An Inner City Religious Education Program

Written by Br. Daniel Kolbe


If one listens to the oracles of the age you could easily think that the church and western civilization is in a death spiral. If that idea may be lurking in the dark recesses of your mind, allow me to share with you a little story about God’s faithfulness.

When I was assigned to a parish in New Jersey, I had no idea what I’d be asked to do. Within a few days after arriving my mission was revealed. I’d never run a Religious Education program before but I’ve been doing youth ministry for most of my adult life so how challenging could it be? I’d soon find out!

The first challenge was that the year was starting in two weeks and nothing had been done to prepare for the coming year… no registrations, no books, no teachers and no organized paper trail of what was done the previous year. God’s grace prevailed and the year did start with a little over 100 students, teachers and books included, a small miracle really all things considered. God is faithful.

That first year revealed the fundamental challenges I was going to face and still face to this day. The most daunting by far is the bilingual and multi-cultural nature of the parish. The parents for the most part only speak Spanish, not many fully understand English. To my surprise, I discovered that some are not even literate in their native language. The children’s case is a varied one as they prefer Spanish at a younger age but by about 3rd grade prefer English. There are always the recent arrivals of all ages that only understand Spanish. A large percentage at every age really aren’t fully literate in either Spanish or English. They might speak Spanish at home but have had little grammar formation in Spanish. In English, their grammar is heavily influenced by Spanish. So the big question is how on earth are you supposed to evangelize a diverse group like this with limited church resources? To make matters worse many of the parents are not familiar with the American style of catechesis either. Most only received catechesis a few weeks or months before a sacrament. The concept of continuing faith formation is totally foreign and appears unnecessary to them. How do you convince parents otherwise?

Communicating with the parents is a real puzzle as well. They most all have cell phones so group texting works but their phone numbers change frequently due to financial limitations and frequently changing locations as they follow job opportunities. Keeping up with a pool of changing numbers is impossible. Mass and bulletin announcements reach some but many parents don’t regularly attend Sunday Mass again due to work complications. Our web page reaches a few too but it is not a successful method of communication. Poster and flyers only reach a limited number as well. In all of the cases above it needs to be both in English, Spanish, and even the occasional Creole French. How can you effectively communicate to a composite group like this one?

Entering the second year it was obvious we had to find some order is this chaos. It was time to leverage some technology. Thank God for Microsoft Access (gasp) because we need to understand Mass and class attendance and year to year registration trends and also avoid situations like finding out the child we have been preparing for 1st communion all year isn’t baptized because the parent didn’t tell us.  Thank God for services like Flocknote that make sending out hundreds of text easy. Google Voice with one-click calling is a real time saver when calling a couple dozen parents each week to ask why their child is not in class or calling the entire 7th, 8th and 9th grade to remind them for the second time that they need to fill out the permission form for the upcoming retreat. Yes, even in the use of technology, God is faithful.

The next obvious thing was that the whole program needed to be bilingual, the books, the teachers, the secretary, the group texts, the announcements, the posters, the religious education handbook, the registration forms, the phone calls, the director, etc. One by one all these demands were met and continue to be met. Grace once again prevails and beautiful talented people volunteer and come forward to make this program work. Sometimes you pray and wait, pray some more, wait some more and on occasion beg but… God is faithful.

Last year we had 253 children registered. In the spring 61 children received their 1st communion and 27 teens made their confirmation. There is no doubt that among these many are growing in faith and encountering their loving God face to face. They have been able to experience serving others, retreats, Eucharistic adoration, God’s love and God’s forgiveness. God is faithful.

This fall the fifth year is starting. If the trends continue we may not have enough classroom space. Will new teachers volunteer if needed? Last year we had opportunities for the middle school and high school students to have Eucharistic adoration. This year we need to start Eucharistic adoration for the grade school children. At the moment we don’t have a place to do this or even a musician. This is a cause for concern but experience has taught me more than just the difficulties of this mission. Experience has taught me that the difficulties shouldn’t overwhelm. God is truly faithful.