CHICAGO — Today Greenfield, California, looks and feels different because Father Enrique Herrera believed that the Church could make life better for the city’s residents.
When Father Herrera arrived at Holy Trinity Parish and saw that parishioners were struggling to feed their families and had few opportunities for a brighter future, he decided that his parish would become a beacon of hope. Together with his parishioners, he started many new programs focused on strengthening faith, education and community. Hearts were opened. Individuals started changing. Families started changing. Neighborhoods started changing. Classrooms started changing. The police department, fire department, school officials, city council and mayor all got on board.
Catholic Extension has chosen Father Herrera to receive the 2017-2018 Lumen Christi Award, its highest honor. Father Herrera will be officially presented with the award during a Mass at his parish on December 10.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the award. Father Jack Wall, president of Catholic Extension explained, “The Lumen Christi Award shines brightly to honor and give recognition to people who are great missionaries in our country. Father Herrera is a great example. He has stood up as a shepherd for his flock and raised them up. He is a ‘voice for the voiceless,’ but he is also helping people to find their own voice, helping them to aspire and to dream. He is a true missionary.”
Catholic Extension’s selection of Father Herrera and his bustling parish of immigrant parishioners also shines a light on the seismic shift that has occurred in the Catholic Church over the past 25 years. Just last week a study released by the Public Religion Research Institute documented what America magazine called the “shift from a predominantly white church clustered in the Northeast and Midwest to a church influenced by Latin American immigration and located in the South and West.”
Roots in the valley
Before Father Herrera was born, his parents had worked in the Salinas Valley, where Greenfield is located. After his birth in Mexico — he is the third of seven children — his father continued to travel there regularly as a migrant worker to support the family.
Enduring his father’s long absences, he developed a soft spot for the plight of migrants. By age 10, Father Herrera felt the tug toward priesthood. Wanting to be “a voice for the voiceless,” he entered seminary in Guadalajara after high school. But when his family immigrated to the Salinas Valley, he caught the attention of the bishop of Monterey, who asked him to join the diocese. Ever since, he has served the poor in several parishes, working primarily with immigrants.
“I have come full circle,” he said. “As the son of immigrants, I am now able to serve immigrants in the same location.”
As pastor of Holy Trinity, Father Herrera shepherds the only Catholic church in Greenfield. Catholic Extension helped to build the church in 1934.
Greenfield is in the heart of the valley, nestled between the Gabilan Mountains to the east and the Santa Lucia range to the west. A city of 16,000, it is comprised mainly of immigrants who come to harvest lettuce, broccoli, grapes and strawberries in the area’s rich soil. Half of the city’s population is under age 21. The average income in his community is almost 40 percent below the national poverty level, creating hardships for families trying to make ends meet — let alone, plan for the future.
Father Herrera is particularly focused on the youth of the parish. Most of their parents, 90 percent of whom are farmworkers in nearby fields, have demanding schedules that keep them away from home. He wants young people to be safe, connected to the community and to understand their potential and responsibility to contribute to the common good.
This past May, 446 children received their first Communion. Father Herrera has also ramped up the number of teenagers who are being confirmed at the parish. Hundreds are in the confirmation program each year, and he encourages them to be leaders. The teens become his core group of volunteers because they have the “energy, wisdom and understanding” to guide others.
With Catholic Extension’s help, this summer the parish started a new summer camp for children. The program, which includes lessons on faith and on science, was so popular with the children that after the first day many brought their friends and cousins along.
For adults, Father Herrera tries to work around their long work schedules. When agricultural fields are dormant, he holds daily Bible classes that attract more than 400.
The parish, located in the center of town, is a busy place. With six Masses each weekend, including four in Spanish, plus baptisms and Quinceañeras, about 4,000 people come to church each weekend.
Strengthening the community and promoting education
Father Herrera believes that the Church has a role in addressing human needs alongside the spiritual ones. He knows that his parishioners confront pervasive poverty and complex problems, and he wants to “bring the Catholic faith to the streets.” He explained, “We need to put the Catholic Church in the social arena, so it not only helps people grow in their faith but also to grow as members of a community.”
The parish has a food bank, English classes, immigration assistance, nutrition and parenting classes. Every year during spring break, 300 high school students attend anti-bullying and anti-violence classes. The priest has established soccer and basketball leagues to keep young people engaged during their free time.
“Father Herrera advocates for our community to ensure that we get what we need spiritually as well as physically, emotionally, intellectually and in other aspects that are needed for a balanced life,” said Jesús Olvera García, the mayor of Greenfield and a Holy Trinity parishioner. “Holy Trinity Catholic Church has the doors open to welcome everyone to be part of their events and services.”
Father Herrera’s dream is that all his young parishioners will attend college. Most of their parents did not have that opportunity. More and more young people in Greenfield now attend college, some even at prestigious universities like UCLA and UC Berkeley. To offset the financial burden, the parish holds fundraisers to provide college scholarships and connects students to other resources and scholarships. One of Father Herrera’s favorite things to do during Mass is invite a local college student to address the congregation. He knows how powerful it is for younger people to have role models.
Catholic Extension’s Father Wall said, “We are so inspired by Father Herrera’s efforts to enable young people to go to college. Education is one of the great liberating forces that uplifts people.”
Father Herrera was nominated for the Lumen Christi Award by Bishop Richard Garcia of Monterey “Father Herrera has put together a wonderful team helping him in the community,” said Bishop Garcia. “He is building the community so that everyone feels at home, like one family. He cares so much about advancing the whole community.”
Catholic Extension, the Chicago-based papal society devoted to building churches and the Church in America’s poorest places, has been honoring individuals or groups with its Lumen Christi Award for 40 years. Past recipients include Catholics from all walks of life — laywomen and men, priests, religious sisters and brothers, deacons and one bishop.
It all starts with building faith communities, said Father Wall. “We firmly believe that if you build up faith communities in poor areas, you transform hearts, lives and communities,” he added. “When we bring good people together in faith, good things happen. Pope Francis says the Church is not self-referential, not member-centered, but always mission-driven. We are all called to do God’s work, so if you build up a vibrant faith community, like the one that Father Herrera has lifted up, you are going to see change.”
Father Wall noted that Catholic Extension has been supporting dioceses in California since 1911 and is now serving six of the 12 dioceses, which make up 92 percent of the state’s territory. “We are so proud of what’s happening in California,” he said. “People here are living in mission. And Father Herrera is a great example.”