As a priest who is now totally immersed in ministry to Hispanics, Jesuit Father Shay Auerbach said that his introduction to it was “a quirk of fate.”
“I’d just received a licentiate in liturgy and knew I would be going to a parish for two years,” he said.
The parish was St. Raphael’s in Raleigh, N.C., which had seen a recent increase in Hispanics.
“We need somebody to say Mass in Spanish. Can you read the Mass in Spanish?” Fr. Auerbach remembers the pastor asking him soon after his arrival.
“That began a whole new chapter in my life,” he recalls, adding that his stay of two years he began in 1999 ended up being six and a half years. The parish had 4,000 registered families.
At St. Raphael’s he helped establish the new Hispanic community.
“It had started a year before I got there,” Auerbach said. “By the time I left the parish would have 1,300 to 1,400 Hispanics for Mass on a weekend.”
Born in Honolulu, Auerbach was the son of a native Hawaiian mother of Chinese and Irish descent and a father of Irish, English and German descent. He grew up there and was educated at a private school known as Punahou, founded by Congregationalists.
“Its most famous alumnus is Barack Obama, who was two years ahead of me,” he said. “I certainly remember him.”
Early on, Auerbach had an interest in becoming a priest.
“I had thought about it as a kid, but I dismissed the idea, partly because it’s something Hawaiians never did,” Auerbach said.
After graduating from high school he went to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. where he met the Jesuits.
“I was impressed by the fact that they were normal, real people,” he said. “I was impressed by their intellectual tradition and their value of other cultures and that they tried to learn from the cultures they worked with rather than simply impose their ideas.”
After graduating from Georgetown in 1985, Auerbach got a master’s degree in linguistics in 1987 and then entered the Jesuits in 1988 at Wernersville, Pa. where he spent two years. He then studied philosophy for two years at Fordham University.
“Then I taught for three years at St. Joe’s Prep and the Gesu School in North Philadelphia,” he said, pointing out that he taught religion and human sexuality at the Gesu and Spanish at St. Joseph’s Preparatory School.
After the previously mentioned assignment at St. Raphael’s in Raleigh, he went to Baltimore for a year where he lived at St. Ignatius in downtown Baltimore.
“I was a sacramental minister in two parishes — St. Joseph’s in Cockeysville. Md. and St. Gabriel’s in Woodlawn,” he said. “I also helped out as a resource for the Archdiocesan Office of Hispanic Ministry.”
From Baltimore, Auerbach went on to his final stage of formation at Puente Grande, Mexico. “That’s where I did tertianship,” he said, adding this period was seven months.
Auerbach arrived at his current assignment as pastor of Sacred Heart parish in Richmond, Va. in July 2007. The former parish school, which had closed in the mid-1980s, was converted into the Sacred Heart Center in 1990 when a three-man Jesuit presence came to the parish. At its beginning it served largely African Americans who lived in the neighborhood.
But interest in the neighborhood center waned after 2000. The neighborhood demographics had changed with people moving out and the housing stock diminished.
“In 1999 the city of Richmond opened a state-of-the-art community center just a few blocks south of us,” Auerbach said. “And right around the parish the neighborhood began to be gentrified.
“Now we’re refocusing and being very strategic,” he said of the Sacred Heart Center’s mission.
“We want to focus on people who are not being served effectively anywhere else,” he said.
He noted a Mexican-Indian community known as Mixtecos who live south of the center. They come from a remote mountainous area of Mexico. The newcomers are drawn to Richmond because there is a noodle factory in the town that has provided them employment and word of mouth has brought others.
“They are a very tight-knit and closed community,” Auerbach explained. “They live in almost destitute conditions.
He has been successful in drawing the Mixtecos to the Sacred Heart Center for sacramental preparation classes which are held each Sunday. With an engaging personality and with smiles, good will and trying to reach them in their own language, Auerbach has encouraged them to come for religious education, which most of them lack, even though their culture is Catholic.
“They’re even isolated from the local Hispanic community. There are almost 2,000 of them and they are fiercely Catholic.
“They understand they are Catholic, but they’re not always sure what this entails,” he continued.
A lot should be done to help the Mixtecos, Auerbach feels. Although they are normally distrustful of outsiders, he reports they have “always been kind and welcoming to me and our evangelization teams.”
“We also want to find out what their needs are and plan programming through the center and help them face the challenges they have on a day-to-day basis,” he said.
Sacred Heart is developing a catechetical program for the Mixtecos so they can better claim their Catholic heritage. Most only have baptism, but have not received first Communion or Confirmation.
“We’re really excited about this program,” Auerbach said.
Regarding outreach to undocumented workers, he feels many are afraid to apply for help for fear of giving information which may later cause them to be deported. Many, he said, are disappointed by the lack of support for the DREAM Act which failed in Congress as recently as this past December. The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) would provide conditional permanent residency to high school graduates who are in the U.S. illegally if they complete two years in the military or two years at a four year institution of higher learning.
“There is a high level of anxiety among those looking for help,” Auerbach said. “They can read the tea leaves. They know that if they are arrested for anything – even a traffic ticket – deportation is possible.”
He said he has not seen a large number of undocumented workers from Sacred Heart return to their homelands, but admits there are a few.
“The few I’ve see returning home find life too difficult here,” he explained. “They say ‘Forget it, I’m going back home’.”
“But the situation is so bad in their home countries, particularly in Mexico where there is increased violence and a lack of jobs, they’ll just stay put and wait it out.”
Those who get arrested and know they face a court hearing will sometimes opt to return home.
“They’ll just go home rather than face possible deportation, which to them is worse because they’ll be sent to a detention center and then get deported,” Auerbach said.
- Steve Neill is the editor of the Catholic Virginian newspaper of the Diocese of Richmon, Va.