More than 500 people filled an auditorium Sunday for a Mass to celebrate Hispanic culture at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Wilde Lake Interfaith Center.
The program was one of several events sponsored by the Columbia parish's 2-year-old diversity committee to foster appreciation of the parish's many cultures and to encourage and welcome participation in church programs by all members and visitors.
"The bottom line [is] we're about promoting Christianity and making sure all people feel welcome to a Christian environment ... to make sure all people in this community feel a part of this church," said Joe Mason, an African-American member of the diversity committee, which is made up of about a dozen men and women from various countries and ethnic groups.
The diversity committee has organized celebration Masses that highlight Filipino, Haitian and African-American cultures, and St. John's offers two Spanish-language Masses each week. Spanish Masses are conducted by the Rev. P. Antonio Velez, one of three priests in the parish.
Sunday's Spanish Mass welcomed English speakers by including a simultaneous translation into English of Velez's homily, offering a handout with English translations of the songs and included some Scripture read in English.
Song leader Victor Torres opened the service by greeting the English speakers. He invited them to imagine that they were visiting Puerto Rico and had stepped into the Cathedral of San Juan to experience a traditional Spanish Mass. With that introduction, the St. John's version of a Mass celebrated in Puerto Rico began with the procession of priests and cross and the choir singing, "Ante tu altar venimos, Senor" - "Before your altar we come, O Lord."
After Mass, the crowd was treated to a reception of Hispanic foods organized by Lupe Mora with other members of the Hispanic community. She said the tacos, tortillas, flautas, rice and beans represented typical foods from Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, Mexico and Spain.
"The future of the Catholic Church in the United States is with the Hispanic population," said Velez, speaking through interpreter Maria Siracusa. "That's why it's important to integrate the Spanish community with the English-speaking community and also including all the other cultures, because we are all the same church and we are all one in Christ."
Helen Liu, chairwoman of the St. John's diversity committee, said the church's pastor, the Rev. Richard H. Tillman, formed the committee in January 2001 because he recognized a need to promote inclusion and cooperation among the diverse cultures in his parish.
George Martin, a committee member and deacon, estimated that the parish has about 50 cultural and ethnic groups.
The committee's inaugural event in November 2001 was a "diversity day" attended by about 600 people.
"That was a very memorable day," with ethnic foods, flags of different countries and a "well-planned discussion [on diversity]," Liu said.
Other projects have included a "diversity workshop" with Episcopal priest and author Eric Law, and "an international taste of St. John's" with ethnic foods and entertainment by church members.
The diversity committee was founded, said member Mark Wong, "because we believe in the full inclusion of all racial and ethnic groups in the community and in all aspects of parish life.
"As a result of our work, we are seeing ... more fuller participation and active participation by the various racial and ethnic groups in the parish," he said, giving examples of the increased diversity among members of key committees, as well as among ushers and lay Eucharistic ministers at Mass.
"We have heard a lot of positive remarks," Liu said. "Other people talk to me [and say], `I don't feel a stranger here.' "
At a recent meeting of the diversity committee, members spent a long time discussing how best to phrase their vision statement so it would reflect a welcoming spirit. They settled on one that includes the hope that "all know they are welcomed, valued and encouraged to participate."
The group also met with Wayman Scott, the parish's new coordinator of youth and young-adult ministries, who had come to ask members' help in involving more of the parish's African-American families in the youth program.
"It's one thing to invite somebody, but it's another to make somebody feel comfortable," Scott said.
"This committee is great because ... this is a force that's going to make that more diverse process, and that's important around the board."