AUTHOR’S NOTE: Ana Acosta and Raquel Thompson provided translations for this story.
TUPELO • For Maria Perez, a member of the Hispanic Ministry at St. James Catholic Church in Tupelo, the ongoing pandemic has had a profound emotional toll.
Perez, who considers herself a very affectionate person, said being unable to interact physically with people has been incredibly difficult. For her, friends are family, and not being able to hug and talk to others has been a struggle. And the pandemic has made her husband, Salvador, incredibly anxious.
Faith, she said, is pulling them through.
“(My) faith has been the strongest, knowing that nothing is bigger than the Lord,” she said in Spanish. “Everything will pass except the love and compassion the Lord has for us.”
Faith guides the members of the St. James Hispanic ministry in nearly all aspects of their lives. It’s something the pandemic hasn’t changed.
Impacto en la iglesia
When the pandemic began, the church had to close its doors to in-person services. St. James Hispanic Community Coordinator Raquel Thompson said they began focusing on access. Services were recorded and posted on Facebook so families could participate from home.
“It affected a lot of the people spiritually to not be able to be in the church. I think it had a big impact,” Thompson said.
For associate pastor Father Cesar Sanchez, who started at St. James on July 1, the church wants to show their congregation that they are never truly closed. As a priest, it was harder to celebrate and preach to a camera, but Sanchez saw it as an opportunity to take advantage of social media to reach more people than before.
“In these two months, July and August, from our point of view as a church, we never closed the church,” Sanchez said. “I told people, the gospel is not closed. Even though you cannot come to the church, the church comes to you in your house by online and Facebook Masses.”
Even once St. James reopened, it was important to keep everyone safe. Thompson has more than 250 registered families in her ministry and said the church overall ministers to over 400 families. There are also many families that do not register.
Services look different these days. Rather than having 300 to 400 people at Spanish Mass, attendance is limited to 150. There are also more mass services on Tuesday, Thursday and Friday to cover spiritual needs. Aside from limiting the number of people inside at a time, they also began requiring masks and social distancing. Sanitation occurs between each Mass.
Several church members cited feeling socially affected by COVID-19. For Oralio Martinez of Tupelo, the pandemic has affected her family mentally. She said she is grateful to God that her family has not suffered financially, although their lives have definitely changed.
“(We) have to be home, (we) can’t go anywhere,” she said in Spanish. “(We’re) scared to go out because there are so many people or where there’s a lot of gatherings. (We’ve) been very limited.”
Marco Lopez said the change brought on by the pandemic has been drastic and difficult for a family accustomed to spending time together going to mass, attending his grandson’s baseball games, or doing activities.
But the pandemic has also taught Lopez the importance of spending time with his family. An employee of BancorpSouth, Lopez said working at home during the pandemic has allowed him to spend more time with his wife, Veronica Salgado.
“We used to have gatherings, especially on Sundays after Mass with some of our friends, so not having that was an impact. For social distancing, we couldn’t do that ... but what we couldn’t do with other families, we did with ours,” Lopez said.
The family takes turns having Sunday Mass at home at either his home or with his daughter who lives in Shannon, and they have lunch at home together instead of going to a restaurant.
Papel de la fe
The church represents a bit of normalcy in strange and difficult times. Martinez recently sent her son back to school, saying it was important he have something familiar. She thinks it is more beneficial for him to return to school with his peers.
Sanchez said faith plays an important role in the Hispanic community and is the reason they have seen more people return to in-person services.
“They really need to pray and want to come to the church and pray because they know during this time, we need to increase our faith, our prayer,” Sanchez said.
Lopez said what is getting his family through this time is prayer. Salgado began praying with the Divine Mercy Chaplet on Facebook Live with friends in March, and Lopez said he believes it has brought them together and strengthened them.
“We overcame the situation of being at home and quarantining through prayer. We keep doing that … We’re almost six months into it and we fall in love more with that prayer,” Lopez said.
For Maria Perez, faith is the reason she sent her children back to school rather than distance learning. She admitted to feeling some initial anxiety about sending her kids back to school. But then, she thought about how returning to society, even a changed one, holds lessons for her children to learn.
The way through the pandemic, she said, is through caring for each other.
“(I want my) children to know that you cannot live in fear. No matter what happens, you have to confront the situation,” Perez said.
And have a little faith.
“Remember, centuries back, we’ve had epidemics and things like this, and people come out of them,” she said. “(Have) confidence in the Lord that this is permitted for a reason and to keep living your life, and try to live your life as gracefully as you can.”