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Posted November 7, 2005

Home visits seen as way to reach unchurched Hispanics

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

SAN ANTONIO (CNS) -- Being a welcoming church to the growing number of Hispanic immigrants often means knocking on their doors, said Martin Martinez, who teaches people in Hispanic ministry how to conduct house calls.

"A lot of faith is celebrated in Hispanic homes," said Martinez, giving as examples the Mexican custom of erecting a home altar to commemorate the dead and the placing of religious statues in the house.

Home visits conducted by lay people that capitalize on Hispanics' popular religiosity can be a way of tapping into that faith and to let the household know there is a Catholic parish nearby willing to help serve their needs, he said.

Martinez is coordinator of the Lay Leadership Formation Program at the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio. The center trains people engaged in Hispanic ministry. One of the center's workshops, he said, teaches participants how to conduct house visits "in a nonthreatening way."

Reaching Hispanics who do not go to any church is the biggest challenge facing Hispanic ministry today, Martinez told Catholic News Service.

The number of unchurched Hispanics is growing and they usually become members "of the first church that gives them help," said Martinez, noting the success that outreach programs of evangelical Christian churches are having in attracting Hispanics.

One approach he teaches is having parish teams bring blessed, noneucharistic bread to Hispanic homes on Holy Thursday.

The practice stems from a tradition related to Holy Thursday Mass commemorating the Last Supper: After the Mass the priest blesses a basket filled with loaves of bread for the parishioners to take home, said Martinez, a second-generation Mexican-American.

To reach the unchurched, parish teams take this bread to the homes of nonchurchgoers telling them that they want to share the loaves with the family as the family was unable to attend Mass, he said.

Another method is using traditions tied to important church feast days, said Martinez.

Before Christmas, parishioners will knock on doors asking nonchurchgoers if their house can be used during the "posada" procession, he said.

The Mexican custom of the "posada," Spanish for "inn" or for "providing lodging," recalls the problems Joseph and the pregnant Mary had looking for a place to stay in Bethlehem before being allowed to rest in the stable where Christ was born.

The procession, led by a couple representing Joseph and Mary, goes from house to house where they are refused lodging until one house grants hospitality. Then everyone on the procession route gathers at that house for a celebration.

During Holy Week people also are invited to participate in an outdoor Way of the Cross procession on Good Friday, said Martinez.

Another important popular tradition is "Dia de los Muertos," Spanish for the "day of the dead," celebrated around All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day, Nov. 1 and 2. It is a Mexican religious custom during this time to visit family burial plots to commemorate the dead and then to celebrate with food and fireworks.

Visitation teams go door-to-door to invite nonchurchgoers to visit the cemetery and celebrate with their parish neighbors, said Martinez.

Other outreach techniques involve inviting nonchurchgoers to attend a house blessing of a neighbor and then asking if they would like their houses blessed, he said.

"We are tapping into things once thought superstitious or unimportant," he said.

The aim is to remind people that these celebrations are part of their religious heritage and to use these events to begin a conversation, Martinez said.

"The unchurched have faith, but they need to be brought into the life of the parish," he said.

Reasons why many Hispanics do not go to church are varied, Martinez said.

Many new immigrants are not used to going to church regularly because they arrived from rural parts of their homeland that has no resident priest, he said. They were used to seeing a circuit-riding priest once every few months, he added.

Home visits can also help in evangelizing third- and fourth-generation Hispanics who are losing their identity in the larger U.S. society, Martinez said.

"This is part of the new evangelization for native-born Hispanics," he said.

The aim is to help them understand that these religious traditions are gifts that should not be lost, he said.