August 19, 2011

A leap of courage, obedience and faith

Two faith communities with different cultures share common bonds of worship and music

Father Juan Valdes, left, parish administrator of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville, who also ministers to the Hispanic community in the New Albany Deanery, Al Klein and Leslie Lynch sing bilingual songs during a Hispanic music event at St. Mary Church in Lanesville on May 15. (Submitted photo)

Father Juan Valdes, left, parish administrator of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville, who also ministers to the Hispanic community in the New Albany Deanery, Al Klein and Leslie Lynch sing bilingual songs during a Hispanic music event at St. Mary Church in Lanesville on May 15. (Submitted photo)

By Leslie Lynch (Special to The Criterion)

LANESVILLE—The quarterly men’s fellowship meeting at St. Mary Parish in Lanesville typically begins with discussion of a faith-related topic, and ends with euchre and homemade wine.

May’s gathering ended that way, too, but it began with a far different experience—one that set the stage for two seemingly different Catholic communities to come together in an inspiring celebration of faith.

The story’s roots took hold in July 2010 when Father Juan Valdes was assigned to dual roles in southern Indiana—administrator of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville, and ministry to the Hispanic community in the New Albany Deanery. At first glance, the two groups have little in common other than shared faith.

Lanesville, a rural community with deep German roots, has few non-English speakers and is known for its top-notch picnic and quilts. The Hispanic Ministry serves a fluid, primarily Spanish-speaking population known for its Latino traditions and lively music. Until recently, involvement between the communities has been minimal.

That began to change when Father Valdes invited members of an adult Bible study group in Lanesville to visit a Hispanic Mass. Fifteen people accepted, and attended in March. For many, it was their first experience of the Mass in a language other than English.

“Even though I couldn’t understand Spanish, I knew where we were in the Mass,” said Margaret Pickerell, a member of St. Mary Parish. “Not knowing the words sort of freed up my mind to experience its beauty in the moment.”

Rita Goss expressed appreciation for the hospitality and generosity of spirit exhibited by the Hispanic community.

“I felt a little nervous at first, but those people are so kind and so welcoming. I really enjoyed it,” she said.

Buoyed by the positive experience, and intrigued at the possibility of further interaction between the faith communities, some members of St. Mary Parish began to seek out ways to facilitate a relationship between the groups. Gradually, the focus of discussions narrowed from a vague question of “How do we go about this?” to a goal of creating opportunities for connections between individuals.

A shared faith was the obvious central commonality, but language constituted a barrier. However, the language of music is universal. Once formed, the idea of inviting the Hispanic choir to share their music at St. Mary Parish took hold and grew. The men of Christ Renews His Parish, who host a quarterly men’s fellowship gathering, suggested the May gathering as a venue.

Father Valdes carried the invitation to Miguel Mendez, coordinator of the Hispanic choir. A dialogue ensued, both between and within the two communities. The decision was not made lightly as people in both groups wrestled with trepidation and preconceived ideas about each other.

“I was a bit anxious at how this whole concept would be accepted by our parish, and how we would get past the language barrier,” said Kevin Boone, a member of St. Mary Parish.

“When we got the invitation, I thought it would be so hard to do, but we knew it was a new opportunity that God gave us,” Mendez said.

After discussion and prayer, the Hispanic choir accepted the invitation. In an effort to create initial rapport and with an eye toward more lasting friendships, some members of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville began to attend the Hispanic choir’s practices and Masses that are held at St. Mary Parish in New Albany.

Preparation for the event began, with much thought going into the choices and order of songs by the choir, and equal effort toward hospitality on the part of the men’s group at St. Mary Parish in Lanesville. Plans for a simple evening with music and fellowship blossomed into an extended invitation to members of the Hispanic community.

Chuck Lynch of St. Mary Parish developed a bilingual program with song lyrics and prayers translated into English and Spanish for the convenience of all who attended.

On May 15, the many hours of preparation and prayer bore fruit. The Hispanic choir, plus three additional families, traveled from New Albany to Lanesville. Members of St. Mary Parish provided vehicles to aid in transporting the choir’s equipment, which included a drum set, alto saxophone, amplifiers, and bass and electric guitars. Once set up, the choir members joined the St. Mary’s men in the cafeteria for prayer then they enjoyed a meal of grilled bratwurst and beans.

The formal program of the quarterly men’s fellowship meeting opened with Joe Wuerth of St. Mary Parish offering a welcome prayer.

“This gathering may be hosted by the Christ Renews His Parish men, but it is sponsored by the Holy Spirit,” he said.

Lynch summarized the journey of discovery that brought these two groups together, beginning with the sharing of a common faith and a priest.

Father Valdes spoke about the work of the New Albany Deanery Hispanic Ministry, emphasizing its efforts in helping the poor and integrating Hispanics into the local community.

The Hispanic choir performed six songs that represented typical music from the Masses celebrated in Spanish. It didn’t take long for the men of St. Mary Parish to get into the spirit and join in with enthusiasm. The evening’s music ended with “Go Now in Peace, My Friends,” sung in both languages.

The event changed attitudes, including Boone’s initial concerns.

“Once the ‘ice was broken’ and all began to interact, I realized there wasn’t much of a language barrier at all,” Boone said. “We managed to communicate well enough to convey our thoughts.”

Mendez added, “This meant a lot for me, a new experience to learn how many beautiful people exist even if they don’t understand the words. We could feel how excited they were. It doesn’t matter what language we speak to each other. I think the more important thing is the feelings that we are transmitting through the music.”

Father Valdes put it in terms of the Gospel: “The word of God says wherever two or three gather in my name to pray, I am in their midst. We did this in the name of God, united with one faith, in the same God, and practicing hospitality. Wherever there is love, there is the Holy Spirit.”

The connection could have ended that evening, but it led some individuals to deeper relationships and understandings.

“We shared our culture, music, and this gave us the opportunity to integrate into the local community, promoting better understanding and cooperation with those who speak English,” said Elena Sanchez, a member of the Hispanic group.

For some of the parishioners at St. Mary Parish in Lanesville, immigration issues are no longer anonymous or clearly delineated. At the very least, they have an awareness of the obstacles faced by non-English speakers in southern Indiana.

In an unexpected bonus, Father Valdes learned about the ability that some St. Mary parishioners had to write grants, which could be used to assist the Hispanic community. He recently learned that a grant for $7,000 from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development has been awarded to the New Albany Deanery Hispanic Ministry. He also noted that the archdiocese has contributed $40,000 to Hispanic Ministry for Catholic education, evangelization and staff.

When the Hispanic Ministry hosted its annual outdoor Mass and picnic at Mount St. Francis Retreat Center in Floyd County on July 17, members of St. Mary Parish in Lanesville enjoyed a warm welcome from members of the Hispanic community. Father Valdes and Father Dan Atkins, pastor of Holy Family Parish in New Albany, concelebrated Mass. The Hispanic choir provided music. After Mass, members of both communities sang together in a moment of spontaneity.

Father Valdez summed up the experiences that have brought the two communities together.

“Do not be afraid to share our differences because in the differences is the richness.” †

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