Cristhia Castro has set about fine-tuning ministry to the next generation of Hispanic immigrants and their families in Cole and Moniteau counties.
Mrs. Castro, a member of St. Peter parish in Jefferson City, is the new executive director of El Puente‒Hispanic Ministry.
The organization is sponsored by the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word, the Diocese of Jefferson City, and local parishes.
It offers an array of services to the Hispanic communities in and near Jefferson City and California.
“El Puente” means “The Bridge” in Spanish.
“We are all brothers and sisters,” said Mrs. Castro. “We really do want to be a bridge between cultures, helping the two communities to become one community that serves God.”
Mrs. Castro succeeds Sister Barbara Neist of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who served as interim director after El Puente cofounder Incarnate Word Sister Peggy Bonnot was elected to the leadership team for her religious congregation.
The El Puente Board of Directors appointed Mrs. Castro late last year. She began work in January.
El Puente’s mission is “to make present the healing love of Jesus, the Incarnate Word, promoting human dignity through a ministry of presence and outreach to the Hispanic community.”
Mrs. Castro said her goal is to build on that mission and a long-established tradition of service, with the support of Nena Neal, Incarnate Word Sister Bertha Flores and Incarnate Word Sister Guadalupe Ruiz.
“I am humbled by and admire the work and legacy of all those who have responded to God’s will of serving our Hispanic sisters and brothers through El Puente,” she stated.
“I really believe that whenever you help your neighbor, you are helping God,” she said. “That’s what El Puente’s ministry is about: serving God through our neighbor.”
Mrs. Castro holds degrees in marketing and small business management from the University of Arkansas in Little Rock.
She is married to Deacon Enrique Castro, diocesan director of intercultural and marriage ministries.
She grew up in Honduras and moved to the United States for college when she was 18.
She and Deacon Castro met as students in Little Rock. They got married in 2012 and moved to Columbia.
They relocated to Jefferson City three years ago.
The couple agreed that when they had children, Mrs. Castro would stay home to take care of them. Presently, they have been blessed with a girl and a boy.
Late last year, Sr. Bertha, who ministers at El Puente, encouraged Mrs. Castro to apply for the position of executive director.
“All along, I had been praying to be able to serve the Lord wherever I’m needed,” said Mrs. Castro. “But with Enrique being so dedicated to his job — his ministry — and especially with him becoming a deacon, I couldn’t see myself taking on any more responsibility.”
One Sunday at Mass, she realized that God had been trying to answer her prayer to know how best to serve Him.
“Sister was encouraging me to apply for this, and people were saying I can be of great help, and here I was with all of these excuses,” she said.
Three Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word founded El Puente in 1999, when large numbers of Spanish-speaking people from Central and South America had begun settling in Central Missouri.
At that time, many of the immigrants were young, newly married couples with children.
Raised in societies and cultures with traditionally strong family connections, they were living thousands of miles from parents and grandparents.
While navigating language barriers, economic instability and culture shock, these immigrant families sought something better for their children.
Most had been raised Catholic and were looking for ways for their families to know, love and serve the Lord.
They wanted to learn about and worship God in the language they first learned to love Him in.
“Our goal all along has been for the Hispanic community to thrive in Central Missouri — in the Church and the community,” said Sr. Peggy.
“What we can give”
Mrs. Castro said she is happy to be helping El Puente keep up with the needs of the ever-diversifying Hispanic communities.
“Something that I really like,” she stated, “is that El Puente empowers women to do their best and reach their potential.”
She said El Puente must also continue providing transportation and translation services and offering information about finances and nutrition.
She is eager to advocate for the specific concerns of local Hispanics while helping the larger community appreciate Hispanic contributions to culture, the economy, society and the Church.
She is pleased to be collaborating with Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri (CCCNMO) and other entities to help people get the emergency assistance they need.
She’s committed to helping Hispanics and non-Hispanic to work together and understand and appreciate more about each other’s cultures through the work of El Puente.
“When you know and appreciate somebody, you are willing to help them and ask them for help,” she said.
She’s looking forward to promoting opportunities for local Hispanics to offer their skills and time in service to others.
Mindful that there are many Hispanic cultures represented here, she’s eager to help organize a robust observance of Hispanic Culture Month each September.
