Children touch the wings of a man dressed as an angel as he holds a sign reading "Christmas with Jesus is happiness" in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, last year. Members of the Christian church Psalm 100 regularly dress as angels holding signs with religious messages for people to read. CNS photo/Jose Luis Gonzalez, Reuters

'Let it begin with me': Juarez parishioners work to change image

By  Joseph J. Kolb, Catholic News Service
  • January 23, 2012

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico - In a city that has become synonymous with violence and despair during a four-year drug war that has claimed more than 12,000 residents, parishioners at a small church are trying to change the image of Ciudad Juarez - one person at a time.

Reflecting on the hymn lyrics, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me," Father Roberto Luna, pastor of Corpus Christi Church, urges the estimated 500 active parishioners in this impoverished and besieged neighborhood to live the life of Christ to the best of their abilities. He knows how daunting this task can be.

The neighborhood Corpus Christi is in is adjacent to the Juarez Valley, where a war is being waged between the Sinaloa and Juarez drug cartels, and the war greatly affects the youth in the parish. Over the past year, Father Luna estimates that as many as 50 young people between the ages of 17 and 23 have been murdered, leaving survivors with a sense of anger, frustration and vengeance.

Father Luna's counteroffensive against these spiritually destructive emotions is immersion of his parishioners in church activities, where he develops a sense of community and teaches the tools of the faith so his people can survive, emotionally and spiritually. He is a jovial man with a pragmatic appreciation of the local street life, which contributes to his close rapport with parishioners.

One of his favorite ministries is the Saturday catechism program, which is attended by about 100 families. The day involves a potluck lunch in the fenced-in dirt corner lot of the church followed by classes for adults and children. He sees the invaluable responsibility of the family as a deterrent to the violence.

"The family serves as the roots to a blossoming tree, and the more you keep feeding the roots, the stronger the tree will be," Father Luna said. "We're teaching love, peace, respect and tolerance."

Each Saturday, the families arrive at the church and receive a week's worth of catechism lessons. The parents then spend the week teaching their children, and assignments are discussed the following week.

"We are teaching parents ... who haven't even been baptized to go home and teach their children," Father Luna said. "Many then become enrolled in RICA and continue the faith here."

Father Luna is especially optimistic about the teen ministry which, given the drug and violent distractions in the neighborhood, is a sign of hope for Ciudad Juarez.

At the core this work are the 200 young people enrolled in the confirmation program. The priest knows the temptations abound for the youth in the parish to join with the cartels.

With so many people in his parish affected by the violence, Father Luna finds one of the biggest challenges he faces is reconciliation.

"I see the faces of the families, the damage these young men did in terms of committing violence or other crimes against others, but the victims have to forgive," Father Luna said. "We're trying to break the cycle of violence here through reconciliation."

One woman, who declined to give her name, told her story.

"Three years ago my brother was murdered, and it was hard to forgive his killers until I returned to the church," she said. "My entire family is going through this process of forgiveness, and we are all coming back to the church, which is helping."

In a cold basement with a concrete floor and cinderblock walls, parishioners huddled in winter coats, hats, and scarves expressed a plea to have their city seen beyond the violence.

"We're trying to send a message of faith through the hurt in our society," a middle-aged man said during an open forum.

The majority of the 100 people in the forum said the church is beginning to make headway.

"We are good people, and people need to know that," said a man whose child was attending one of the catechism classes in a nearby classroom.

David Cano, a first-year seminarian, said he has been overwhelmed by the involvement he has seen among the parents.

"It's amazing how humble these people are," Cano said. "This is a close-knit community that has been deeply affected by the violence, but (parents) still want a better life for themselves and their children."

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