Nearly 15 years ago, a wave of immigrants, mostly from Mexico, moved north from Texas through Oklahoma to Arkansas, where many of them settled. Fr. Tom Stelik, C.M., and the other priests serving at St. Anne Parish in North Little Rock, recognized that the new immigrant community was underserved and in need of assistance. The Vincentians set about finding new, innovative ways to serve and minister to the Hispanic population in the region.
“The Church in North Little Rock is thriving with the tireless energy and deep faith of the Vincentian lay missioners. They are on fire with the love of Jesus.”
The Lay Missioner Program, first established in Coachella, CA, proved to be a perfect fit for the needs of the people of North Little Rock. The program begins with an intense retreat experience that encourages people to encounter the radical love of Jesus. Once a person becomes a Vincentian lay missioner, they make a commitment for the rest of their lives to continue to grow in their relationship with Christ.
“The Vincentians saw the discrimination that was taking place and the pressing needs of the people,” says Guillermo Bruzatori, currently the Lay Missioner director. “They wanted to call these people back to the Church – to re-evangelize the immigrant community. The Lay Missioner Program helped them do just that.”
At the time, it was not easy to encourage Latino people to come to the Church and inspire them to embrace a life of faith. Poverty, addiction, illness and unemployment plagued many in the community. The lay mission retreat and the vibrant life of Vincentian parishes served as an alternative to the hardship and loneliness that many immigrants experienced as they struggled to begin their lives in the United States.
“Many of the men are dealing with alcohol and drugs,” Fr. Toshio Sato, C.M., commented. “Often, they are hard on their wives and families. During the retreat, these same men encounter God’s tenderness and love in their own lives and they are transformed!”
The program has grown significantly since 2003. Now, there are more than 1600 missioners in 12 parishes throughout Arkansas. After the initial retreat, the missioners take on active leadership roles in their parishes, encouraging even more people to get involved.
“Today, people come from all over the region to participate in the retreats and to share the mercy of God,” Guillermo explains. “After the first retreat experience, they continue to participate actively in a small faith group every week and invite others to do the same.”
Fr. Arial Ramirez, C.M., who assists in running the program, sees the Lay Missioner Program in North Little Rock as deeply rooted in the Vincentian charism. “We accompany the people we serve in a distinctively Vincentian way,” he says. “We share with them the unique spirituality of St. Vincent and practice Vincentian missionary zeal in our lives.”
“Our goal is to evangelize Hispanic communities through the encounter with Jesus’ love,” Fr. Toshio explains. “We invite them to participate in the life of the Church and to serve joyfully. The Church in North Little Rock is thriving with the tireless energy and deep faith of the Vincentian lay missioners. They are on fire with the love of Jesus.”