The Latino youth group at St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, Caminando Con Jesús PDX, poses in January. When Alejandro Bautista (far right) began leading the youth group nearly nine years ago, he recognized that several teens were depressed, and he began integrating mental health support into spiritual fellowship and formation. (Courtesy Alejandro Bautista)
The Latino youth group at St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland, Caminando Con Jesús PDX, poses in January. When Alejandro Bautista (far right) began leading the youth group nearly nine years ago, he recognized that several teens were depressed, and he began integrating mental health support into spiritual fellowship and formation. (Courtesy Alejandro Bautista)
More than 25 times every week, Latino youth group coordinator Alejandro Bautista signs into Zoom and speaks with a different teenager. He hears about online learning angst, trending memes and jokes, family tensions, and about the teens’ relationship with Jesus. He laughs with them and listens to them.

It’s one of the ways Bautista is sustaining his longtime effort helping young members of St. Andrew Parish in Northeast Portland not only stay tied to their faith but also remain emotionally grounded. It’s a ministry with added importance as COVID-19 hits Latinos disproportionately hard.

“It’s not the same as meeting in person, but it’s been really helpful,” said Joshua Sanchez, 13, whose parents are from Mexico. “It helps me feel connected and it’s something fun during this really hard time.”

Joshua’s dad works in construction and has kept his job amid the pandemic; a number of St. Andrew parishioners have not. Nationally Latinos are losing jobs and dying at higher rates than the general population. As of early May no members of St. Andrew had tested posted for the virus. However the Oregon Health Authority shows 22% of Oregonians infected with COVID-19 are Hispanic, while census numbers indicate they make up about 13% of the state’s population.

These realities take a toll on mental health: A national poll last month by the health organization Kaiser indicates adult Latinos are more likely than whites to say the coronavirus has significantly affected their mental health. Younger Hispanics, at least anecdotally, are feeling heightened anxiety as well.

As in most cultures, there’s an enduring stigma around mental illness for Hispanics. Bautista, 40, grew up in Mexico and said all he knew about depression was that “it’s something that happens to people who are weak.”

His views evolved after he learned his daughter was suffering from clinical depression. “She opened my eyes,” said Bautista, who eventually grasped the realities and complexities of the illness.

Even before the pandemic, studies showed Latino young people in the United States have higher rates of depression and anxiety than their white and black peers. Many Latino teens live with fears about family separation and the strain of navigating different cultures at home and school.

When Bautista began leading the St. Andrew youth group, called Caminando con Jesús PDX (Walking with Jesus PDX) nearly nine years ago, he recognized that several teens were depressed. He quickly started integrating mental health support into spiritual fellowship and formation.

Psychological well-being is a regular topic during gatherings, but Bautista said a key to the group’s success — it drew as many as 60 teens pre-coronavirus — is that “the youths are the ones running it.”

“If you want teens to feel important, they need to do important things,” he said, adding that two experiences informed this perspective.

Not long after he began serving as youth minister, Bautista was helping Archbishop Alexander Sample change into his vestments before a Mass. The archbishop, catching Bautista off guard, asked him why he wanted to work with youths.

“I said something cliché like, ‘Because they are the future,’” recalled Bautista. “He turned to me and said, ‘They are not the future. They are the present. They just need a place to prove it.’

“I went home and tore up my old plan. I knew I had to create something not just for them but with them.”

Another formative moment was when Bautista internalized that the Jewish woman who bore Jesus was not an adult in her 20s but a young teen “when she went against the laws of the time and said ‘yes’ to God.”

“Mary’s ‘yes’ helped me understand how powerful women are and also how powerful teenagers are,” he said.

Bautista, who mentors other youth group ministers, said a result of giving teens more responsibility is that it builds up self-esteem and can help them overcome depression and anxiety.

During youth events the teenagers “set up the sound system, cook, organize — everything,” he said. Among their biggest responsibilities is the annual reenactment of the Passion of Christ.

“I’m creating a place where they can do things, when depression makes them think they can’t,” explained Bautista, who knows his limits and does not try to serve as a therapist. If needed, he encourages the youths to receive professional help and walks with their families through that experience.

Bautista said supporting teens’ mental health also requires being digitally present where teens spend time — on apps such as Instagram and TikTok. The teens also know they can text him anytime.

“Working with them on their mental and spiritual health is not just the Friday night youth group; you have to be available all the time,” he said. “It’s between 9 p.m. and midnight when they usually go through a crisis, and I want to be there for them.”

Since Oregon’s stay-at-home order went into effect in March, youth ministry has been a challenge and looks quite different. But Bautista is determined to do what he can. He remains present on social media and moved the Friday youth groups to Zoom.

At first the videoconferencing was a novelty and the youths were excited to participate. But enthusiasm has waned. Recently just around 10 people have been joining.

Jason Kidd, director of the Office of Marriage and Family Life for the archdiocese, said a number of other youth group leaders have held online groups, but he thinks “everyone is getting a little Zoomed out.”

Several St. Andrew teens who do log in to the virtual youth groups said the gatherings take the edge off their stress and are a space to laugh and feel connected.

“It’s a chance to talk to other people after a long day at home,” said Valentina Castro, 16.

“It’s helped me out a lot,” added Joshua.

To reach more teens, Bautista began holding individual online get-togethers, which some young people have found more appealing than the larger Zoom meetup. St. Andrew parishioner Megan Larson, who’s been helping with the youth group, also participates. On average 25 teens sign in to talk throughout the week.

Bautista said the teens talk about feeling more depressed being home all the time. Many teens spend their whole day on their phones, or they are responsible for younger siblings while their parents work.

Not all Hispanic families have had access to accurate information about the virus, and some thought the stay-at-home order meant it was illegal to go out for a walk. “There’s been so much fear,” said Bautista. “In the beginning some parents were not even allowing kids to be on the patio or play basketball out front.”

Father Dave Zegar, pastor of St. Andrew, said he’s not sure how long this digital form of outreach will work, but “it’s clearly very helpful right now.” He pointed out it’s a ministry not only for young people but also Latino parents.

“This is a hard time for parents, and they don’t always know what to do with kids this age,” he said.

The priest added that Bautista is the perfect person to sustain a digital ministry. “He’s outgoing and he loves what he’s doing. We are grateful we have him.”

Bautista will continue with the virtual efforts as long as social distancing policies are in place or there are teens who will participate. “As long as just one person comes, I will keep doing it for him or her,” he said. “Just one person is enough.”