Hispanic youth attend encuentro

A delegation of 11 from the Diocese of Charleston attended the First National Encuentro for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana June 8-11.

The group was led by Father Filemon Juya, vicar for Hispanic ministry in the diocese. Young people and adults from the Midlands and  Hilton Head attended.

The theme of the encuentro, which is the Spanish word for  “encounter,” was “Weaving the Future Together.” The theme reflected the gathering’s focus on encouraging Hispanic young people to participate more actively in the life and mission of the Catholic Church. The gathering was the culmination of a series of encuentros in parishes, dioceses and on regional levels around the U.S. The diocesan meeting in South Carolina was held Jan. 21 at St. John Neumann in Columbia.

The national meeting was called for by the National Catholic Network de Pastoral Juvenil Hispana, also known as “La Red.”

Funding for the encuentro process in the Diocese of Charleston came from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of South Carolina Hispanic Grant Initiative.

Juya said more than 2,400 people attended the conference, which included classes, group activities, workshops, prayer and worship. The  schedule of events started shortly after 7 a.m. and often ran until 10 or 11 p.m., he said.

National census figures from 2004 estimate that there are 17 million Hispanics under age 25 in the United States, and this number makes up almost half the total Catholic population among children and young adults nationwide. It’s estimated that there are 44.5 million Hispanics in the U.S.

Father Juya said these figures and discussions at the conference led him to realize how important it is for Catholics to reach out to and encourage young Hispanic members in churches. They are the future not only of Hispanics in the diocese, but of the Catholic faith in areas with rapidly growing Hispanic communities.

“We know how important youth ministry is in the Hispanic community, but so far there hasn’t been much leadership available in that area,” he said. “We want to work to change that.”

Hispanic youth from the U.S., Mexico and several Central American countries attended the conference. Father Juya said he was encouraged and spiritually moved to hear testimonials from several youths who spoke about their decisions to dedicate already busy lives to God and to improving the life of the church.

“Sometimes we get the idea that the only thing to do when working with young people is to have fun — take them to the mall, eat, hang out,” Father Juya said. “Many people don’t realize how many young people are able and willing to make strong commitments to Jesus Christ. That is what really moved me at the conference, to see so many young people willing to do that.”

Nora Bess, who coordinates Hispanic ministry at Holy Family in Hilton Head, was coordinator for the delegation.

Bess, who was born in Panama, said the conference was a “wonderful experience” that led those who attended to think of new ways to reach out to young Hispanics.

“It was a wonderful experience to be in a place where so many young adults came together to show their faith,” Bess said. “The conference also showed how important it is that we cast our nets out wider to reach Hispanic youth and young adults.”

Bess said she returned with even more of a commitment to reaching young Hispanics of all ages. Currently, Holy Family’s Hispanic ministry program offers classes and programs for children and young people from toddler to college age.

Rhina Medina organized the group of young people and adults from the Midlands who attended. Medina is a member of St. John Neumann and a member of the diocesan board for Hispanic leadership.

She said the most important thing she learned at the conference was the importance of getting more clergy to become actively involved with Hispanic youth programs.

“We need to have more consistent pastoral leadership for these young people,” she said. “There are young people who want to get more involved, but they need the leadership of the church to help them.”

Gustavo Hernandez, 20, a native of Mexico who attends St. John Neumann, was one of the Midlands group that went to the conference.

“For me, everything at the conference was very important,” he said. “It was a great experience for me because it was my first time to participate in something so big.”

Hernandez said he learned a lot about the perspectives of others by participating in group discussions. He said his group talked about the need to have discussions on sexuality and morality for Hispanic youth, and the issue of why some dioceses and parishes have youth coordinators who are paid  staff members while other dioceses and parishes must rely on volunteers.

Michael Bess, 23, of Hilton Head teaches English as a second language to Hispanic young adults at Holy Family on Hilton Head. He said he especially enjoyed small group discussions and a dance held during the conference.

“It was really a powerful experience, seeing all of the young people there praising the Lord,” Bess said.