Light Shines Brightly Through the Darkness

Last week, Catholic Extension offered its annual Lumen Christi Award to Sr. Gabriella Williams, O.P., in the Lower Desert of southern California.  In Latin, the award’s name means, “Light of Christ,” and it is given to a person in the U.S. whose ministry brings light and hope to both the Church and society.

I had the privilege of attending the Lumen Christi event, where we witnessed first-hand how Sr. Gabi’s brilliant “light” has counteracted a great deal of darkness, and ignited change throughout the community.

Sr. Gabi serves people living in the trailer parks across the Coachella Valley.  They are the working poor; the people who tirelessly labor in the fields and orchards of this region.  Their average household income rarely exceeds $10,000.  During our visit to these communities, I couldn’t help but recall the Steinbeck novels that I had read in school.During her eight years in this ministry, Sr. Gabi has provided pastoral care for about 150,000 people spread out among various trailer parks.  Ninety-eight percent of them are Roman Catholic.  As the Church’s representative for so many people, she serves as a faith-builder, educator and social activist. Sr. Gabi has stood in the face of so much darkness, yet she has always believed that the light of Christ is stronger and more powerful.  In doing so she has inspired other local community members to see the potential that she sees.

Sr. Gabi is the face of the Church for hundreds of families living in the Coachella Valley trailer parks.

As we walked through the trailer park, one of Sister’s fellow community organizers acknowledged, “What brings values and quality of life for these people?  Their faith.  Sister helps them believe.”   The Catholic faith gives these people both the reason and the tools needed to fight another day.

Sr. Gabi and the community are starting to see some changes.In the early days of her ministry, drugs and crime were rampant in the trailer parks.  Living conditions were deplorable with as many as 25 people living in one run-down trailer.  One slum lord would even barricade the entrance of the community with armed guards.  Sr. Gabi was not welcome there, but she never let that stand in her way.  To gain access to the people, she would simply get a running start in her red pick-up truck and race through the guarded entrance at a high speed.  Today, with her help and advocacy, that slumlord is gone, as are much of the crime and drugs, and the unsafe trailers.

Many of the trailer parks had been condemned 40-60 years ago. "They are painted garbage cans, but the people are beautiful," explained Sr. Gabi.

In the early days of her ministry, Sr. Gabi witnessed many young people drop out of school.  Today, with support from Catholic Extension, she is completing a new learning center so that she can help educate young people out of poverty.

In the early days of her ministry, the people in the trailer parks were being poisoned by the water that they drank.   A toxic dump sits next to one park, and burns waste that ultimately enters into the water supply.  In many places, dangerous levels of arsenic are present in the water.  Today, Sr. Gabi is working with a newly founded non-profit, Pueblo Unido, to create state-of-the-art, clean water stations, which will help thousands of people gain access to quality drinking water.

In the early days of her ministry, when the people were lost without the presence of the Church, Sister Gabi brought Bishop Barnes to celebrate Mass in the trailer parks to show the people that the larger Church does care about them.  Today, she’s recruited many Catholic retirees of the Palm Springs/Palm Desert parishes to serve as volunteers and fundraisers in her work.  She has provided religious education classes, and has arranged other Catholic celebrations in the parks to help people experience the fullness of the faith.

In the early days of her ministry, people were paralyzed with fear and unable to band together.  Today they have a sense of community, a sense of purpose, and a sense of their collective potential.

With the help of loyal volunteers, Sr. Gabi plans to use the $25,000 grant to complete the creation a youth education center.

When you hear Catholic Extension reference the “transformative power of faith,” Sr. Gabi’s ministry is exactly what we are talking about—a textbook example of what a faith community can do when it believes that the light of Christ shines brighter than the darkness.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management, Catholic Extension

Hope: A Stadium Full of Proof

At Catholic Extension, we’ve seen so many inspiring Catholic communities doing so much with few resources.  We’ve developed a saying to describe what we are witnessing: “Hope is happening in 3-D.”

A young person bears gifts at Mass while 10,000 onlookers watch.

This past weekend, I visited Stockton, for a unique event held in the community for the last 30 consecutive years: the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration.  More than 12,000 people of all ages from parishes throughout the Diocese of Stockton are represented at this annual event, which includes a procession with dozens of semi-trucks hauling meticulously decorated floats that slowly make their way down the streets as parishioners sing hymns, perform traditional cultural dances in magnificently colorful costumes, or dress in character to act out scenes from the story of Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to Juan Diego.

“When I first celebrated the Feast of Our Lady in the 1960s, there were only three people. Now it overwhelms me to come here today and see the thousands.”

The procession is about a mile in length and ends at the Stockton Arena, an indoor sports stadium, where approximately 10,000 faithful pack the stands for a post-procession Mass with the bishop.  While Catholics have been doing processions (the precursor to the modern parade) for centuries, one of this scale is truly a sight to behold.

The most striking thing about the celebration, though, isn’t the enormous  procession or arena Mass, but is, in fact, the vibrant, growing faith community the event has helped to create.  For three decades, the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe has united the community of Stockton, enriched the faith of people and acted as a force of hope in the face of severe economic hardship and escalating crime rates in some areas.  It draws people, particularly young people, into the Church.

After the event we caught up with some of the Catholic faithful who have been a part of the event for many years. The significance and growth of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe celebration was underscored by a woman who danced in the procession in its earliest days and today watches her grandchildren participate in the event. “I’ll stand up to say this,” she said, pushing her walker away from her. “When I first celebrated the Feast of Our Lady in the 1960s, there were only three people.  Now it overwhelms me to come here today and see the thousands.”

Youth march through the streets of Stockton, CA as part of the annual procession to honor Our Lady of Guadalupe.

One of the teenagers involved in the festivities talked about how she has witnessed young people’s lives literally transformed through their experience with this event.  “Doing drugs, getting pregnant, or joining a gang are ways that young people get into trouble here, but we’ve seen kids turning away from that because this event gives them hope and purpose.”

One young man, who performs in the parade each year and attributes his survival of a bad accident to Our Lady of Guadalupe, said, “We realize we are family here, united in our faith.”

“When I see all these young people walking the streets in the name of the Church,” said one man, “the hair on my arms just stands right up.”

In a recent blog post, I talked about resourceful Christianity — people who really stretch the dollar.  Stockton’s Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe event requires a full year of planning, involves hundreds of volunteer organizers and, ultimately, engages thousands of people who sing and perform in the procession.  Considering the Diocese of Stockton has only a single paid staff person organizing this event, one stands in amazement at the community’s ability to organize and grow a celebration of this magnitude from 3 to 12,000 over the years.

But Stockton’s Catholics are determined to keep expanding the event.  Catholic Extension is working with the diocese to further support its efforts to enhance the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe experience and create a more financially sustainable event, so that the continued growth of this Catholic feast does not outgrow the diocese’s capacity to host this experience and reach out to even more of the nearly 325,000 people in the area.

This past Sunday, I saw 12,000 people and 12,000 reasons to be hopeful.  As one man told me, “When we all come together like this, we realize we are not alone.”  I couldn’t help but think about those early disciples who, upon realizing that they weren’t alone, immediately got out into the streets to offer some Good News to the world.  We were grateful to see hopeful things take place before our eyes– in 3-D – during an extraordinary day in Stockton, CA.

Where do you see hope happening near you?

Our Lady of Guadalupe is honored by an annual procession in Stockton, CA.

– Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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