Getting out of the sacristy to embrace new cultures

Frater Juancho with new-found friends in Rio de Janeiro

“What I am sure of now is that by getting out of the sacristy we experience the greatness of the hearts of the people we serve.”

-Frater Juan Carlos Castañeda Rojas

Frater Juan Carlos Castañeda Rojas is halfway through a ministerial year in Brazil. Here he writes about his experience of interculturality:

The time since I moved from Colombia to the United States has been an amazing experience for me because I have been able to meet and learn many cultures and how people experience their traditions, culture, and religion.

During my year of novitiate we had Inter-Community-Novitiate (ICN) workshops every Tuesday with women and men from different religious communities and from different parts of the world. Sharing our vocation with people from many places and who were of different ages was such a beautiful opportunity. One of those expressions of culture I experienced was reflected during the mass and other moments. It was the first time I heard the sisters from Africa doing what, at my first impression, seemed like screaming. Later I asked one of the sisters to explain to me the meaning behind that type of religious expression.   After that I have to say that I was impressed and that I loved it every time that they did it.

I was able to see more and different expressions of culture, tradition, and faith in my time at Catholic Theological Union (CTU). And because of those experiences I came to be more accepting and respectful of expressions of faith that were different than my own.

And now I am living a new amazing experience during my time in Brazil where they combine Brazilian culture, tradition and religion in a beautiful expression of love and faith.

I always was impressed by the number of people who attended the dances, the music, the colorful outfits, and all the energy of all the performers in the Carnival of Rio de Janeiro. But I also heard about the “bad” reputation it has because of the abuse of alcohol, drugs, and sex.

Recently I went to Rio de Janeiro where we have two parishes: Sacred Heart of Jesus and Bom [Good] Jesus Da Penha. The parishes represent two different realities.  Sacred Heart of Jesus is located in a middle-to-high-class neighborhood while Bom Jesus Da Penha is in a very poor and dangerous neighborhood. Both, however, had amazing people among the parishioners and all the people who work there. They are very welcoming and are active in their parishes.

Frater Juancho

I was impressed by the work in our parish of  Bom Jesus because it is a very active community. Many activities there are directed by our Lay Dehonians with the help of priests. But I have to say that it was also the first place where I did not feel secure physically and I was afraid for my safety. I was told that the neighborhood was very dangerous and that at any moment there could be a confrontation between police and drug dealers. And in fact, they had many victims of stray bullets, innocent people who found themselves in the middle of violent confrontations. I was scared to hear gunshots and sad to see news that in less than a week three people were killed by stray bullets –– two children and one man who was taking his son to school.

However, I received a very important lesson. I could see how the people did not live in fear. And even the brutal reality of their situation did not keep them from having a smile on their faces or stop them from attending Mass and participating actively in the parish. All those smiles, positive attitude, and faith from people in the parish helped me to realize that I was blocking myself from having a very nice experience because of my own fear. I was blinded to the beauty of the ministry because of the fear of being in a dangerous neighborhood.

One day one of the priests gave me a colorful T-shirt and hat. “Frater Juan,” he said to me, “next Sunday we are going to have our own carnival in our parish so this is for you to wear.” I was not sure what he meant but I was excited about the idea of carnival.

It was during the 6:00 pm Sunday Mass that more than 30 Lay Dehonians were sent to do mission work in their communities or neighborhoods. I was completely moved by that and I told them how I felt. It was touching to see how many people were involved in our mission and how they identified themselves as Lay Dehonians. They received the Dehonian cross and the blessing from the priest and the community. During Mass, I saw many people wearing the same t-shirt that I had received and I saw that they were very excited about the event. After Mass I heard some drums and music starting to play. It was one of the schools of samba of the neighborhood playing religious music with a samba rhythm.

I must admit that I was really surprised to hear religious music with such a vibrant rhythm. And then the parade started, people dancing and singing in an amazing show of faith and tradition of carnival united as one. In that moment, all the fear I had disappeared and I was moved by the rhythm of the music and the energy of the people. I felt the same emotion as I had felt when I heard the scream of joy from the sisters of Africa. I was experiencing the vibrant culture and the religiosity of the people of that parish.

I had a moment to appreciate the intercultural experience, one that I was experiencing personally as a growing moment in my faith and my own vocation. During the parade, people were saying how they were able to live the carnival in peace and at the same time glorify God with hymns of joy. At the end of the parade, many people asked me if I had enjoyed the parade. I did not have to think twice to answer I really loved it and was grateful to have shared that amazing experience with them.

As Dehonians, we are called to go out of the sacristy but many times we are not really sure where this will take us and what kind of experience is waiting for us. What I am sure of now is that by getting out of the sacristy we experience the greatness of the hearts of the people we serve. We also experience their culture, their traditions, and we grow together with them as people of God.