“Yes, we all speak Spanish, but we’re not all the same,” said Mrs. Castro. “We have so many nationalities, cultures, accents, dialects ... so many types of music, so many flavors of food.”
Somewhere in the middle
Early on, much of El Puente’s work involved interpreting and transporting people to doctor’s appointments.
The local Hispanic communities are now more settled and established, but many of the same concerns persist for those who are newly arrived.
“Some come with minor children to a new place without a good command of English,” said Mrs. Castro.
While local hospitals have hired staff interpreters, adults often need translation services for doctor’s appointments and filling out documents.
It’s often difficult for the kids in terms of the new environment, new people, new food, a new culture.
“But learning the language tends to be easier for children,” said Mrs. Castro. “With proper help, they will be able to speak English, even if their parents might not.”
Many of these young people experience a crisis of culture and identity by the time they reach adolescence.
“They are not any longer from Mexico or Honduras or El Salvador,” Mrs. Castro noted. “They don’t know where they’re from sometimes. They are a mixture of the two cultures.”
With friends, they often speak “Spanglish,” a fluid combination of both languages.
“They feel like they are from Jefferson City, but they are not,” she said. “And many people don’t see them as being from Missouri or the United States of America. But that’s how they have been raised and that’s all they know.”
Importance of education
Mrs. Castro emphasized the importance of helping the children of Hispanic immigrants finish high school and continue their education.
“Education is the key to success,” she said. “You’re always better off making life decisions from an educated point of view rather than out of ignorance.”
She wants El Puente to start a peer-based youth ministry that assists them academically and spiritually.
“For many of the Hispanic kids, their parents don’t speak English very well,” she said. “They don’t know where to go to ask for help. We want to help them learn about and explore their options.”
That might mean expanding El Puente’s tutoring program and helping high school seniors apply for financial aid for college, she said.
Making God’s love visible
Sr. Peggy, who is currently serving in congregation leadership in San Antonio, Texas, said she was delighted to hear of Mrs. Castro’s appointment.
“I think she’ll bring a lot of energy and vitality and enthusiasm to the leadership,” said Sr. Peggy.
She noted that two Incarnate Word sisters — Sr. Bertha and Sr. Guadalupe — continue to serve at El Puente, and that the CCVI congregation continues to sponsor the ministry.
The sisters’ charism is “‘to make God’s love visible in the world’ — and one way we do that is by responding to suffering of humanity,” she said.
Sr. Peggy said she’s confident that El Puente will continue to help Hispanic people prepare to become leaders in the Church and the larger community.
She believes Mrs. Castro and the El Puente board have bought into that charism and made it a part of themselves.
“We started this ministry with the hope of helping the Hispanic community thrive in Jefferson City and beyond,” she said.
“That means seeing to it that the children are properly educated and fulfilling the dreams their parents had for them when they brought them here,” she stated.
“Keep God close”
Deacon Castro gave Mrs. Castro some good advice when she accepted her new role.
“He said now more than ever, you have to keep God close to you and find out how you can grow in your faith,” she recalled. “If you don’t have that tight connection with God, you might get lost.”
She insisted that God remains very much a part of the ministry.
“We don’t focus on whether the people we serve are Catholic or not,” she noted. “We help the entire Hispanic community. We want to give them the means to grow in their faith, but it will not stop us from helping them.
“That being said,” she continued, “we are a Catholic institution. The sisters are supporting this organization. When you encounter people from El Puente, you know we are Catholics and we seek to serve the Lord.
“We can only do what we do when we understand that when we serve the community, that is how we serve God,” she said.
She is convinced that this is where God wants her to be.
“It’s not only a job but a ministry for me,” she stated. “It’s a way to serve God in my faith in the Catholic Church.”
She noted that El Puente always welcomes assistance — financial or otherwise.
“If you’re a retired teacher and have some time, you can help with tutoring,” she said. “If you’ve worked in an office, you can help with filing or anything you want to do.”
She asked for prayers for wisdom and guidance as she helps promote El Puente‒Hispanic Ministry’s mission.
“It’s very interesting how you tend to be afraid of taking over things when serving God,” she said. “But once you’re in it, you start to realize how much of a blessing it can be.”