February 21, 2014

New coordinator of Hispanic ministry brings wealth of experience

By Natalie Hoefer

Divine Word Missionary Father Lloyd “Sam” CunninghamDivine Word Missionary Father Lloyd “Sam” Cunningham was born in Normal, Ill.

His path from there has been … not so normal.

From Illinois to Argentina, from Wisconsin to Paraguay, with others states and countries in between, the archdiocese’s new coordinator of Hispanic ministry has been working with Latinos in some respect for the entirety of his 39 years as a priest, and even before then.

Father Sam’s interest in the Latino culture began while he was attending Divine Word College in Epworth, Iowa.

“The dean, who was a Chicano, invited me to go to Rock Island-Moline, Illinois,” said Father Sam. “He was forming Latino parishes there. We’d go every two weeks.

“That summer, [1975], was the first summer I went to Mexico. I studied there for six weeks.”

Later, while studying at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Father Sam studied in Bolivia then spent time in Paraguay.

He was ordained a priest on Dec. 12, 1981—the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe.

After receiving his master’s degree in divinity with a specialty in mission work and a master’s in mission theology, both from Catholic Theological Union in 1982, Father Sam was ready to begin ministering.

“We got to list our top three choices of where we wanted to go,” he recalled. “I wrote down Paraguay, then Bolivia, and then any Spanish-speaking country.

“I was assigned as vocational director of a high school seminary in East Troy, Wisconsin,” he said with a laugh.

Father Sam still took time to travel. He believes it was bad water on one of his trips that led to him contracting hepatitis.

But the illness proved fortuitous. He moved back to Chicago and started outreach ministries to the Hispanics of Villiata, a small area of Chicago.

Finally, Father Sam was assigned to be pastor of a parish in Paraguay.

“The parish had 35,000 people divided into 48 communities,” he said.

“It was 1989, and there was not a lick of asphalt—it was all dirt roads. There was no electricity in the parish the first year. There was only one telephone in the whole parish, and we had well water for the first two years.”

Father Sam, with the help of an associate pastor and a seminarian, celebrated more than 1,000 baptisms, 1,000 first Communions and 1,000 confirmations each year, and witnessed more than 100 weddings, while also doing mission work with indigenous people of the area.

Father Sam served there for three-and-a-half years, then spent the next three-and-a-half years teaching theology at the national seminary at Catholic University in Asunción, the capital of Paraguay.

“Our house was right above the garbage dump in Asunción,” Father Sam recalled. “There were about 2,000 people living on the garbage dump. We began building a chapel and getting a school built [there], and eventually were able to have the U.S. embassy to help us put in streets there.”

While he was teaching at the university, Father Sam did retreat work in Argentina and Brazil, and began working with a social psychologist, Jesuit Father Henry Grant, teaching ethics to businessmen in Asunción as a form of evangelization.

When he was reassigned to work at a Hispanic seminary in the barrio of East Los Angeles in 1996, Father Sam also began studying psychology.

“I knew as I looked around that there was a need to have Spanish-speaking therapists,” he said.

He moved back to Chicago, working in formation at the Catholic Theological Union. Meanwhile, he received his master’s degree in marriage and family therapy in 1999 and a doctorate in clinical psychology in 2006, both from the Adler School of Professional Psychology.

“Latino Family Services [in Chicago] was looking for a therapist who could speak Spanish,” said Father Sam. “They work primarily with sex offenders and their families. I worked with them from 1999-2010, and in that time I treated over 600 sex offenders.”

Father Sam spent 2011-13 serving as associate pastor of St. Patrick Parish in Fort Wayne, Ind., in the Diocese of Fort Wayne-South Bend, while working as a therapist with perpetrators of domestic violence at the Center for Nonviolence in Fort Wayne.

While in Fort Wayne, Father Sam taught a few courses for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis’ Hispanic Leadership Institute.

“I met Father Sam almost three years ago when he was invited to preside at a Mass for [the feast of] St. Martin de Porres,” said Franciscan Brother Moises Gutierrez, director of the archdiocesan Office of Multicultural Ministry.

“Right after the Mass, I approached him to invite him to teach some of the workshops for the Pastoral Leadership Program we offer in Spanish here in the archdiocese.”

Brother Moises believed Father Sam would be a great asset to Hispanic ministry.

“His experience ministering with Hispanics here in the United States and abroad, his vast education in the field of counseling, his abilities and skills to minister in intercultural settings, his vision as a missionary, and his passion for serving those in need.

“I personally think that Father Sam fits the description that Pope Francis states of what a priest should be: ‘capable of warming people’s hearts, of walking with them in the night, of dialoguing with their hopes and disappointments, of mending their brokenness,’ ” Brother Moises said.

Father Sam said he “appreciates very much” the Hispanic programs that Brother Moises implemented before taking over as director of the multicultural ministry office.

“I see the need for having educated leaders in Spanish, and also having spiritual directors in Spanish, which is one part of what I’ll be doing,” he said.

Father Sam will also be working with the 21 parishes that have Spanish Masses in the archdiocese.

“[Hispanic ministry] is part of an intercultural office,” he said. “We need to keep working toward integration in the community, and that parishes are intercultural parishes—not forcing it, but challenging it.” †

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