April 30, 2021

Black, Hispanic ministries keep the faith with communities hit hard by COVID-19

Amid the devastating impact of COVID-19, Oscar Castellanos and Pearlette Springer have adapted their approaches to deepen the faith lives of Hispanics and Blacks across the archdiocese. Castellanos is director of Intercultural Ministries for the archdiocese while Springer is the coordinator of Black Catholic Ministry. They are pictured with a banner of St. Martin de Porres. Their communities have a shared love for the saint, who was the son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed Panamanian slave of African descent. (Photo by Brandon A. Evans)

Amid the devastating impact of COVID-19, Oscar Castellanos and Pearlette Springer have adapted their approaches to deepen the faith lives of Hispanics and Blacks across the archdiocese. Castellanos is director of Intercultural Ministries for the archdiocese while Springer is the coordinator of Black Catholic Ministry. They are pictured with a banner of St. Martin de Porres. Their communities have a shared love for the saint, who was the son of a Spanish nobleman and a freed Panamanian slave of African descent. (Photo by Brandon A. Evans)

By John Shaughnessy

As they have strived to deepen people’s connection to God in the archdiocese, Pearlette Springer and Oscar Castellanos have also paid close attention to news reports that Blacks and Hispanics have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 virus.

“The Black Catholic community in Indianapolis was hit pretty hard with COVID-19 cases,” says Springer, coordinator of Black Catholic Ministry in the archdiocese. “People were mourning and grieving, alone and isolated. Sadness and death filled the air.

“Even as the death numbers have decreased and the positive testing numbers are down, people are still grieving, mourning and scared. And we still have not been able to come together to mourn our losses. That is really devastating to a collective culture like Black Catholics.”

The impact on Hispanic Catholics has also been devastating.

“Many of the communities we serve experienced sadness and loneliness due to not knowing how to manage the COVID disease. Others, due to lack of medical attention, experienced hopelessness,” says Castellanos, director of Intercultural Ministries for the archdiocese.

“Without a doubt, the lack of psychological support and counseling in their native languages caused these conditions to worsen. Many of the people who are immigrants who lost loved ones were unable to travel to their native countries to say goodbye to them. Others who lost their jobs and sources of income have expressed how difficult it has been to support their families.”

In the midst of this crisis, the leaders of the Black and Hispanic ministries for Catholics in central and southern Indiana have had to adapt their efforts to keep—and deepen—people’s connection to God and their faith. While the past 13 months of the pandemic have created unprecedented challenges in these ministries, they’ve also created opportunities going forward.

‘People needed to connect with each other’

Beyond the formidable health risks of COVID-19, the particular challenges for Black Catholics in regard to their faith emerged quickly at the onset of the pandemic, Springer notes.

“Blacks, in general, are a collectivist culture. In other words, we think, live and breathe community,” she says. “Also, we are oral people for the most part. We communicate best verbally. In-person, verbal communication is our preferred method. COVID-19 restrictions have almost eliminated that form of communication. Gatherings, no matter how small of a group, became super-spreaders of the virus. 

“In the beginning, not many people wanted to engage in virtual activities. I kept hearing, ‘I will wait until this is over.’ So, they waited and waited. And some continue to wait.”

Springer learned she couldn’t afford to wait in her ministry, so she made strides to adapt.

“I was always one of the first to say, ‘It has to be in-person, no matter the cost. It works better in-person,’ ” she says. “Finally, I had to break down and learn the software and develop programming that worked virtually. People needed to connect with each other. People needed to mourn and grieve together. Since we could not do it in-person, virtually was the only way to go.”

She began sending two e-mails a week to the people on her list, sharing information about online events across the country, writing short reflections on the daily Mass readings, and including links to articles, videos and podcasts about Black Catholics.

She also started two online events a month, with both events featuring music, prayer, Scripture and reflection.

On the third Monday of each month, she invites Black Catholic women from the archdiocese to join together. On the last Saturday of the month, she leads a conversation with Black Catholics about “different resources available to discuss racism with our fellow Catholics.”

“I am also working with two Black Catholic young adult women who want to engage other Black Catholic young adults,” Springer says. “We have begun creating an online presence with videos.”

She has also stayed connected to Black Catholic ministry groups that don’t have the capability to connect virtually.

 In making the changes to her ministry, Springer has seen a change in herself and her faith.

“Writing and sharing with the community has created a deeper bond for me with the community spiritually and has deepened my faith life,” she says. “I have been able to connect with people that normally have not participated in Black Catholic Ministry.”

As she looks to the future, she hopes to help Black Catholics learn more about leading a ministry group. She also has a concern.

“The downside is that as restaurants and entertainment open back up, people will again flock to these events and place religious-centered activity on the back burner. But it is my hope that virtual programming has touched a few souls. I hope that they will continue to keep God and the connecting to God’s people as their priority.”

It’s a hope that Castellanos has for Hispanic Catholics, too.

‘The power that comes with creating community as disciples of Christ’

In the past 13 months of the pandemic, Castellanos has seen the importance of creating virtual spiritual connections for Hispanic Catholics. He has also seen its limitations.

He and Saul Llacsa, coordinator of Hispanic Ministry for the archdiocese, have created podcasts and videos in Spanish to help people grow in their faith. They have also hosted virtual gatherings for members of their communities.

While “it has worked to keep us in touch with the people we serve, we have recognized that this is not ideal,” Castellanos says.

In the beginning of the pandemic, there was the challenge of teaching people how to navigate the virtual world.

“Later, many experienced a virtual fatigue, wishing to return to what we know as normal,” Castellanos says. “We also noticed how the fact of not being connected with the sacraments and their parishes brought a certain passivity in their faith. This challenged many people on issues of anxiety, spiritual aridity and lack of meaning in their lives.”

Castellanos found himself challenged, too. The challenge surfaced during the monthly meetings with people who are involved in Hispanic ministry in parishes. While the agenda of these meetings usually focuses on issues relating to parishes and the archdiocese, a different concern emerged during the pandemic.

“We witnessed a side which is usually not shown among these groups, which is the feeling of vulnerability as a minister,” he says. “We discovered the importance of always dedicating a space to address personal challenges and experiences as ministers. We give them the opportunity to share their struggles and how they connect, affect or nourish their ministry. This strengthened the group in trust and openness.”

It was an eye-opening moment for him.

“This helped me think about the importance of asking about the emotional and spiritual well-being of our ministers and employees. Many times as diocesan directors, we think about how to help the communities through them. It is just as important to think about the ministers who accompany the people of God in the parishes.”

That lesson is part of the overall one that Castellanos has learned about ministry during the pandemic.

“COVID-19 has taught us to value how important interpersonal relationships are to ministry. Today, more than ever, we value accompaniment. This accompaniment has proven to be essential for the kind of ministry that we do. Little by little, we have begun to resume meetings and events.”

As for the future, Castellanos believes the emphasis of ministry has to be on building community.

“Less planning for the people and more planning with the people,” he says. “The virtual world is great, but we do not want to take away the power that comes with creating community as disciples of Jesus.” †

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