On Palm Sunday, Christ Church Episcopal in Norcross held its first bilingual Palm Sunday service.
For The Rev. Irma (Mimi) Guerra the day marked an important milestone.
“One of my dreams/visions since I started attending services in 1998 was to see all this diverse groups of families attending services at different times because of language barriers, attending just one service and being united as one,” Guerra said.
Guerra said it is something she has worked toward since becoming Priest Associate to the Iglesia de Cristo congregation at Christ Church in 2018.
As with all changes in the Episcopal Church, initiating bilingual services required buy-in by parish leaders, she said.
“Of course, this means that churches instead of offering separate services in different languages to bring all into one bilingual or trilingual service and when I spoke to one of the leaders the response was ‘one day we will’,” she said.
As one of the first female Hispanic priests in the Diocese, Guerra said she patiently continued building relationships at Christ Church and eventually found support for testing the response to bilingual services.
“Many times, we forget that nothing is impossible to God, as we can see when we offer this service. The feeling is inexplicable because all are speaking the language of love and that is how we are closer to one another, support one another, care for one another,” Guerra said following the Palm Sunday service.
It was an effort that required dozens of helping hands and hundreds of participants, she said.
“If we talk about traditions, from countries [represented in the parish] we gathered 40 servants chosen by the community over the 40 days in lent to find palms, cure them in water and then weave them together,” Guerra said. “Each day [as they worked they] related to Jesus’ journey to the cross, and we leave a piece of our hearts in each weave.”
On the Saturday before Palm Sunday people gathered at the church to have their palms ready for the big day, knowing that the palms were already blessed by those good servants’ hands and ready to mark the end of Lent and the beginning of Holy Week, Guerra said.
Following the service, which included music by Mariachis, parishioners took their palms home and put them on the front door as a sign of God’s blessing. Next year the cycle renews when they bring their palms back to the church to burn for use on Ash Wednesday.
Guerra said watching the blending of traditions from countries and languages has been gratifying, and productive.
“Our churches are growing and people from other counties are here,” she said. “We as leaders need to hear their stories, have them share their traditions and be part of them.”
Christ Church has learned that welcoming diversity by opening their doors to all has given all parishioners the opportunity to be part of one family as God intends, she said.
Guerra is working to introduce bilingual services at all twelve parishes in the Diocese with Hispanic congregations as she has at Christ Church with the goal of increasing contact between English- and Spanish-speaking parishioners.
In addition, she is seeking to add new Hispanic congregations to parishes of the Diocese.
One of those parishes is St Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church in Morrow.
“I have been there several times to address their wish to open their doors to our Hispanic families.
“They have been so persistent in this wonderful project, and they are a lovely community,” she said.
“They have been distributing flyers around their neighborhoods and they already have some Hispanic families that are interested in became a voice to other Latino families.”
Another effort that Guerra is supporting is being launched at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Macon.
Guerra, appointed in 2022 by Bishop Rob Wright as Hispanic Missioner for the Diocese of Atlanta, coordinates all Hispanic ministries within the Diocese.
A native of Mexico, Guerra moved to the United States in 1994, and in 2018 became one of the first female Hispanic priests in the Diocese. Previously, she was an educator for 30 years and taught Spanish in Douglas County Schools.
Guerra began her formation for the priesthood in 2016 when she graduated from CETLA (Theological Education Center for Latinos), a program initiated in 2014 by her predecessor, The Rev. Canon Isaías A. Rodríguez.
CETLA is for members of Hispanic congregations in the Diocese who wish to deepen their faith; engage in religious education in the parish or other parish ministries; and be leaders in their respective communities. Graduates include those serving as readers, Eucharistic ministers, catechists, vestry members, and ushers, as well as those exploring a call to ordained ministry.