Lay Ministers Bring Online Theology to Their Community

Erika Diaz lives in a small town nestled in North Carolina’s Appalachian Mountains. She is an energetic and efficient young woman—warm, professional and organized—the kind of person you can rely on for a job well done. Erika and her husband Gabriel are active parishioners at St. Francis of Assisi, where she serves as a chairperson for Hispanic Ministry. She also participates in a number of ministries, including organizing a team of Eucharistic ministers, planning women’s retreats and workshops on Ignatian Spirituality, attending all-night adoration vigils, visiting the sick, and most recently, coordinating participants in online theology courses.

Erika first heard about the Camino program in 2014 at SEPI’s seminar for pastoral leadership in Miami. She instantly saw the potential for serving her community, and shared the idea with the vicariate’s coordinator for Hispanic ministry, Eduardo Bernal. Together they decided to launch the program locally by recruiting participants from among those serving in area parishes. Soon they had gathered a group of lectors, Eucharistic ministers, catechists, choir members, and other folks adventurous enough to take an online theology class. Their first experience with the course “El Camino de la Fe” was a success, so they decided to promote the opportunity in nearby vicariates as well.

In the years Erika has been involved in the Camino program, she has taken 6 online courses, covering topics such as the Creed, Sacraments and Liturgy, Prayer, and Hispanic Ministry. And she plans to continue throughout 2016-2017. When Erika tells others about online theology, she highlights three advantages of the courses: “The accessible schedule… really low cost for good quality formation, and that you don’t have to travel anywhere to get formation.”

Because she believes in the importance of theological education, she has played a decisive role in making adult faith formation more accessible in rural North Carolina. Sharing from her own experience of distance learning, she invites others to participate, collects their registration information, and offers on-site orientation and technical support—all on a volunteer basis. Even where Internet access isn’t readily available, she encourages people to find creative solutions. Many use their smartphones to participate in chat sessions, and some individuals from remote areas use the wi-fi at local libraries or McDonalds to complete their homework assignments.

In a focus group hosted by the Vicariate of Smoky Mountain, participants gave constructive feedback and shared how the courses have helped them in ministry, whether preparing talks for the youth group or working in family catechesis. They also expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to take part in a program offered by the University of Notre Dame.

“You can’t trust everything you find on the Internet. But since these come from the University of Notre Dame, which is prestigious, and Catholic, you know you can trust the documents and books you are reading,” said Rocío Quintero. José Luis Aparicio echoed: “It lends credibility.” “It was enriching for me,” chimed in Aura Monzon, “I learned a lot, and every day I fall more in love with being Catholic!”

Thanks to energetic lay people like Erika Diaz and Eduardo Bernal, more and more Hispanic Catholics in the Diocese of Charlotte have new ways of deepening their knowledge and love of the faith through online learning.

© FCH/Esther Terry.  All rights Reserved.

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About Esther Terry

Esther Terry (MTS, University of Notre Dame) directs Camino, a program of online theology in Spanish at Notre Dame’s Institute for Church Life. Camino partners with the Southeast Pastoral Institute and dioceses across the nation to support adult faith formation in Spanish. Esther can be reached at eterry@nd.edu or (574) 631-3526. For more information, visit our bilingual website camino.nd.edu.

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