Austin Prep proudly celebrates Hispanic Heritage Month. As part of our efforts to educate the community about our Augustinian Mission, we recently had a conversation with Fr. Jorge Reyes, O.S.A. to learn more about how he fulfills his role as Director of Mission and Inclusion. As he reflected on his Journey, he revealed how his Cuban heritage influences his work here at Austin Prep and beyond.
How does your experience growing up in Cuba and migrating to the United States help influence your work as a priest?
I believe that my experience growing up in Cuba and migrating to the United States helped to influence my work as a priest in an extraordinary way. First of all, early in my life I learned the hardship of living in a country ruled by a communist dictator Even though my parents tried very much to shield my sisters and me from knowing much of what they were going through, I was old enough to see it. My family owned a very large sugar cane plantation and dairy farm on 800 acres of land. Everything was confiscated by the government my family was left with 100 feet of land around the house. They also left us with one horse and one cow, so needless to say that losing everything that they owned and worked so hard for was devastating. Not being able go to a grocery store, or a clothing store and buy what you need, because everything is by rations. Not being able to attend church openly was also devastating.
My parents decided to leave the country, to give my sisters and me a better life and a good education, to be able to live with freedom and dignity, to be able to say and go where you want to, and to practice our faith was reason enough to migrate. I was 12 years old when we left Cuba and still feel the tears of my grandfather on my cheeks as we hugged and said good bye, knowing that we probably would never see him again as well as the rest of my family, maternal grandmother, uncles, aunts and many cousins again. We left while it was still dark to catch a bus and then a train that would take us on a 10-hour ride to Havana where we would then take an airplane to Mexico City, Mexico.
We arrived in Mexico City on October 10th, 52 years ago. We lived in a hotel and I worked in a supermarket where the owner would allow me to work bagging groceries and then delivering them to people’s home. My pay was the tips the patrons gave me, but it helped to put food on the table. My father had to leave and cross the border to El Paso, Texas where he asked for political asylum. He arrived at Boston Logan Airport on December 23 and got a job as a machinist in a factory and sent for the rest of the family in February 1970.
My experience to be an immigrant in two countries helped to shape my life and grow up with compassion and love for other people, even in the worst circumstances. In Mexico, I learned about faith at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, when I saw people walking for a quarter of a mile on their knees, often bleeding from the cuts of the pavement, to offer God and Our Lady of Guadalupe their gratitude for favors received or to ask for help in whatever they were going through. I learned about discrimination and inequality in Mexico and also here in the United States, something that I couldn’t comprehend then. Most of all I learned the love of God and the importance of not losing faith that somehow, He would make it all anew. I wanted to be a priest to bring people to the love of Christ that I had experienced, to share the Good News of Jesus Christ to the poor, the sick, those suffering, the oppressed and to all God’s children. To share that in trusting and following God, somehow He will lead us down the right path, no matter how estranged or confusing the journey may seem.
Can you discuss how the Augustinian mission has expanded throughout Central and South America?
The Augustinian missionary spirit has always been alive in the Order for centuries. It was the same missionary spirit that initially brought the Augustinians to the United States from Ireland in 1796. The Augustinians of our province St. Thomas of Villanova had missions in Cuba until Castro’s communist regime drove us out of the country, but just recently returned under the Prior General of the Order as an international community. The Augustinians of the Midwest Province has a mission in northern Peru at the request of Pope John XXIII in 1963.
The Augustinians are present in most countries of Latin America under provinces of different countries, such as Spain, Netherlands, and Mexico. The Augustinians missionaries have founded schools, parishes, and dispensaries, etc..
How does Augustine's life inspire you in your work as the Director of Mission and Inclusion?
St. Augustine’s life has inspired me tremendously in my current position as Director of Mission and Inclusion at Austin Prep. In the Confessions, St. Augustine reminds us of the Biblical teaching that all people are created in the image and likeness of God, the foundation of Catholic Social teaching that respect for the inherited dignity of each human person. As a community here at Austin Prep I see that my work is to see that each student is respected, seeking to nurture the dignity of all students lives to be preserved and celebrated. That, they all contribute to the life of this school in a special way and that whatever contribution they make is truly valued. We know that God does not make mistakes, and whereas we think that divergence from the norm is defect, God sees the whole and how each person contributes to it.
As St. Augustine was concerned to confront the fear directed at people who may appear physically different, which theme appears throughout his writings, the importance of finding a place in a larger more diverse community, and the danger of seeking separation and exclusivity. I believe that the providence of God is served by accepting and celebrating diversity within the world and within the Church. For the kingdom of God is not served by trying to create a homogeneous society or a Church only for the perfect or those who think they are perfect. St. Augustine emphasized the many different kinds of abilities and disabilities distributed across the community, not so that the difference might alienate people from one another but, to show us what we have in common. I believe that we have more things in common that unite us to one another than those that can separate us.