From Mexico City to Salt Lake City: Conquering language and cultural barriers

By: Taylor Jaussi

Rising from the confessional after listening to nearly an hour of confessions — all in English — Rev. Jorge Roldán felt as if his head would never stop spinning.

Roldán had only been living in Park City, Utah, a few days after being assigned to serve as a pastor in the city’s parish when the parish priest asked him to listen to confessions. It was his first Saturday in the area, and although he still did not feel comfortable with the language, Roldán agreed to fill in for the priest who was attending to business in Salt Lake City.

“I will always remember [that first Saturday in Park City] for the rest of my life,” Roldán remarked. “I arrived to the church and see a long line full of all English speakers. I don’t know what sins they confessed, what things they had done wrong, but the priest forgives the sins that are confessed. And I forgave everyone!”

Leaving the confessional, Roldán was shocked to see what his superior had just texted him: He would not be able to make it back from Salt Lake City in time for mass and asked Roldán if he could celebrate mass that evening.

Overwhelmed, but willing to accept this assignment, Roldán rounded the corner from behind the confessional and was alarmed to see that the church was completely full.

Thinking back on that stressful day when his English skills went through somewhat of a refiner’s fire, Roldán said, “That was the first experience I had where I had to say, ‘I have to do it; I can do it.’ And you know what? I did it!”

Decision to dedicate life to the church

“Sometimes people think that as priests we are born that way,” Roldán said. “But no, I grew up with a normal family and I also got into trouble at times. All in all, I had a normal life.”

Born and raised in Mexico City, Roldán is the second of four children. Although his parents and siblings weren’t extremely devout Catholics, Roldán attributed the beginning of his spiritual devotion to his grandmother. He remembers her walking to mass every day as soon as the church bells began to ring out in the late afternoon.

While growing up, Roldán often attended mass with his grandmother, and it was there that he began to seriously consider becoming a priest.

“At first, the Father used to scare me. I saw the vestments he wore, the large robes, and as a child I thought, ‘He is Batman!’” Roldán remembered. “But as I observed his life, how he treated the people around him and how they looked up to him, I begin to think, ‘This is something I might like to do.’”

In the end, the possibility of being a leader and positive influence for those around him is what made Roldán want to become a priest. The impact Father Daniel, the priest of the parish where he grew up in Mexico City, had on Roldán as a young teenager made this way of living seem so rewarding.

For Roldán, it was not uncommon to hear people in his native Mexico commenting, “the Father said this” or “the Father asked us to do this.” The image of the local priest as a leader and local guide to all around him is ultimately what Roldán has sought to achieve in his service in the church.

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Difficulties along the way

When Roldán told his mom he wanted to become a priest, she told him no. He persisted, and finally she told him that he could do whatever he wanted, but he first had to graduate from high school.

Upon graduating from high school, Roldán began his religious studies at the Cuautitlan Seminary in Mexico City. These studies are not easy as they require students to study philosophy for three years, go on a mission for one to two years and then finish three more years of theology studies.

When he returned from his two-year mission in Campeche, a state in Mexico, Roldán began studying theology. After one year, he was sent to the prestigious Universidad Pontificia de México (Mexico Pontifical University).

Roldán told of a particular night that had a significant impact on the rest of his life path.

“It was there at the university during my last year of studies when a friend of mine said to me, ‘Hey Jorge, my bishop is going to be visiting and he invited us to dinner,’” Roldán recalled.

This visiting bishop was then-Bishop John Wester of Salt Lake City who participating in a pilgrimage in Mexico. At dinner, Bishop Wester invited Roldán and his six companions to his diocese in Utah.

“We said to ourselves, ‘OK, let’s do it!’” Roldán remembered. “I was very excited in that moment, although I had no idea where Salt Lake City even was, and I had also realized … English was going to be a huge obstacle for me to overcome.”

After accepting the invitation from Bishop Wester to serve in the United States and waiting nearly a year for immigration papers to be accepted, Roldán began the long, difficult journey of learning English. This journey began at the Assumption Seminary in San Antonio, Texas. Roldán honestly admitted this may have been the worst place for him to learn English.

