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V Encuentro: A call to reach out to the Hispanic / Latino community

How can the Catholic Church better reach and serve members of the Hispanic / Latino community so that they may grow in their faith and become missionary disciples who evangelize others?  That question is at the heart of a movement called V Encuentro, in which the Diocese of Portland has been engaged for more than a year.

“V Encuentro is not just for the Hispanic community. It is a recognition that the Church will grow and thrive as the Hispanic people within the community of the Church reach out to others and share the good news of the Gospel with others,” says Bishop Robert Deeley.

V Encuentro is a priority of the United States Catholic bishops.  It is a continuation of a movement that began with I Encuentro back in 1972, but it is the first time the Diocese of Portland has participated, an acknowledgement of the growing Latino / Hispanic population in Maine. The U.S. Census estimates more than 20,000 Hispanics/Latinos now reside in the state.

For the past year, a Hispanic ministry team has been seeking out members of the community.  It’s meant sitting down with people in their homes, stopping by supermarkets, restaurants, schools, and workplaces, and even chatting with them at bus stops and in parks.  Team members visited with Hispanics/Latinos from Down East Maine to the state’s western foothills.

“We’ve been reaching out to anyone as we can. It’s hard to find them because the diocese is so big. They’re in many different places: in the kitchens of restaurants, on the farms, on the egg farms, in construction,” says Sister Patricia Pora, RSM, director of the diocese’s Office of Hispanic Ministry.

“It’s really important to find people, the Latinos, wherever they are, especially those who don’t come to church regularly,” says José Osmín Pérez López, Hispanic outreach coordinator. “It’s really important because we need to share our own story. And, starting from there, we start to know each other, and then, we get stronger and stronger in our faith.”

In addition to individual encounters, members of the community were also invited to attend regional gatherings, which have been held for more than a year in Lewiston and Portland and more recently in Sanford.

Leonel Anzurez, a South Portland resident originally from Mexico, says participating in V Encuentro has made a big difference in his life.

“I was only attending the church every other Sunday. I was not very often here, but I was trying. Now, after V Encuentro, I know that I have to be here. I need to pray for myself. I need to pray for my family. I need to pray for everybody who needs it, people who have disabilities, everybody. That’s amazing when you think and you have it in your mind that you can do something for somebody else and for your Church,” says Leonel, who now volunteers his time doing landscaping for Sacred Heart / St. Dominic Parish in Portland.

More than 100 people participated in the regional meetings, which were not only an opportunity for participants to grow in faith and as a community but which also helped the diocese increase its awareness of the struggles Hispanics/Latinos in Maine face, as well as the gifts they bring.

Among the concerns shared: demanding work schedules, which sometimes mean the inability to attend Mass; a lack of transportation; the language barrier, especially among older members of the community;  rural isolation; the lack of a higher education, inaccessible to some in their native countries, that now prevents them from getting higher paying jobs; and the lack of health insurance. There is also great worry that the nation’s immigration policies, including possible changes to the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) program, will tear some families apart.

“We learned about the problems we all face. One of the biggest problems is fear, because a lot of Hispanics have a lot of fear because of what is going on,” says Jonathan Majano, whose family is originally from El Salvador.

The gifts and talents the community bring include a deep devotion to the Blessed Mother and to service to the Church, music ministry, preparing meals, decorating, and a spirit of fiesta.

“Joy,” says José.  “I think we have a lot of Catholic traditions in our countries that you cannot find in the United States, and I think this is helping the Church in the United States to be more joyful, more vibrant, more expressive in faith.”

Among the hopes and dreams expressed: to live without fear, to be able to remain in the United States, stability, more education, a greater sense of family, and retaining their cultural heritage.

Those participating in V Encuentro stress its value.

“The Church needs to know everybody, even though we’re coming from different countries,” says Luis Dubon, a participant. “We’re always looking for a church to be together with everybody and do the right thing.”

“The V Encuentro allows everyone to reunite as one family again,” says Jonathan. “It really brings a lot of joy to the people.”

The information gained through the individual and regional meetings was compiled and discussed at a diocesan gathering hosted by Sacred Heart/St. Dominic on January 27.  Bishop Deeley sat in on the session and celebrated a Mass in thanksgiving for all those who participated.

The bishop encouraged members of the community to continue their work as missionary disciples.

“The V Encuentro is challenging you, and all of us, to share what we have. Know that Jesus is with you. Be His disciple. Bring His love into the world in which you live. Be strengthened in the joy of the Gospel,” the bishop said. “Pope Francis calls us in this V Encuentro to be the Church ‘which goes forth.’ With God’s help, and with the faith that Jesus is with us, let us do it. Let us go forth in joy.”

The Office of Hispanic Ministry will use the information as it prepares its pastoral plan for the future. It will also share what it has learned at a regional gathering and then at a national conference, which will be take place in September.