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Faith and Culture Grad Offers Gospel to Girls in Jail

When Spanish native Ana Maria Egea moved to Houston in 2010 as a language instructor, she was an ex-Catholic with little more than distain for either the Church or her new host country.

“In Spain, watching news about young people in America, I remember myself saying, ‘Wow, those crazy people. I couldn't image some day I would be here.”

“Here,” for Egea, implies far more than location. Today a fervent Catholic, Egea will graduate this spring with a master’s degree from UST’s Center for Faith and Culture, and long-term plans to remain in Houston as a religion and Spanish teacher.

“My heart is here,” she said.

A Personal Encounter

Egea is the 11th student to graduate from the young Master of Arts in Faith and Culture program, which was created in 2010 to form leaders capable of “responding to the demands of living in the American cultural context as a people of faith,” and helping others do the same.

She is one of two MAFC students to join 298 undergraduates and 739 graduates at the University’s 64th Commencement Ceremony at Reliant Arena on May 17.

Before graduating, MFAC candidates must complete a practicum that incorporates all they have studied into a community-oriented, service-learning project, one that illustrates the integration of faith development and civic responsibility.

For her practicum, Egea chose to work for two months as a “religious volunteer” in the Harris County Juvenile Justice Center downtown, offering incarcerated girls a listening ear and the message of the Gospel in short, individual sessions.

Egea said the goal of the sessions was simply a personal encounter, one that might open the teen’s heart to God’s love in repentance and hope. 

As she met with different girls, Egea said she tried to focus all her attention on prayerfully receiving the presence of the other, ignoring the wall of glass between them, the hum of ever-present cameras, and the clatter of her own prejudices and fears.

“What is important is that you are in front of another person,” Egea said.  “You have 15 minutes for that encounter and you need to be fully present.”

‘It’s Always About Love’

The teens, she discovered, were “thirsty” for the smallest drop of hope and inspiration.  Although most first treated her guardedly, fearing she would lecture or proselytize, Egea said they soon began to see her as a mother figure or older sister, one they could confide in and look to for guidance.

As the girls shared their stories, Egea said she soon realized that “it’s always about love”; love that had not been given, love sought in all the wrong places, and the love of God that waits to be received.

Egea recalled the story of Mary, a furious 16-year old who had been incarcerated for repeatedly attacking her mother, who had deserted her for a boyfriend.

“Mary told me, ‘I’ve been sleeping with seven different men because I need love,” Egea said. “I told her all of us need love, all of us have been hurt and haven’t received the love we need…but this is not the way to find it.”

The next day, Mary “was like a new person,” Egea said. “When you see how that little light does something in those kids, because they are so needy—the smallest thing you can give makes a huge difference.”

The girls, she added, were continuously surprised to see that “it’s not about theology, a God who is like this, this and that,” Egea said.  “It’s about real life, about learning to live well with God, with yourself, and with others in society.”

The Beauty of Following Jesus

Egea said she has long felt a calling and gift for working with “young people in trouble,” partly because she herself drifted from the Church at 12 years old.

“For 20 years, I thought God was not in my life,” she said.  “I think [at-risk teens] see I could be like them. I tell them, ‘The only difference between you and me is that I know the rules…I have learned what's wrong and right, and I've made a commitment to follow those rules.’ And because I'm sincere, they get it.”

But Egea is quick to clarify that Christianity is not about rules, but about new life in the love of God.

“Christianity is not a philosophy, it’s something different,” she added. “We are Christians because we love, we forgive. I have discovered the beauty of following Jesus in today's world.”

A Compassionate God

Those statements encapsulate the spirituality of the MAFC program, which invites students to examine and enter into the “dynamic, transformative relationship between the human person and God, in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.”

The MAFC degree provides working professionals, educators and ministers with an intellectual and practical formation program that responds to the demands of living in today’s cultural context as a people of faith.

Through the women she met in the practicum and the struggles they faced, Egea was able to witness God’s mercy, a reminder even to herself that God is a compassionate God.

Story by Marion Fernandez-Cueto

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