“When I arrived to the United States and everyone was speaking English, I always had the biggest headache! [In San Antonio,] everyone speaks Spanish. I didn’t have a headache anymore!” Roldán laughed, thinking back on his language studies. “All the teachers were Mexican, the students were Mexican; this was definitely the worst place to try and learn English.”

Even without the immersion necessary to truly master the language, after a year and a half in San Antonio, Bishop Wester told Roldán he was ready to be ordained a priest. Following his ordination, he was assigned to Park City. It was during his first Saturday there — the day Roldán will never forget —  he began to observe a noticeable improvement in his English simply because he was forced to speak the language.

Celebrating mass in English for two years in Park City and for almost a year in the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City is where Roldán believes he has been able to develop his language skills the most.

Joy in the service

Although Roldán’s journey has not always been easy — thanks in large part to what he calls “a tongue-twister language” — there are moments when he recognizes that what he is doing is worth the struggle.

“For me, the best payment I can receive is when I leave mass and I see that the people leave happily and that they are smiling,” Roldán said. “That is my payment.”

Roldán considers his position as priest to be what truly fills his soul, day in and day out. The opportunity he has to help others and offer advice when they seek it is what Roldán hoped for ever since he made the decision to become a priest.

Regarding his service, he said, “If I was born again, I would again choose to be a priest. If I could choose again, I would again choose to serve in Salt Lake City.”

The Cathedral of the Madeleine: Pillar of Utah Christianity

By: Anne Wallace

Salt Lake City’s Cathedral of the Madeleine stands as the heart of Utah Catholicism.

Large and beautiful, its gothic architecture stands out in an area otherwise filled with sprawling apartment complexes, houses, businesses, shopping malls and other urban delights. It seems almost as if it beckons each by passer to stop and look, to take a break from temporal concerns and to remember and ponder his or her spiritual heritage.

With its open door policy, everyone is always welcome to walk right in and experience the peaceful quiet it contains.

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How did this pillar of the community come to be? When first dedicated, the cathedral wasn’t as grandiose and richly adorned as it is now; many changes and improvements have been made over the years. Construction originally began in 1899 after the first Utah Bishop, Lawrence Scanline, worked tirelessly to strengthen and grow Roman Catholic membership in Utah. Within 10 years, the original membership of 90 had swelled to over 4,000.

The growth of the Catholic Church in Utah during this time period was so fast, the Catholics had nowhere large enough to hold their first Christmas Mass. But through Bishop Scanline’s unique and friendly relationship with a local member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, they held the first Christmas Mass in the St. George LDS Tabernacle. The cathedral was completed and dedicated in August 1909.

Over 100 years later, the Roman Catholic population in Utah has increased to around 350,000, but the cathedral still remains at the heart.

Deacon Lynn Johnson, one of the many faithful and hardworking members of the cathedral’s present day congregation and staff, explained more about the history and significance of the cathedral itself.

“When you go into a cathedral, it’s not so much something you’re looking at as something you are reading,” Johnson explained.

Each element of the architecture and design is crafted thoughtfully and purposefully, and has spiritual significance and symbolism.

“A gothic cathedral is a constant reminder,” Johnson continued. “God is not somebody that’s out there. He is very much a part of our lives. He is present. He is at work in our lives constantly. The cathedral is a symbol of that presence, that God is real, and that we are His children.”

Each architectural element and décor of the cathedral is meant to signify and remind onlookers of eternal doctrines. The spires are meant to represent the need to lift one’s gaze upward and keep in mind this earth is not the end of the journey, that there is something greater to strive towards and something greater awaiting. The candles represent Christ, how he is the light of the world. They are also a reminder of the ancient persecutions Christians faced and the candles and oil lamps they used in the catacombs to avoid that persecution.

The deacon explained the rose window is meant to teach “God is at the center of our life, everything else will flow in your life nicely; but if you push God off to the side somewhere, you’ve got a problem.”

