Evolution of a Parish



Last year Samuel Porras was focused on a career as an insurance adjuster and on his family. This May, thanks in part to a request from a friend, he was welcomed as a priest to the Diocese of Atlanta. He now offers services in Spanish and an open door for spiritual growth for a fast-growing congregation in north Georgia — in a sense, creating a new kind of family. “Being a priest allows me to share with others the joy I experience by knowing the love God has for us,” Porras says. “I am able to reach out and touch the lives of people in different circumstances of life.”

Porras’ life now is a long way from where and how he started on his spiritual journey. As a teen, he knew he wanted to join the clergy. He entered the seminary in his birth country of Colombia at the age of 16. But after completing his studies and serving as a priest in the Catholic Diocese of Atlanta for nearly seven years, Porras realized he no longer wanted to live the life of a Catholic priest — he wanted to start a family.

In explaining his path from the Roman Catholic priesthood to insurance adjuster to the clergy of the Episcopal Church, Porras offers a simple explanation: “God has his ways, and he called me back to the church.” He says being a priest fulfills him and shows him possibilities.

“I see a lot of poverty in our midst and this poverty is not only for economical reasons, I see poverty of love as well,” Porras says. “I do see the opportunity for us to reach out to those in need, not waiting for them to come to us, but we will go to them. And we do not serve them because they are Christians necessarily, but because we have experienced the presence and love of Jesus in our lives.”

ABOVE: The altar at St. Gabriel’s sits at the ready to welcome worshipers.

ABOVE: The altar at St. Gabriel’s sits at the ready to welcome worshipers.

A HISTORY OF GROWTH AND CHANGE || Founded in 1998, St. Gabriel’s, the church where Porras is a priest, came about as an offshoot of Grace Episcopal Church in Gainesville. It was created to meet the needs of a growing population in southern Hall County around the cities of Oakwood and Flowery Branch. In the time since, though, like many churches across the country, it has seen fewer and fewer attendees over the years. Likewise, the cultural makeup of the community has shifted. The area is now home to a large Latino population. According to a Hall County Comprehensive Plan, the county had a 5 percent Hispanic population in 1990, which leaped to 20 percent by 2000. A large chicken processing industry has contributed to some of the growth. As of 2015, approximately 27.7 percent of the county’s population is Hispanic, according to the Census Bureau. Many hail from Mexico, Porras says.

Porras believes he’s been called back to the priesthood here for a strong reason. “I believe God wants me at St. Gabriel’s at this time because the local Hispanic community is searching for a place to worship in a church that can satisfy their spiritual needs and that can appeal to the reality they are living in this country,” Porras says. “There were no Spanish services offered by the Episcopal Church in the area and we want to include them in our multicultural family of faith.”

Now on Sundays, there are three services at St. Gabriel’s — two services in English at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. and one in Spanish at 1:30 p.m. The Rev. Peter Wallace, St. Gabriel’s interim priest in charge, says it was St. Gabriel’s previous rector, Bill Combs, who laid the groundwork for the development of the Hispanic ministry in Oakwood. He did so with help from senior warden, Fred Skey, and former interim priest in charge, Rich Sanders. “He always had a vision for reaching out to the Hispanic community in the Oakwood-Gainesville area,” Wallace says of Combs. “And I think he planted all the seeds.” Those seeds have now blossomed into a thriving Hispanic ministry that serves 50 Spanish-speaking families and is poised to grow even larger, Wallace says.

“I would encourage other parishes to survey their communities and determine more clearly who lives around them and what their needs may be,” he says. “In our Oakwood-Gainesville area, it was clear that this sort of ministry was vital. We’ve been so grateful for the work of so many on the Bishop’s staff to help form this ministry at St. Gabriel’s and get it started — and they are available for counsel and support every step of the way forward.

“We’re learning more about our new ministry every day, but I’m convinced this new reality will transform St. Gabriel’s and everyone involved for the glory of God.”

ABOVE: A stained glass window in St. Gabriel’s Church entranceway.

ABOVE: A stained glass window in St. Gabriel’s Church entranceway.

