LIANE HANSEN, host:

The candidates are already running ads and making speeches about immigration. They tend to be hard-line, but one church in Harrisonburg, Virginia, is taking a softer approach. The church used Wednesday's celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe to bring its Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations together. The festival honors the Virgin Mary who is said to have appeared before Mexican peasant in 1531.

NPR's Rebecca Martinez reports.

Unidentified Group #1: (Speaking in Spanish)

REBECCA MARTINEZ: Graciela Pinedo had a lot to do. She's the coordinator of the Hispanic Ministry at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, and she was frantically pulling together a huge event, this year's Virgin of Guadalupe's celebration.

Ms. GRACIELA PINEDO (Coordinator, Hispanic Ministry, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church): (Through translator) There are people who come from nearby places -Waynesboro, New Market. Usually they're Mexicans, and they fill the church.

MARTINEZ: Hispanics, mostly Mexicans, make up a third of the church's congregation. Almost all the rest of the worshipers are white and the two groups have rarely mixed. Father Tom Mattingly found that to be the case when he became pastor here in 2005.

Father TOM MATTINGLY (Pastor, Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church): There wasn't a lot of interaction between the Spanish-speaking population and the non-Spanish-speaking population.

MARTINEZ: Father Mattingly has set out to integrate the two, but he's finding some resistance. He says many Hispanics don't feel tied to the community and tend not to reach out beyond their own groups. And he says many non-Hispanics are afraid of the language barrier.

Fr. MATTINGLY: I think they're fearful because they don't speak Spanish, and they feel excluded or they feel frustrated in the little that they can do without knowing Spanish.

MARTINEZ: You could see this kind of de facto segregation at last year's feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Hundreds of Hispanic showed up but only about 20 Anglos did. This year, the organizers wanted to boost the non-Hispanic attendance. Father Mattingly invited Anglos during mass and in the church bulletin, but nobody knew what such efforts would yield until the night of the event.

(Soundbite of Spanish-speaking crowd)

MARTINEZ: On Wednesday night, about a hundred people gathered around Harrisonburg's Court Square to march in the procession. Some girls wore traditional Mexican dresses, their ruffles grazing the ground. Most families carried flowers to lay at the Virgin's feet. Her statue stood near the altar behind a small mountain of roses and candles. The crowd walked two blocks to the church. There, the procession joined other parishioners for mass.

Fr. MATTINGLY: (Speaking in Spanish)

MARTINEZ: Father Mattingly spoke under a huge canopy of multi-colored handmade paper roses. Most of the worshipers were Mexican but dozens of white faces peppered the crowd.

Unidentified Group #2: (Singing in Spanish). We are the body of Christ.

MARTINEZ: A choir sang in both Spanish and English. Parishioners walked out of the sanctuary under a series of floral arches and proceeded to a room where homemade tamales and Mexican hot chocolate were served.

Father Mattingly seemed happy as he surveyed the crowd. Everything went smoothly, and this is especially a good sign. There were more Anglo families this year.

Fr. MATTINGLY: Well, I was very happy with the families that did come. It was important. They felt it was important to be here, and most of them tended to be younger with kids and I think that that's a great sign as well.

MARTINEZ: Organizer Graciela Pinedo agreed.

Ms. PINEDO: (Through translator) It was worth the effort. And I'm realizing that more Anglos participated. To be honest, I didn't expect so many people. I'm very - how do they say - excited.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTINEZ: For NPR News, this is Rebecca Martinez.

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