The seating area is referred to as the nave, a metaphor for the church and the congregation being on a ship, heading for their eternal destination. Sometimes it has also been likened unto a womb, where the congregants can receive protection, comfort, and nourishment from their mother, the church.

The side windows have a special purpose in both ancient and modern times. Thousands of years earlier many congregants did not have the opportunity to receive a formal education and didn’t know how to read. They did not have personal access to holy scripture.

“Catholics learned about their faith aside from being at mass and hearing sermons,” Johnson said. “It was in the art that you learned about what you believed as a Christian… The life of Jesus is in the art in the cathedral.”

In this way, the windows are meant to be scripture; they are meant to not only be seen, but also to be read.

Everything in a cathedral has symbolism, and oftentimes, practical applications dating back to the very beginning of Roman Catholicism. According to Johnson, all these complex symbolisms and applications serve to demonstrate one key message: “The cathedral is just saying God’s here.”

Faith in word and action: Pastor France A. Davis

By: Sydney Jorgensen

It was Sunday morning in February on the west side of Salt Lake City. Hundreds of people shuffled through the front doors of Calvary Baptist Church, greeted by friendly faces and warm smiles. Ushers stood at the entrance of the sanctuary as people came through to take their seats. Hugs and handshakes went all around as the music began in preparation for the service.

Rows filled, people stood and sang as worship begun. After devotion and selections of praise music, this time performed by the children’s choir, Pastor France A. Davis preached about the importance of serving and following the Lord.

“We believe that when one comes to church, one comes to meet God, and that you ought to come offering and being your very best,” Davis said.

Following the sermon and benediction, the members of the congregation exited the sanctuary. Pastor Davis stood by the door with an individual handshake or hug for each person who left.

“All people have multiple needs, including a spiritual need,” Davis said. “Regardless of where a person comes from, meeting those spiritual needs is essential.”

A “state treasure”

“He is a very articulate person,” said Ronald Coleman, a member of Calvary Baptist. “He communicates with people from a variety of walks of life. We are very fortunate to have him as a resident in the state of Utah. He is a state treasure.”

Coleman, an expert on African-Americans in Utah, met Davis in 1973. As professors at the University of Utah in the ethnic studies program, Coleman and Davis began a lifelong friendship.

“I’ve grown some in terms of my faith, I know I have, as a result of my association with him,” Coleman said.

It wasn’t long after the two met that Coleman started attending Calvary.

“I had been away from church membership for a number of years and I started attending Calvary, primarily because I had young children and I was a single parent,” Coleman said. “Sitting in the service one Sunday, it just resonated with me personally. I found myself accepting the invitation to become a member.”

Coleman described Davis as not just his pastor and colleague, but an older-brother figure, even though Coleman is older than him. Davis even married Coleman and his wife, also a member of Calvary, after Davis successfully “put in a good word for him.”

As the longest-running pastor of what was established in 1892 as Calvary Missionary Baptist Church, Davis has been helping members of his congregation for nearly 43 years.

But when Calvary’s 23rd pastor came to Salt Lake over 40 years ago, he didn’t intend to stay longer than a year.  

“I had no idea I’d still be here,” Davis said. “I’ve stayed because I’ve sensed there is a need and I, with my training and preparation, came help meet those needs. People trust me to be their leader.”

Born and raised in Georgia, Davis finished high school and went to college at Tuskegee University in Montgomery, Alabama. He then moved to Florida and served four years in the U.S. Air Force during the Vietnam War.

Davis returned to school and earned degrees from several institutions, including the University of California, Berkeley, Westminster College, Northwest Nazarene University, Salt Lake Community College and Dixie State College. He went to the University of Utah in 1972 and began teaching soon after. In 1974, he became pastor of Calvary Baptist Church.

“All of my nine degrees were preparatory for ministry,” Davis said.

Davis taught communications courses in news writing, radio and television as well as ethnic studies and African-American studies. He retired from the U in 2014.

As Davis has become a “bridge between various religious and social entities,” Coleman doesn’t know of any place where the pastor can’t go to listen and express his opinions.

“He being a resident in the state of Utah is invaluable to individuals who do not live in this state and have certain perceptions of Utah and Utahns,” Coleman said.

