Deacon Juan Ibarra urges Hispanics to get involved
When Deacon Juan Ibarra and his wife followed their adult daughter from their native Texas to Abingdon in 2005, southwest Virginia’s Catholic ministry to Hispanics got a big boost.
Not only did it get an energetic, bi-lingual ordained minister, but Deacon Ibarra also came with a wealth of experience as a professional educator helping Hispanic children and their families make successful transitions to life in the United States.
Born the son of Mexican immigrant parents, Deacon Juan grew up in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas.
His career, as a teacher, principal and program coordinator for both state and federal departments of education, was focused largely on communities with large Hispanic migrant populations.
That background, along with the fact that he is himself a child of Mexican-American culture, has made him a natural welcoming presence for Hispanics in the parish communities of far southwest Virginia.
When they moved here, the Ibarras, who had retired 11 years earlier, became members of Christ the King Parish in Abingdon. But Deacon Juan (as he is more familiarly known) was quickly pressed into service at neighboring St. Anne’s in Bristol and St. John the Evangelist in Marion where Mass offered in Spanish draws an active Catholic community to church.
He’s been working hard ever since, urging Hispanic families to become full, active members of their church community.
“I remind them that this is their church and encourage the Spanish-speaking leaders to get involved,” he said.
Deacon Juan understands that it’s not easy to become part of an established church community of a different language and culture. But he believes it is important to the families’ religious life to make the effort.
Still, he emphasizes the value of maintaining their own rich traditions in practicing the faith.
He explained it this way: “Leaving one’s homeland and living in a new culture is difficult, but integration is best — not assimilation. When you come to church, don’t leave your culture at the doorstep, bring it with you and share it.”
In Bristol and Marion, Deacon Juan has been able to recruit a number of catechists who speak Spanish so children’s formation classes can be offered in both English and Spanish, but this isn’t common in other parishes.
He explained that having the option is helpful because of a language gap in many families since the children quickly learn English through school and socialization, while it is a slower process for parents.
The latter, he noted, sometimes feel “left out in left field” when they want to participate in their children’s faith formation.
Nevertheless, while he is sympathetic, when Deacon Juan invites these mostly immigrant families to take part in ministry, he stresses the need to learn English.
“Many of them come from rural, impoverished communities and I tell them I know you are looking for better jobs and a better life for your family so continue to educate yourself,” he explained.
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