Technical College.

Rodriguez, 35, who came to America from Puerto Rico when he was 18, started the ministry in Macon seven years ago.

When he first arrived, his Hispanic church was the only one around, but now there are others, he said, in places like Fort Valley, Warner Robins and Milledgeville.

As the number of immigrants increases, so does the demand for services.

Many of those arriving in this country come with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Rodriguez is now looking for a warehouse to store furniture, clothing and household goods to help newcomers set up house in the United States.

He is often their link to employment.

"Anybody who needs workers can call me and I'll find people," Rodriguez said.

The needs of the Latin community are so great, Boyd says she can't do enough to help. She's honored to have been accepted by people often afraid to reach out, she said.

"We're all the same in God's eyes," said Boyd. "They're like little birds, little brothers and sisters who need help."

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