Community outreach

Jeanetta Williams, president of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch & NAACP Tri-State Conference of Idaho, Nevada and Utah, has known Davis for more than 20 years.

“He’s a man of integrity and good character,” Williams said. “He is a person who is concerned about what’s going on in the country as well as the state of Utah.”

Davis was appointed to Utah’s Board of Regents in 2008. A large part of Davis’ involvement in the community is his focus on education, what he calls “the tool to help with mobility.”

“Education is essential. It is the pathway to a better way of life. Without thorough preparation, you are not ready to take on the tasks that are before you, no matter what they are,” he said.

For the last 125 years, Calvary has been providing reading and writing programs as well as scholarships for youth to attend college, David said. Today, Calvary additionally offers several educational programs ranging from tutoring to computer and finance classes.

“We encourage students to get as high as a formal education as they can and to get on-the-job training in every area they possibly can,” Davis said.

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Williams said Davis has always emphasized education, not just in word, but in action.

“Not only does he talk about people needing to get an education, he makes sure he raises funds for scholarships,” Williams said. “He makes sure students see him as a role model. He even went back and got his doctorate degree.”

Williams said involvement in legislative issues is just one way Davis helps the community as a whole.

“When you say ‘Calvary,’ most people will always think of Pastor Davis and his accomplishments in the community,” Williams said. “People will think of his willingness to not only serve as pastor of Calvary, but be a spokesperson for different issues in the community.”

The future of Calvary

“In spite of invitations to go and have larger congregations in more metropolitan areas, we’re a better community because he has been here for 43 years,” Coleman said.

Coleman has witnessed firsthand how Calvary has brought the community together despite different political, social, economic and cultural backgrounds.

“Calvary will continue to be a light in the midst of darkness, in the midst of an area and community where there is much need, where there are many hurts people are experiencing,” Davis said. “We will continue to feed the sick and the homeless and the hungry. We will continue to provide housing for the elderly and physically handicap. We will continue to provide educational programs as well as meet spiritual needs.”

“Whatever causes people to hurt, Calvary, now and in the future, will be in the heart of whatever those problems are.”

To learn more about the history of Calvary Baptist Church, view this interactive page or read this brief history.

Former ‘Lost Boy’ finds home as Episcopalian priest

By: Kristen Kerr

He once fended to save his own life in the tropical regions of Africa. Now he looks to save others—both physically and spiritually.

Today, the Rev. Gabriel Garang Atem serves as a priest for the Sudanese community at the All Saints Episcopalian Church in Salt Lake City, Utah.

From South Sudan to Utah

Orphaned during South Sudan’s civil war in 1987, Atem and some 20,000 Sudanese boys fled to Ethiopia to avoid serving in the northern army or the possibility of death. Barefoot and without clothes, the boys walked thousands of miles. Wild animals, river drownings and rebel soldier attacks loomed as constant dangers. Hunger, dehydration and exposure to the elements also proved hazardous. Atem remembers elderly people directing them along the way.

There in Ethiopia, he began to learn English in a United Nations program, tracing ABCs on others’ hands or in the dirt. Civil unrest spread to Ethiopia and the Sudanese government found out children were on the other side of the border.

“They began bombarding people; we were under protection every single night and day,” the Rev. Atem said. “Life was not as good as it is supposed to be.”

Atem then journeyed south to Kenya in 1992, where he gained refugee status and lived for nine years. He continued to develop his English skills and absorb whatever knowledge he could.

The UN began relocating refugees to different parts of the United States in the early 2000s after an intense, multi-step interview process. Atem was required to perform tasks such as writing down his life story, sharing how long he had been a refugee and whether or not members of his family remained alive.

Atem was relocated to Richmond, Virginia, where he lived as a resident of the country for a few years. He worked for TYCO INC., a company that created building materials, as a machine operator and trained new employees. The post-9/11 economy forced business to Canada and since Atem could not leave the U.S., he decided to move to Salt Lake City in 2004.

