Friday, August 10, 2007

Fr. Bart de la Torre O.P., reporting from Mexicali

10 VIII 07

Dear Lay Dominicans,

This summer I am staying in Mexicali and postponing my vacation so I can be here for the youth during the hot months. I was hoping to have a team of lay ministers to run a summer youth program, but one characteristic of this mission is the small number of dependable, committed Catholics. A few say they would like to help, but then their first enthusiasm quickly wanes, or family or personal problems due to poverty intervene. So, though I have been kept busy, it is not with supervising a youth ministry.
Our pastor, Fr. David Bello, O.P., after much struggle, was able to put together a team to teach religion to teens that want to receive baptism, first communion and/or confirmation. Parents here do not force their teens to religion class. The teens come on their own. About a third drop out, again usually because of the consequences of poverty.
This teen program is intense. They meet for 10 weeks, Tues. through Fri., from 6 to 9:15 p.m., and on Saturdays from 9 to 11:30 a.m. If they miss any two sessions, they are dropped. As part of the teaching team, I have been given three nights to teach Church history (try covering 658 yrs. of history each night!), and four nights to teach apologetics. So my stay through the summer has not been in vain even if not being used as I had originally hoped.
Our parish covers the well populated northeast section of Mexicali, and extends some eight miles east beyond the city into sparsely inhabited savannah and very dry desert. Occasionally I am asked to help out at other, older parishing within the city limits. In comparison, I can see the truth of Fr. David´s observation, that we are the most unchurched parish of Mexicali. Well, we are still very much a mission, after all, even though the practice of the faith in our mission boundaries, I am told by the people, is much higher than before we Dominicans arrived in 1996. Since then we have built a parish church and three chapels strung along our territory. The people also tell how before the permanent presense of the Church through the arrival of the Dominicans, there was much violence by gangs against people passing through their neighborhood. People say that these turf battles were erased by the fact that the same friars visited every neighborhood, and people had to cross others’ neighborhoods to get to Mass.
What I notice in the other parishes is larger numbers at Mass and a higher percentage of people receiving communion, as well as more lay ministries and lay ministers. The are also somewhat more affluent than our people.
Together with the poverty of our people comes a low level not only of education but of appreciation for education. One of our three priests here, Fr. Carmen Mele, O.P., recently at a daily Mass, attende by about 10 adults and the 30 teens from our summer pre-sacrament program, asked what day of the week was the Lord’s Day, and no one knew.
To understand Church history one must have an idea of world geography. Our teens could not distinguish between a continent, a country and a city. One expressed the notion that Pheonix was in Los Angeles. They could not tell me in what city Jesus was born. When I asked what was Jerusalem, after a long silence, one girl suggested it was a small village, though not sure where.
I have seen the public middle school and high school text books, and they are excellent and full of important information, but the lackof appreciation among the poor for the value of an education leaves them without a motive to read, to study or to retain what they hear. When I ask questions about our class the day before, I am greated by blank stares on all but three students, who always have answers. I encourage the others not to be brain dead. Remember, these are teens who are not forced by their parents but want to be there! It will take some generations of slow, upward growth for the people of our mission to fulfill St. Dominic’s ideal of being informed Catholics who will “be ready always with an answer to everyone who asks a reason for the hope that is in [them].” (1 Pet. 5:15) Our role here as Dominican missionaries is to keep nurturing that gradual growth.

Thanking you for your prayers,
Fr. Bart, O.P.

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