Daniel Vélez-Rivera's Holy Adventure

Fresh out of the seminary, Daniel Vélez-Rivera went to Salem, Massachusetts as curate and urban resident and there, using the techniques of a pastor, a community organizer and a social worker, he created a ministry among Latina immigrants of several generations that allowed women who once felt on the margins of American society to recognize, cultivate and share their faith, wisdom and strengths.

The results were a vital core community of Spanish-speaking women who have served as mentors for scores of others, a flourishing parish, and two programs— Abuelas, madres y más (Grandmothers, mothers and more) and Ruth and Naomi—that have been replicated in numerous communities across the United States, South and Central America, and even in South Sudan.

In 2007 Daniel became an ECF Fellow. He said the fellowship gave him and Emma Rosero-Nordalm, a retired professor of 22 years at Boston University, the opportunity and the responsibility to dream big.

With the support of Bishop M. Thomas Shaw of the Diocese of Massachusetts and Grace Episcopal Church, where Salem’s Hispanic ministry was incubated, they began to plant the ministry now at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church-Iglesia Episcopal San Pedro.

“Church planting is like doing community organizing,” Daniel said. “We spent a year canvassing the community. We visited every stakeholder in the neighborhood from restaurant owners to barbershop owners to people in the street. I volunteered at the department of youth services and VOCES (an immigration services agency.) We didn’t even hold a worship service for eight months.”

What they learned was that the Spanish-speaking community in Salem was composed disproportionately of single mothers of different ages, many of whom had just arrived in the United States.

Daniel and Emma responded with a five-week intergenerational pilot program, Abuelas, madres y más (Grandmothers, mothers and more), in which women shared stories, joys and struggles, and offered one another support. The key to the group’s success, Daniel said, lay in helping the women recognize and value the wisdom earned through experience and the strength derived from their deep faith.

“They are wise women,” he said. “They know how to be mothers and can help other mothers in their journeys. They know about their faith and how to talk about their faith. They have resources that are nuggets of gold and when they share that wisdom, people say, ‘You have transformed me by that story you told.’ ”

“We started with 12 women in the original group,” he said. “Once they became empowered, they wanted to be mentors for other women like themselves.” Thus the success of Abuelas, madres y más gave rise to the creation of Ruth and Naomi, a program of mentoring and advocacy. In contemporary Salem, just as in the Bible story from which the group takes its name, older women share their wisdom and knowledge with younger counterparts and those who are new to the community. At the same time, the young mothers shared their knowledge and wisdom with the mentors and companions. T

The programs are exercises in “participatory education” a method developed by the late Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, author of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which learners and staff share authority and responsibility in creating the educational experience. One strength of this method, Daniel said, is that students quickly grasp their potential for leadership.

As the women of Salem’s Latina community have shared their strengths with one another, Daniel and Emma have shared their program across the Church.

“With funding provided by my fellowship we were able to train leaders in South Carolina, New York, Connecticut, Alabama, California, and Puerto Rico,” Daniel said. “The Hispanic Ministries of the Episcopal Church has a biannual conference. That was one of the places where we did a workshop twice in the last four years. We have congregational resources day in the Diocese of Massachusetts. We’ve become great networkers. You have to be.”

Emma has also shared the pair’s work internationally through churches and public health organizations in Ecuador, Panamá, Honduras, México, and Colombia. After attending the trainings in Honduras, members of a Philadelphia-based Baptist ministry requested the creation of a series of charlas (workshops) for Sudanese women working in orphanages in southern Sudan.

Ruth and Naomi, Abuelas, madres y más, these are now our women’s ministry,” Daniel said. “They do the diaper ministry. They do evening prayer. They preach. They are lay Eucharistic visitors.

“It is not just sitting around in a circle talking about faith…. Now it is the bones of the church. More than the bones. It is the feet and the hands and the ears and the eyes of Christ in the community.”