Within two weeks, Atem found a job in Utah. He began attending school a year later at Salt Lake Community College and earned an Associated of Arts degree.

“I make it home; I haven’t gone anywhere since,” the Rev. Atem said.

The All Saints Church welcomed Atem and 15 other “Lost Boys” of Sudan with open arms. The Rev. Atem recalled the kindness of the congregation as they started a new life in a new place. Church members offered transportation to Sunday services and school, as well as help to secure employment.

In 2002, All Saints created the Sudanese Education Assistance Fund to help provide materials such as books, fees and supplies for those seeking a GED, associates or bachelors degrees. The fund has raised more than $100,000 for these efforts.

“We have been received since we came to this country, especially by the Episcopalian Church here in Utah,” the Rev. Atem said.

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Spiritual strength

Christian missionaries and church attendees exposed Atem to the Episcopalian faith in South Sudan. As he moved from country to country, Atem carried his faith with him always. He and other “Lost Boys” found places to worship, often under trees after the sun went down to avoid persecution.

“This has continued with us and within me to be able to carry on, having a spiritual part of life,” the Rev. Atem said.

Even as a teenager, the Rev. Atem was known for preaching the word of God in his native language, Dinka. Upon arriving in Utah, he soon became involved in the Sudanese Youth Group as a team leader. He continues to organize community programs such as Sunday School for youth and children and has since translated the Bible and hymnals into Dinka for the 250–member Sudanese congregation at All Saints.

“It has been a source of strength and it has been a good thing,” the Rev. Atem said. “It has been a good life to share with many others. It shows there is significant change in how we can do more.”

A humble man, the Rev. Atem sits comfortably in a dark suit and brown leather shoes. His low voice generates a calmness as he describes the hardships he has endured. He speaks thoughtfully and is quick to credit his spirituality as a determining force of survival.

“Though my life and history have been kind of difficult, wherever I went, I feel that I have something I can share with my brothers and sisters, especially how God helped me and many others into a situation whereby today I can do good things for myself and many others.”

The Rev. Atem puts his own words into action, devoutly serving the Sudanese community of All Saints by leading worship services and visiting families and individuals in need.

On Dec. 5, 2015, he was ordained a deacon at the Cathedral Church of Saint Mark and began leading services for the Sudanese community in the Dinka language. Almost a year later, the Rev. Atem was ordained a priest at All Saints on Oct. 1, 2016.

A fellow priest at the parish, the Rev. Trace Browning enjoys working with the Rev. Atem and described him as “very generous and always willing to help and serve others.”

“Gabriel is a person of great faith,” the Rev. Browning said in an email. “I believe that it was his belief in God, and his trust in God, that got him through those times.”

Education and interfaith dialogue

Now a 39-year-old man and father of twin 3-year-old boys, Atem and Kuir, the Rev. Atem continues to see hope.  Like many other Sudanese families, the Rev. Atem and his wife, Mary Alek, are doing their best to raise their children in an evolving environment.

“Because we suffered for a decade and God kept us alive, their future will be brighter than any of our futures,” the Rev. Atem said. “I’m happy and we’re doing our best in our family to grow up and make this life a better life for us.”

His extended family remains scattered across the world. The Rev. Atem and some of his cousins helped one sister resettle in Australia, where she lives with her husband and three children. Other cousins, uncles and in-laws currently live in refugee camps in Kenya, Uganda and on the border of Ethiopia.

“We hold them in our prayers. And those here who have friends or family members are better [off] than those who do not have people here,” the Rev. Atem said.

Having focused on improving his English and learning as much as possible throughout his life, the Rev. Atem believes education and communication build a foundation for interfaith dialogue.

“Education is the key to every human’s life. That will connect you with many people,” the Rev. Atem said. “If you are not educated, how will you be able to communicate?”

Interfaith conversations and understanding others’ beliefs helps us get to know them and their backgrounds, the Rev. Atem said. From there, we know how to change the world.

“That kind of communication and outreach to each and every individual is very important to all of us as Christians,” the Rev. Atem said. “This is how we are able to know exactly what we can do as people who are still alive and how we can think about others.”