When Pope Francis talks about evangelization, his poster child may well be an immigrant in North Dakota.
Sister Brenda Hernandez Valdes, a 34-year-old Daughter of Immaculate Mary of Guadalupe, lives more than 1,500 miles from her home in Coahuila, Mexico, serving the sprawling Diocese of Bismarck, N.D., and ministering to the Hispanics working in its booming oil industry.
Sister Brenda’s smile embodies the pope’s call for joyful missionary disciples: Her eyes disappear, and dimples appear at each upturned corner of her mouth. There is something magnetic about the small woman in the gray habit. She is Exhibit A for Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (“The Joy of the Gospel”) and a reminder for all Catholics of how to effectively evangelize.
Most of the Hispanics who relocated to North Dakota to work at an oil field are young. Some are only 18. Many are single, others are new parents. All are yearning for a sense of home.
Among the makeshift homes and temporary work, the early mornings and the English lessons, they are seeking something stable, something familiar. It is a more extreme version of a search we all undertake: the quest for something more.
Sister Brenda recognizes their quest, and Pope Francis names it. “The world of our time,” he writes in “Evangelii Gaudium,” is “searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope.” The “desolation and anguish” of a secular life, he writes, offers an entryway for evangelists – for “the Holy Spirit works on restlessness.”
When the restless meet Sister Brenda, her joy is irresistible. They can’t help but wonder, “How do I get that? Where does that come from?”
These encounters are only possible because Sister Brenda has ventured “out on the streets,” as Pope Francis put it, unafraid to get “bruised” and “dirty.” For her, that means the Walmart parking lot, where she carries grocery bags and distributes fliers, extending a personal invitation to each shopper to join her for Mass.
She approaches with humility. She is not there to dispense wisdom. She believes she can learn even more than she’ll teach.
That begins by listening, according to “Evangelii”: “We need to practice the art of listening, which is more than simply hearing. Listening, in communication, is an openness of heart which makes possible that closeness without which genuine spiritual encounter cannot occur.”
This enables Sister Brenda to enter into their world, because “an evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives,” Pope Francis writes in “Evangelii.”
For Sister Brenda, that begins by fielding questions about warmer jackets and better cell-phone plans.
“They approach the Church for different needs,” she said. “Our people sacrifice a lot by living in small spaces, leaving their family or bringing it to live in extreme weather conditions.”
She takes her time with each encounter, heeding one of the most practical tips in “Evangelii”: “Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time.”
The teenagers ask about her habit, and she talks freely, happily about religious life. Her message is bold: “Do not be afraid to open the doors to Christ!”
She encourages their parents too. “It is very important to strengthen the vocational culture in parents,” she said.
Sister Brenda lives with two other Daughters of Immaculate Mary of Guadalupe. This spring they hosted a gathering for Hispanic youth at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in Dickinson, N.D., to share their stories and perform a concert. Together they made beautiful music.
Standing in the Walmart parking lot, greeting them at church, Sister Brenda is a guidepost for the lost and lonely. “In the Church,” she said, “they find family.”
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn.