The Harvest is Great But the Laborers Are Few
A Community by INVITATION
It all begins with a knock on the door. Excerpts from a reflection in The Message (Spring 2019).
A group of Vincentian men, responding to the need in a community that lacked support for its faith, started a revolution of immigrants returning to their Catholic faith.
Fr. Kevin Lawler, CM, a missionary priest in Panama, was transitioning back to the United States and hoped to continue working with a Hispanic community. He identified a need in Long Island, where many underserved communities in the area of Nassau County could benefit from a Hispanic ministry.
It began with a simple gesture—a knock on the door of potential parishioners— that ended with an invitation to participate in Sunday mass. From there, this ministry expanded to administer the sacraments, organize lay faith formation programs, preach God’s word in Spanish, and, most importantly, evangelize and spread the Good News within the community.
“There were about 20 people dedicated to that service, and once a week they would go out at night to visit the apartment buildings and areas where the Hispanic population lived.” This direct contact and invitation ignited the community to grow grassroots-style into the thriving, active community it is today.
Hesitation and skepticism were commonly felt by those on the receiving end of this Hispanic ministry, who had been overlooked before, resulting in a lack of trust and confidence. Therefore, Fr. Semeniuk, along with the entire evangelization team, knew their words needed to be backed by action. Connecting with the community, training the leaders, and visiting every home in the parish were top priorities. The team drew a map of the community and divided it among themselves. Weekly, they paired up to knock on doors and visit Hispanic parishioners delivering their simple introduction and invitation to participate in the faith.
“I didn’t know Catholics did this,” said one parishioner, who was caught off guard by the visit and invitation.
What happened next is nothing short of a miracle.
People were returning to church and participating in the lay faith formation programs. During this early time of the ministry, Fr. Semeniuk recalls visiting a young woman and her two-year-old child. While the visit was short, it was effective. The following week, he saw her in the communion line. Their eyes met, and she was smiling. It affirmed to him that the simple gestures of visitation and invitation served as bridges to bring her back to the faith. It may be hard to say what the final outcome of that specific visit was, but it proved to Fr. Semeniuk that they had discovered the basis for developing a true community, where people socialized, came together to volunteer and deepen their faith.
Fr. Semeniuk reminisces about the changes he has witnessed over the years.
“We began with only 25 people in the church, a church that could fit 650 people. There was a lot of empty spaces at that time—a ton of potential, but a ton of empty space. Now when I go back, the church is full, and there is standing room only. It attests to the power of the Spirit and God’s providential care that He wanted this community to grow and flourish; it was our investment, as Vincentians, in planting the seeds that allowed this community to flourish and develop. It shows the importance of being committed to a community.”
Tania Maza, originally from Ecuador, has been a part of the Long Island apostolate for 16 years. She was invited by friends to visit the apostolate and quickly realized how different the Vincentian priests are, and how valuable the apostolate is for the community.
“Vincentian priests for me are gifts from God,” professes Tania. “They live the way they preach and follow in the footsteps of St. Vincent de Paul. They are like angels. Our priests are open to the people and ask us what we are looking for. They love to help [and] are very compassionate with what a person needs. They take care of everyone and are looking out for those who really need help.”
The ministry in Long Island is very diverse. While all are Hispanic, each has its own culture. Fr. Navas notes, “We are all Catholics, but the way we express it is very unique to the people.”
Parishioner and Pre-Cana instructor, Tania Pillco, has been a part of the apostolate for eight years. She appreciates how the Priests understand the differences in cultures. “It is important because we are people coming from different cities, different countries. We are Hispanic, but that does not mean we have the same values as every culture or family. When we understand each other, we have the tools to work together.”
“One of our pastoral principles is if they ask and we can do it, then we will do it,” reflects Fr. Semeniuk. “We are an international community, so we have resources that go beyond what a diocese would have. Therefore, we can call upon another province when we are in need of a specific language to support our mission, such as the Vincentians in Colombia, who can provide additional personnel to support Long Island.”
Fr. Semeniuk is proud of the Vincentian impact and how his missionary vocation re-ignited the Long Island apostolate.
“The Vincentians have a missionary call; being called to serve the Hispanic immigrant population is a realization of that call. The time I spent in Long Island was my experience being a Vincentian missionary.”
The Long Island ministry has grown into a vibrant community of Hispanic-American immigrants coming together to express their Catholic faith by organizing faith programs, bringing together different cultures, and supporting those in need during tough times. However, it is the people who make the Long Island ministry a remarkable community. They open their hearts to the faith, to the Vincentian teachings, and to their neighbors and the traditions of others.
Tania Pillco sums it up best. “This is my home. The people that are here, the Priests, it feels like friends. It is a family. It motivates me to continue to learn and grow in the faith.”
[Please visit the original article to learn more of the moving stories.]
Are you interested in serving this or other such ministries? Find more stories and information at Men On a Mission.