Mary Huston was concerned. She was the catechist for a boy about 7, who had a propensity to make a dash for the front door. With a parish hall facing busy Mission Boulevard in Hayward, this was not a good thing. She'd give chase and catch him before he crossed the threshold, but still, she thought, there must be a better way.
So they started doing that at SPRED, and Mary Huston's young friend stayed put.
It's one of thousands of stories about SPRED — Special Religious Education — which reaches out to bring friends — children, teens and adults with special needs — into the parish family.
It's a personal, one-on-one ministry, this relationship between catechist and friend. Each friend has a catechist, who sits beside him or her, for the two-hour session.
On this particular evening, Huston is the lead catechist for a group of teens and catechists who meet at the SPRED Model Center at what had been the convent at St. Pascal Baylon Church in Oakland. The building is now shared with the four Alliance for Catholic Education teachers who reside there.
Oakland Diocese's ministry, directed by Sister Aurora Perez, SHF, follows the Archdiocese of Chicago's SPRED ministry.
Six friends, ranging in age from 11 to 16, are expected this night. Each friend will have a catechist at his or her side. In addition, the activity catechist has prepared a room for them. Huston, the lead catechist, has an important role in the spiritual activities of the evening.
When the time is right, the lead catechist invites them to the celebration room to move to the spiritual component.
Huston has carefully prepared the room for the celebration. This evening, the area is draped in purple, for Lent. Everyone takes a seat in a semicircle. Huston takes her position near the small altar.
"We start with something everyone can relate to," Huston said in an interview hours before the friends' arrival. It is a photo of a boy looking very unhappy.
"The session tonight is on forgiveness," Huston said. "They all know what that's like, whether they're verbal or not," she said.
"We work from a human experience to the liturgical," she said. "We go from us as a group, how sometimes we have to say I'm sorry and people forgive us, then we talk about at church."
The evening's session includes a Bible reading and a song with gestures. "Some of our people aren't verbal," she said.
After the time in the celebration, it's back to the activity room, where a snack is shared at the table, and goodbyes will be said. The catechists will gather a week later, to go over what went right, how they might improve and to prepare for the next lesson.
Sister Aurora seems to know who to tap for this ministry. The call to Mary Huston came when the mother of two sons, with a background in teaching, was grieving.
"I had a cousin who had cerebral palsy. This would be my time with him. He was going to be moving near, and he died unexpectedly."
When Sister Aurora called, Huston said she thought: "He would have loved it."
Huston said, "Some of our friends, if they try to be in a regular faith formation group in their parish, they're just sitting there. Someone has to be with them or trying to explain, whereas here, it's completely set up to meet their needs."
In addition to the classes twice a month, SPRED offers special liturgies during the year.
SPRED has the potential to help the friends participate in the life of the church and to receive the sacraments.
"Some autistic friends couldn't go into church, it's too noisy," Huston said. "Because of coming here, they're eventually able to go into church."
Participating in SPRED is helping to prepare Julia Oliveri, 13, to receive First Holy Communion in May, said her mother, Meghan Oliveri.
Before SPRED, she was "at best mildly interested when we went to Mass on Sundays," her mother said. Now, she's more engaged and asking questions.
"Julia, with her autism, needs a small group to understand before she can branch out," said Meghan Oliveri.
For Julia, whose older sister and younger brother receive Communion, receiving the sacrament will end the question of "Why don't I get to do this?"
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