FROM THERE TO HERE || During his time away from the formal church, Porras politely declined numerous invitations to lead congregations of other denominations. But it was a request last year from a friend to help at a local parish that brought him back in. The appeal was simple enough and seemingly harmless: assist with a catechism, which serves as a point of departure for discussion with someone who seeks to understand the beliefs and practices of the Episcopal Church. He reluctantly agreed, but not without giving fair warning. “Look,” he told his friend, “I’m going to do it, but I’m not going to become Episcopalian or anything like that.” Or so he thought. He came to the aid of his friend, and despite his initial caveat, Porras felt compelled to become more active. At St. Gabriel’s, the Hispanic ministry has set forth a new stage in the life of Porras, the church and the community. 

“The community’s spiritual growth does not only come from the priest, worship and personal spirituality, but as well from our interpersonal experiences where we are able to take part in Jesus’ redemptive mission with our own words, hands and feet,” Porras says. “Once we live in our community of faith, a true Christian environment, our members will certainly see this community as a spiritual home.”

ANOTHER PERSONAL HOMECOMING || Gaviota Gaytan, 22, is one of the first Spanish-speaking parishioners that has found a home at St. Gabriel’s. Once a practicing Catholic, like Porras, she attended St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Gainesville as a child. They had a large Hispanic ministry. But when she was 10, her family decided to leave the Roman Catholic faith and join the Episcopal Church. Once they did, on Sundays they’d drive south through Atlanta to worship with Padre Isaias Rodriguez at Iglesia de Santa Maria in East Point — an hour-long drive from Oakwood. Gaytan and her family are now one of the 10 original families that have helped Porras establish a close-knit atmosphere at St. Gabriel’s, even while the parish has added five times that number of families in the ministry’s first six months. “The parishioners have built this church as much as the church and staff have,” she says. That sense of belonging that St. Gabriel’s provides is especially important to Gaytan. “Knowing people from the start helps,” she says. “I feel like we’re a little family already. Everybody’s nice, and any problems we have we can talk it over, knowing we’re going to have peace in here.” The shorter drive to church has also helped her to grow her faith and worship. She regularly does readings during service on Sundays and takes pride in what the congregation has become.

TWO LANGUAGES, ONE CONGREGATION || Despite the different services and cultural backgrounds, the folks at St. Gabriel’s are working to build a family, say Gaytan, Porras and Wallace. “We are one parish, and we want to be one parish,” says the Rev. Wallace. Events are held regularly to bring both the Anglo and Hispanic congregations together. In the spring, a large gathering was held with food, a mariachi band and a dance troupe. In all, close to 150 people attended, Wallace says. “If Father Samuel wants to have a bingo night or a yard sale, we get everybody involved,” Wallace explains. “Or if we’re having a luncheon, we make sure that everybody is aware of it.” And it seems to be working.

Porras noted how welcoming the original congregation of St. Gabriel’s has been to its new members. During church-wide events, the English-speaking members have been very excited to learn about the new members’ culture, regardless of the language barrier. Overall, it’s been a very joyful experience and one from which all members benefit sharing in each other’s experiences and particular gifts, Porras says. “Having a larger and more vibrant community will help us to be more aware of the presence of God in our multicultural society.

“They don’t feel like strangers,” Porras says about the members of the Hispanic ministry. “They feel welcome, at home.”

A PARISH RENEWED, DRAWING EVER WIDER || For Porras, his mission isn’t constrained to what is currently within the walls of St. Gabriel’s. Porras says that a large Hispanic community resides in and around Oakwood. He and ministry members such as Gaytan are working to attract more members, and Porras feels especially driven to take the church outside of the building. “I want to reach the people, and I’m not the kind of person that will sit and wait for them to come to me. I will go to them,” he says. “I see myself and our community, for example, reaching out to people in prison, the poor, the elderly.”

Gaytan also believes there are a lot of people in the Oakwood community who could benefit from the new ministry. She hopes the ministry’s current members will become more active and support Porras.

“I want more people to get involved so Father Samuel knows we’re helping him, too,” she says. And to Wallace, this mindset and devotion may be what comes to define St. Gabriel’s now and in the future. “Everybody is just so excited about it and sees it as ‘this is who we are,’ ” he says. “This is who we are. This is St. Gabriel’s. And this is wonderful. And God is at work.”