“It’s one thing to talk about different experiences of church; it’s another thing to experience it for yourself.” We heard many similar comments over this past week, from the young adults who traveled with us to mission churches in Arkansas and Mississippi; as part of Catholic Extension’s Emerging Catholic Leaders: An Immersion Experience. We invited these young adult leaders from around the country, who are active in their own parishes back home, to come see what Catholic Extension sees when it travels the country: hundreds of mission churches with very little material wealth; yet rich in people who are passionate about their Catholic faith.

Fr. Jack Wall speaking with ECL participants on the bus.

We arrived in the diocese of Little Rock on Tuesday, where we were welcomed by Bishop Anthony Taylor, who gave us some of the history of Arkansas and the diocese. The next morning we traveled to Holy Spirit Church in Hamburg, AR, a poor Latino church which is literally falling down; the roof is caving in, and the windows are cracking from the weight of the roof. When we entered the church, we were overwhelmed by the numbers of parishioners and their children who were there to welcome us. Though it was a weekday morning, and most people work 12 hour days in the fields, they had taken the time to be with us; to share their stories, to talk about how much they love their church, and what their church means to them. Holy Spirit Church is blessed to have four Sisters of the Missionary Carmelites of St. Theresa, who arrived there last summer to minister to the people in the community. Prior to their arrival, the church had survived for 15 years without anyone in full-time ministry. In the short time that the Sisters have been there, there has been an immediate increase in the number of Latino Catholics coming to the small church. The teens are especially thrilled to have the Sisters there, because they have organized events for them which didn’t exist before.

Sister Gisla and Fr. Theo speak about the importance of a new church building.

Our Emerging Catholic Leaders got to see how important it is that Catholic Extension supports the Sisters at Holy Spirit. They also saw where the parish hopes to build their next church: by purchasing and renovating an old tire store. It might not seem like much to those who have a lot of resources, but for the people of Holy Spirit it would be a dream come true.

Holy Spirit parishioners hope to make this abandoned tire shop their new church.

On Thursday we celebrated Mass with Bishop Anthony Latino, of the diocese of Little Rock. We then traveled to Camden, Mississippi, where we witnessed the power of the presence of Sacred Heart, an African American Church, in an area that is less than 3% Catholic. We had the opportunity to hear not only from their pastor, but also the pastor of a neighboring church which is not Catholic, who talked about the importance of ecumenism in this area, of working together to serve this community where 60% of the people live below the poverty line. After having the chance to go visit with people in their homes and hear their stories of strong faith in the midst of great struggles, our young adults were then treated to a “Praise-a-Thon” back at the church; where choirs from all of the neighboring churches came together for an evening of song and worship.

ECL participants immersed in the "Praise-a-Thon" at Sacred Heart Church.

The young adults who traveled with us got a chance to experience what we at Catholic Extension see every time we visit a mission diocese: churches that lack material wealth, but are rich in faith. These young adults went back home ready to spread the good news about the Catholic Church in America, and about Catholic Extension’s mission to build faith, inspire hope, and ignite change.

- Terry Witherell, National Representative for Strategic Initiatives, Catholic Extension

Photo Gallery Day One

Photo Gallery Day Two

Photo Gallery Day Three

Watch the Sacred Heart Parish Choir