By Jeannine M. Pitas
DUBUQUE — While the situation of COVID-19 poses unprecedented hardships for all, these challenges are greater in communities with fewer resources and greater risk of exposure. This is the case for many Latino Catholics around the Archdiocese of Dubuque, particularly those in families of mixed legal status and those who work in high-risk areas such as meatpacking.
“Because the meatpacking industry is so centralized, this sheds light on where we are getting our food and who our workers are,” says Gabriela Vega Bauerly, who is communications coordinator for the parish of St. Raphael and St. Patrick in Dubuque. “The decision to keep meatpacking plants open was meant to keep food flowing, but we forget about the people who are essential workers — many of them immigrants — and how they are being affected.”
“The pandemic has highlighted a lot of inequalities,” Vega Bauerly adds. “No matter how much money you possess, no matter how many possessions you have, you’re still susceptible. But while the disease does not discriminate, the resources to treat and prevent it are unevenly distributed.”
Ana Hernández, who heads the youth ministry program and quinceañera program at St. Mary Catholic Church in Marshalltown, is recovering from COVID-19, which she caught from her mother. “It was like a bad flu with pain in my bones, stomach, head and a poor appetite. I also lost my senses of taste and smell, which have since come back.”
Hernández mentions that many parishioners of St. Mary work at the JBS meatpacking plant, which has had outbreaks of the virus. “Many of them may be quite sick but don’t want to go to the hospital because they don’t have insurance or money to pay.”
Father Nils Hernández, pastor of the Trinity Cluster of parishes in the Postville area, identifies one problem as a lack of information from both his parishioners’ main employers and local governments. “There is a lack of transparency,” he says. “It’s a real problem.”
Despite these challenges, communities have come together to help one another. Father Nils Hernández states that the local food pantry is stepping up to provide food. And Ana Hernández says her family is coming together to offer support.
“My uncle went to the emergency room and was treated; a friend helped him to pay for it. When my mother and I were sick, many people from the church helped me by bringing food and checking in,” she says.
While the challenges are hard, the Latino community is turning to faith with renewed strength and appreciation. For Eri González, an active parishioner of St. Raphael and St Patrick in Dubuque, yearns for the moment when she will be able to return to Mass.
“What I most miss is the Eucharist. This is my biggest desire, and there’s a void in the soul without it. I miss praying before the tabernacle. I also miss sharing with others in community,” she said.
However, using her parish’s online resources, González, her spouse and three children have been able to remain rooted in prayer, attending daily Mass and praying the rosary. “Now I place much value on the family. Being together all the time has its challenges, but it is also beautiful. While we can’t go to church, the church has come to us.”
“The biggest change in my spirituality is an increased personal drive to keep my faith going,” says Gabriela Vega Bauerly. “It’s a strange transition to be homebound with my husband and son, propelling us to take ownership of how we want to continue in our faith. Livestreaming the Mass is not the same as being there, but it’s a big help. I try to come up with ideas for what we can do as a family and to share resources on social media. I’m glad we at least have resources and live-streamed Masses, including more bilingual content.”
Father Nils Hernández, a liturgist by training, finds that the pandemic has made him busier than ever. The first public Masses to be canceled were those in a care home for elders that he regularly visits. “I was very disappointed when I was told I could no longer come and say Mass in person, so I immediately decided to look into how to do it online.”
Father Hernández initially used his tablet to record Masses but ran into technical difficulties with sound and visual quality. After all public Masses were called off, he purchased a new tablet, sought creative and logistical input from his assistant Cheri Mosher, and decided to share his personal chapel with others, turning it into a virtual chapel. Now, daily Masses, weekend Masses and other prayers in both Spanish and English can be found on www.trinitycluster.com.
“Excepting care centers, all our Masses are live with participation on Zoom. From their homes parishioners play music, do readings, and encourage the participation of all. People have tuned in from our own community as well as such faraway places as Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica,” reports the priest.
The inability to gather publicly certainly takes a toll. As a director of youth ministry, Ana Hernández notes the impact on young people who cannot celebrate quinceañeras, graduations and other milestones. “This is definitely a loss for the community. Many of our young people are the first in their families to graduate from high school, so it’s hard for them not to gather and celebrate.”
However, throughout the community, faith remains strong.
“Getting sick made me very discouraged at beginning. But it also made me seek God more. If my family and I had not prayed, clinging more tightly to our faith, we would not have recovered physically, emotionally or spiritually,” says Ana Hernández.
“At first the quarantine was hard, but now we are accepting the situation and taking precautions,” says Eri González. “We need to hold onto our faith and trust in God. We don’t know when this is going to end. My advice to all is to anchor yourself in prayer; give your worries to God.”
A version of this article in the Spanish language will be posted soon at TheWitnessOnline.org.
Eri González and her spouse and children celebrate Easter. (From left to right): Alejandro Flores, Johanna Flores, Eri González, Andrés Flores and Wendy Flores hold candles as the occasion. (Contributed photo)