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A Faith Community on the Margins of Society

May 2, 2012

By Zack Budryk
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – It’s only mid-morning this April day, but the street facing Sacred Heart Catholic Church is full of both clergy and laity. Most are dressed formally, and several older boys flank the priests dressed as Roman soldiers.

As the Mass begins, rather than standing in place, the parishioners form a moving procession around the block, palm leaves held high, led by a woman strumming a guitar and singing a Spanish hymn. To someone unfamiliar with the Mixtec community on Richmond’s Southside, this Palm Sunday Mass is quite a sight to behold.

Even for an immigrant community, the Richmond Mixtecs face many significant cultural obstacles. In the mostly Hispanic Sacred Heart congregation, Mixtecs are still a minority of sorts, considering many are fluent in neither English nor Spanish.

Like many immigrant communities, religion plays a major role in the lives and culture of the Mixtecs.

“When they came, it was a small church; there was not a whole lot of people there,” said the Rev. Shay Auerbach, the church’s pastor. “Over the last 20 years, it’s become predominantly Hispanic. … It used to have on the rolls probably about 200 or 300 people. Now it’s got 4,500.”

Auerbach said his involvement with the Mixtec community is due partly to his membership in the Jesuit order, which has traditionally worked with marginalized groups.

Why does he invest such time serving the community?

“First of all, because it’s a justice issue,” said Auerbach, a descendent of indigenous Hawaiians, “but second of all, just because I kind of come from a related background.”

Auerbach suspects that the Mixtecs have opened up to him largely because he’s a priest.

“They really don’t trust a lot of people at all, and I think it’s from their own experience,” Auerbach said. “They live in one of the two poorest municipalities in Mexico. People have come to take advantage of them for 500 years. There is somewhat more trust with clergy, because they are Catholic. They do know that, and they do have a very strong devotion to their patron saint, which is St. Michael the Archangel.”

Beyond religious services, the Catholic Church has played a significant role in the Mixtecs’ daily lives.

Mary Wickham, director of the Sacred Heart Center, has done extensive outreach for the Mixtecs and has helped in the foundation of an embroidery cooperative.

The center is associated with the parish but operates independently, Wickham said. “Our mission is to open pathways for opportunity for social and economic integration, self-realization and community leadership.”

Auerbach said the church and its subsidiaries are doing their best to assist the Mixtecs, but they continue to face unique challenges.

“You’re dealing with a group that suffers from isolation and poverty and everything that goes with that,” he said. “They’re growing up in a very tough situation, because it’s not like there’s anything there for them to hold onto.”

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Related stories:

Mixtec Indians Face Language Barrier

Mixtec Artisan Co-op Debuts in Richmond