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A lesson in hope and perseverance from Hispanic youth in the aftermath of September 11

 

Entre Amigos – Opinion / Commentary

August 15, 2011

By Mar Muñoz-Visoso

I was nowhere near the World Trade Center in New York when the 9/11 terrorist attacks happened. But I remember vividly the day and the aftermath of the tragedy.

On the way to work that morning, I heard on the radio that a large plane had crashed into a tall building in New York. By the time I arrived at the archdiocesan pastoral center in Denver and found a room with a TV the second plane had already crashed. I remember the desperate folks crying for help from the windows or jumping out to sure death out of desperation. And then, the two towers collapsed like a house of cards.

We were free to go home or stay at the office for the rest of the day. I decided to stay. Though it was hard to concentrate on anything else, a small crisis of a different kind was brewing on my side of things.

We were organizing a regional gathering, called an Encuentro, of Hispanic youth and young adults from five states (Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah). The retreat was to be held in Winter Park, Colorado, in three days.

We had reservations for about 300 people. Approaching the deadline to confirm our reservations, about a week earlier, we only had nearly half that number registered. The archdiocesan youth director, whose office was cosponsoring the event, had been pressing us to cut in half our reservations lest we have to pay for empty rooms and uneaten meals. Jake, the Hispanic youth coordinator, and I explained that, knowing our people, that would be a big mistake and that, come the day, we expected very few, if any, rooms would be empty. "Our people do not register for events, they just show up." The diocesan youth leaders had a very good sense of how many were in their group and we relied on their estimates. We would be prepared to register a lot of people on site and distribute rooms as they come.

Then, 9/11 happened and we got news that all planes had been grounded and would remain so for a few days. This time the archdiocesan youth director went into panic afraid no one would show up now. We were scared too. Most of the youth were coming by bus or car but given the situation we didn't know if people would venture out on the roads. On top of that, a couple of keynote speakers had to cancel because they couldn't get out of DC and Boston. (Kudos to the small group facilitator that drove all the way from California and the Christian band from Texas that decided to jump in a van to make it just on time for Saturday night's concert!)

But in the few days between the attack and the start of the Encuentro the phones started ringing non-stop. Diocese after diocese, youth group after youth group, the argument was always the same: "Are we still on? I hope you are because we are coming," or "Please don't cancel on us. These kids need this retreat more than ever." The youth director insisted it was better to cancel. But Jake and I pleaded our case with the newly appointed auxiliary bishop, now Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles, and a decision was made: if the people are coming, the Encuentro is on.

By the end of Friday of that infamous week we were exhausted but exultant. Bus after bus, van after van kept unloading Latino youth from eleven different dioceses. More so, my prediction that for every registered participant a carful of people would show up turned up to be pretty accurate. In total over 450 people made it. The logistical problems of accommodating an extra 150 people were worked out.

The 2001 Hispanic Youth Encuentro in Colorado, turned out to be an amazingly deep experience of faith and conversion. We cried and we prayed; we embraced as we struggled to make sense the incomprehensible events we had just witnessed and the meaning that tragedies like these have in our lives. We talked about what's really important in life and how, often, a u-turn in our actions and attitudes towards God and towards others was in order. The Blessed Sacrament, exposed in a chapel, was never alone. You could see many young men and women seriously working to find balance in their lives before the Lord.

The gathering was also special because unlike past youth encuentros in our region, a conscious effort had been made to also invite English-speaking Latinos. It was a true exercise in patience and listening, especially since most of the work in the encuentros is accomplished through small group reflections and discussion, but nobody complained.

We divided up the keynotes among several of the adults present, including the Bishop Gomez, who stayed with us the entire weekend, and Archbishop Charles Chaput, who celebrated Mass for us that Sunday. Probably none of our speeches seemed spectacular but judging from participant evaluations, it seems the Holy Spirit got the job done.

I visited Ground Zero recently. The 9/11 Memorial Site is well underway, but from a few stories high it still feels much like the big hole in the ground and in our hearts. Ten years later, my recollection of 9/11 is still vivid, but its aftermath is enhanced by the deep faith and strong hope of the Hispanic youth in Rocky Mountain area and the Southwest.

A salute to all the victims of the terrorist attacks, the loved ones left behind and the heroes who hurried in their assistance. You continue to be our inspiration.

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Mar Muñoz-Visoso is assistant director of Media Relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops



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