By Jerry Duggan
Growing up one of nine children in the town of Laredo, Texas, on the U.S.-Mexico border, Berni Obregon spent a lot of time at the local Catholic Church, viewing it as a second home and refuge from the occasionally dangerous city she grew up in. The church was more than a safe haven, though – doing little acts of service for the Church made her happy – so much so that she still does it today in her role as office manager and bookkeeper at Sacred Heart Parish in El Paso, Texas.
Obregon’s job entails much more than the title indicates. In her more than a decade of service to the parish, she has done secretarial work, updated the parish database, overseen the distribution of the parish’s newsletter and even played IT director when help is needed in that area. She feels a sense of satisfaction in helping with whatever the parish needs and recognizes that those needs often extend beyond the confines of the parish office.
“I’m here to help with whatever the parish needs, even if I’m not always an expert at whatever needs to be done,” she said. “I’m here to serve more than anything else.”
An experienced secretary, Obregon came to Sacred Heart in 2008 not knowing anything about Jesuits. Over the years, she has taken in a little bit at a time, falling more in love with the teachings of the Society as the years go by.
She has also recognized that Jesuit values are quite compatible with her own values – she just had never heard them articulated, or seen them put into practice, in quite the way the Jesuits do.
“I have always tried to be a kind and compassionate person, but to put that into practice the way the Jesuits do, day in and day out, warmed my heart and showed me what true service was all about,” she said.
Obregon says now that when she first arrived at the parish, Fr. Eddie Gros, SJ, pastor at the time, took time to understand her personal situation.
“He helped me out of a little bit of a dark place and, through his kindness, I saw that the Jesuits really mean everything they say when it comes to caring for the less fortunate and being of service,” she explained.
Over time, she has been equally touched by the kindness of the Jesuits who run the parish and the parishioners who often have so little yet give so much.
“The entire parish is a family, focused on helping each other in times of need,” she said. “The culture is supportive and not judgmental.”
She finds that the strong sense of community in the parish helps break down the hierarchical distinctions that can exist between parishioners, parish staff and priests. Sacred Heart is one family.
“We all understand the challenges members of this community go through, and we realize that we are all in this together,” she said.
Obregon has gradually gotten more involved in the parish community. While balancing her many roles in the parish office, she has gotten to interact with parishioners in other contexts. Helping out at the parish food pantry is one example of this, and another situation in which she was able to put Jesuit ideals into practice.
She recalls giving a bag of food to a local man when he had fallen on hard times, only to, a year later, have that same man repay the parish with a gift of several hundred dollars once he had gotten back on his feet. Obregon finds it rewarding to be part of this cycle of generosity.
“Working with the poor can be very difficult,” she admitted. “People in this community have many hardships and needs.”
The Jesuit approach embodied by four successive pastors – Jesuit Fathers Gros, Ron Gonzales, Tim McMahon and Rafael Garcia – has given her a new way of looking at these situations. In addition, the priests in residence at the parish – Frs. Sam Rosales, Michael Gallagher and Jose Mesa – brighten everyone’s day and are compassionate to those in greatest need.
“The Jesuit approach is to recognize the dignity in each person that comes to us,” she articulated. “We are called to be non-judgmental and not ask questions about how a person may have ended up in a particular situation but instead to be compassionate and generous.”
Obregon’s days and list of tasks are often quite long, but what keeps her coming back day in and day out is the personal satisfaction she gets from helping out with whatever the parish, and its members, need.
“Working at Sacred Heart and getting to know the way the Jesuits do things has changed my perspective a lot,” she said. “Thanks to them, I now see Christ in every person in need and gives me an opportunity to serve them, to serve the Church, and ultimately, to serve God.”