When young Latinos take the lead, church is anything but boring.
The venue for the live music concert is just across the river from downtown Los Angeles, but it is far from glamorous. Organized by a new youth and young adult ministry group, the Saturday afternoon event is scheduled in a dimly lit cafeteria of Dolores Mission Catholic Church in the gritty immigrant neighborhood of Boyle Heights.
The decor is as humble as this poor, predominantly Latino neighborhood, known for its street gangs and its hard-working families. Puffy white star-shaped Mylar balloons float forlornly near the darkened stage which is flanked by a large crucifix on one side and an American flag on the other. Metal folding chairs are set up on the checkerboard floor and old-fashioned push-out windows along one wall are left open for circulation. Refreshments include popcorn sold in plastic sandwich bags to be doused with red chili sauce from a bottle.
“I see you all sitting down, like you’re a little bit afraid,” says the emcee to the initially sedate crowd. “Are we ready?”
It will take a while for the crowd to warm up. But the organizers know it takes patience to build enthusiasm.
Israel Hernandez, 26, regional pastoral juvenil events coordinator for 23 parishes in traditionally Latino East L.A., started the new group about a year ago. The old chapter at Dolores Mission Church had disbanded some time back, but he knew the youth in the neighborhood still needed it. In the evangelical spirit of the ministry, Hernandez got the blessing of the pastor and set out to recruit volunteers. He spent an entire Sunday announcing the new group at every Mass, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The group now has about 12 followers, a nicely symbolic number.
Hernandez, who works for a company that delivers corn masa to tortilla factories, is also pursuing a career in physical education at Santa Monica City College. He believes his religious foundation gives him the strength to mature as a person and get ahead in life. But with so much to do, why does he make time to volunteer?
“First of all, to serve my community,” says Hernandez, who came to this country from Puerto Vallarta about 10 years ago. “I don’t want to be just a Sunday Catholic. I realized I had to put my faith to work. I can’t just stand around and criticize others and say, ‘Why don’t they do this or that?’ It’s better if I do things myself. That’s why I took the initiative to be, not just a Catholic, but to be part of the Catholic Church in the community.”
Back at the concert, the emcee continues to try to fire up the crowd’s spirit, both to party and to praise.
“Today, Lord, I want to offer whatever I have, large and small, good and bad, black and white,” he says in Spanish. “Today, whatever I am, Lord, I place it before you. This may be just a concert, Lord, but it is also a special moment in which I direct my heart toward your presence.
“And the chorus of God says?”
“Amen,” responds the crowd.
“Great. Now who’s going to dance?”
The first in the audience to raise his hand is Juan Vazquez, one of the organizers of the new pastoral juvenil group. Juan is far from a party animal. He’s a soft-spoken young man with a deferential demeanor. His family is from San Luis Potosi and he’s been in the United States for about 13 years. He lives in the parish but works miles away in Chino Hills, unloading shipping containers. And he is well aware of the dangers young people face here, the temptation of drugs and gangs that lure them away from a decent life. So he answered Hernandez’s call to join the group, volunteering to pass out flyers door to door. He feels the group can help offer an alternative to help show the kids there’s a better way.
“When I was teenager, I didn’t really know God and I didn’t care,” says Vazquez, 34. “I was headed down the wrong path and I left the church. I was losing my way, because I had that same mentality, like so many young people that age. I was just thinking about giving in to vices of all kinds. Thank God I didn’t, but that’s where I was headed.”
He turned his life around, he says, when he realized that God had better plans.. Little by little he started leaving behind the bad influences, trying instead to become the person his parents always wanted him to be.
“I do this because God did something even greater for me,” says Vazquez, who is helping the group plan its first retreat. “When I was shown that he came to earth to die for me, then why not do something for him, too, inviting other chavos (guys) to join us and participate. I don’t feel satisfaction doing it. No, I feel joy, a joy that fills me completely and remains with me always.”
By now, the cheers and laughs of the crowd can be heard out in the parking lot. The bands from different parishes across Southern California play a variety of music styles: rock by Genesis, merengue and cumbia by Jedutun, and versatil (variety) by Contra la Corriente and Revolucionarios.
The crowd is mixed, too: mostly teens and 20-somethings, with a smattering of small children. One married couple trekked in from Maywood with their two preteen boys, who huddle together playing video games on a Nintendo. A lively cumbia gets people dancing and singing along with lyrics to the Virgin Mary: “Ay, ay, ay, Virgencita chula. Virgen Morena, no me dejes, que siento pena.”
The dancers form a circle on the floor, singing and twirling. In the middle of the circle, a little girl in a pink dress frolics with one of those white balloons in her hand.
“Somos aburridos los Catolicos?” the emcee asks? (“Are we Catholics boring?”)
“No!” shouts the crowd, as they dance into the balmy L.A. night.
This is a web-only feature that accompanies "What's right with this picture?," which appeared in the March 2011 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 76, No. 3).
Image: Tom Wright