Nazareth Groups foster friendships, spiritual growth
March 24, 2021
Cyndi Messina felt alone and afraid.
She had just received a stage-four cancer diagnosis. The support programs for cancer patients had shut down, due to the pandemic. Her family lived out of town. If there was ever a time in her life when she needed the support of friends, that time was now.
That is when her Nazareth Group at her parish, St. Gerald Parish in Ralston, especially stepped in and rallied around her.
“When I couldn’t make it (to the meeting), they called me and passed the phone around … prayed for me … that meant the world to me,” said Messina. “I love these people.”
“(My group) quickly became my family,” she said.
Nazareth Groups, a small-group, in-home, faith-sharing program inaugurated at St. Gerald is deepening relationships with God through friendships and prayer.
Nazareth Groups’ founder, Mary Stevens, also a parishioner at St. Gerald, said the groups are fertile soil for growing genuine Christian communities where members support each other through life and their spiritual journeys.
“(The program) is based on how Jesus first made disciples. He shared his life with them and simultaneously shared truth from his Father with his friends,” said Stevens. “The members of a group become conduits of the Father’s love for each person.”
Though parishes work to provide a sense of community for their members, Stevens still witnessed loneliness.
“Just because you belong to a parish doesn’t necessarily mean you feel you belong,” said Father Mark Nolte, pastor at St. Gerald.
Stevens said her experience was that short-term, faith-building programs encouraged spiritual growth and developed a sense of belonging, but when they concluded, the reason for participants to gather ceased.
The human need to belong and feel valued, however, did not disappear, she said.
To provide a solution, Stevens formed her first small group five years ago using a framework she was familiar with for group discussion and relationship building.
Both her husband, Sean, and Father Nolte encouraged Stevens to develop her ideas into a format the parish could use.
Then, after she and her husband took part at St. Gerald in an Alpha program – a worldwide evangelization tool for equipping people to help others encounter Christ – she saw an opportunity to continue its good work, and that of other parish organizations and ministries. Nazareth Groups was the result.
“Nazareth Groups’ motto is to ‘provide a home where everyone is seen, known and loved,’” Stevens said. Its name comes from Jesus’ nurturing home before his public ministry, and the desire that everyone experience a similar acceptance and love through the group’s interaction.
“Jesus was all about building relationships and giving people a sense of belonging,” said Father Nolte. “These groups do that. They have really taken off.”
There are currently 12 Nazareth Groups in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Nine are at St. Gerald. The other three groups are at St. Cecilia Parish in Omaha.
Stevens based the framework for Nazareth Groups on the small-group format she used as a high school religion teacher in Wisconsin, modifying it for adults in home settings.
The result is what she calls Nazareth Group’s “failproof recipe” for building small but strong communities. Each group’s 10-12 members meet monthly, sharing a potluck meal at the host’s home. The host remains constant, and this person or couple also “leads” the meetings using a consistent framework Stevens established for the groups.
That framework includes members sharing during the meal, in round-robin format, how their month was. After the meal, participants ask and answer icebreaker questions, again taking turns. No one is allowed to comment while someone is responding to an icebreaker.
Next, one of that week’s Sunday readings is read aloud three times, and members reflect on the Word, sharing what spoke to them. The gathering concludes with prayer.
REFLECTING GOD’S LOVE
The value of the recipe, Stevens said, is that everyone has the opportunity to be seen and heard. Key to this are the icebreakers that are asked, the answers shared and the active listening practiced.
“We pick the questions for the evening together,” said Messina. “Sometimes they are easy – What’s your favorite color and why? Or harder – What’s the saddest thing you’ve experienced?”
“The questions force us to talk about ourselves and allow us to get to know others. There’s Bible study stuff too, but this allows for life experiences,” she said. “It’s surprising. You really get to know people by those simple questions.”
Listening is a non-negotiable and leaves the person speaking feeling heard.
“There is no crosstalk,” explained Sue Trigg, a group member and leader, as well as a 30-plus year member of St. Gerald.
“We are not here to fix anybody. Fixing implies you’re broken, not normal. We listen … get to know you as a child of God. We become backdoor friends quickly because trust is built very quickly.”
During the pandemic, some in-person meetings transitioned to virtual meetings via Zoom or FaceTime.
Regardless of format, the groups remained a lifeline for some. Since Messina’s group began, she and two others have been diagnosed with cancer. Their intimate friendships allowed one member to ask her probing questions that helped her as she wrestled with God and moved through the stages of grief associated with her diagnosis.
“I think it has given me the courage to say what I feel … to be open to talk about God, to be a disciple,” Messina said. While her cancer is not currently advancing, her prognosis is one-to-five years. She said she remains optimistic, even as she deals with the effects of chemotherapy and other medications, and shares her life and her faith through a blog – MessinaMusings.com.
She also supports other patients. Todd Banchor and his wife, Deb, also members of St. Gerald and the group, said they appreciated Messina taking leis to the hospital where he received inpatient chemotherapy. It gave a lighthearted spin to the button-down Hawaiian shirts Todd chose to wear to provide access to his port for treatment. The leis were a concrete reminder they were not alone on that journey, he said.
“Never was it intended that our spiritual life (be completely) individual,” he said. “There’s always been community,” where people rejoiced with others in good times and came together for support in difficult times, “showing us that we were not alone.”
Stevens said the Twelve Apostles’ three-year journey with Jesus during his public ministry established a fertile foundation from which the Church grew. That became her model for Nazareth Groups to develop faith and relationships with God and one another – one small group at a time, she said.
Father Nolte said he has been surprised by the simple, yet powerful recipe.
Nazareth Groups carry out Jesus’ message to let people know there is a place where they can be who they are and share their hearts, knowing they will be received and loved, he said.
“The more I get to know Jesus in the Gospel, he is a people person meeting and loving people where they are, and that’s where the healing takes place,” he said. “We’ve got the vertical part of the Cross with God, but nobody talks about the horizontal part with each other.”
“We encounter Jesus in each other, as well as the sacraments. That’s the key to effective evangelization.”