.- If you ask Sair del Toro to tell you her story, she tells you the stories of other people. Women who have escaped abusive relationships. Gang members who have given their lives to Jesus. Teenagers who found healing after abortion.
She hardly mentions her role in those stories. But her role should not go unnoted. Those stories of conversion, or healing, or freedom, have one thing in common: Sair del Toro.
“I think when you give yourself freely to the Lord, beautiful graces and things come out, you can be a witness,” Del Toro told CNA.
Del Toro is director of Magnifica, the Spanish-language apostolate of Endow, a ministry that forms study and fellowship groups for women. She also hosts a daily radio show on Radio Guadalupe in Los Angeles, where she talks about theology, philosophy, Mary, the saints – “any subject.”
But Del Toro wasn’t always working for the Lord.
From wedding planner to bride of Christ
Although she grew up with a Catholic mother, Sair and her siblings withdrew from the faith. At one time she hated the Church, she said, because she was only paying attention to the bad news about it.
By the time she was 28, Del Toro was a well-known secular radio personality and wedding planner in Seattle, Washington. She drove a new Mercedes and had an apartment on the top floor with a view of the lake.
“Everything was perfect,” she said, “But I had something missing, I didn’t have love, I just had money. So every time that I was walking in my condominium I was like oh my God, I’m missing something.”
It was then that she started to ask God: “Where are you? Who are you?”
She started going back to church. Someone told her that if she wanted to find God, she should look to the Blessed Sacrament. So one day, she says she snuck into the adoration chapel to hug the tabernacle, wanting to see if God was really in “the little box.”
“I walked in there, I hugged Jesus Christ, and he came out and he hugged me. And I felt the presence of him in my heart and in my brain and in my soul – he was hugging me. It was the biggest hug of my life,” she said, and that love that she felt would forever change her life.
She left her high-paying job and swanky apartment and decided to join a convent in Omaha, Nebraska.
Del Toro’s mother was not so convinced of her quick conversion.
“My mom thought that I was crazy,” she said. So crazy, in fact, that she says her mother took her to be examined at a psychiatric hospital, which turned out to be run by nuns.
Del Toro said she was questioned by the doctor about whether she listened to God, heard his voice, loved him – questions she was afraid to answer honestly, if it meant she’d end up in a psych ward.
Still, she felt God urging her to tell the truth, so she responded – “Yes.” The doctor concluded that she wasn’t crazy – she was just in love with God.
After spending a few years in religious life, Del Toro felt God calling her to marriage. She left the convent and moved back to her home in Mexico, where she worked for several Catholic ministries, including the Mission for the Love of God, a ministry that aims to consecrate political leaders to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
Over the course of three years, she says the ministry helped convince 75 percent of Mexico’s governors to consecrate themselves, their families and their work to Jesus.
“Most of the governors are secular, they’re totally opposite of what we do in the Catholic Church,” Del Toro said. “I used to somehow convince them to consecrate their work, family and all their soul to the Lord, which is crazy in Mexico because the majority of them are Masons.”
In 2013, Del Toro moved back to the United States to teach Theology of the Body to couples in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, before taking her current position with Magnifica.
Converter of gang members
When Del Toro isn’t converting governors, she’s converting rooms full of hardened ex-gang members.
A few months ago, Del Toro was asked to give a presentation to a group in Houston – 200 people, mostly Hispanic men, who were hardened, tattooed ex-gang members and drug dealers.
“It’s very hard when you walk into a room like that,” Del Toro recalled. “I was thinking – ‘What is God going to do to me now?’”
She was scheduled to speak for two hours. She spoke for four – “because they needed more help than we were thinking.” But by the end, she says, God had converted the room.
“We consecrated all of these people which was a miracle, because most of these people…have killed people, they were involved in very dirty and heavy business, they sold drugs, so for them to say yes to the Lord, it’s not like for you and for me, it’s a completely different thing,” she said.
“These people that we never thought would be consecrated to the Lord, they’re changing their lives and their families too,” she added. Del Toro said she looked for common ground with the ex-gang members, and told them that the hierarchy of the Church was much like the hierarchy of a gang – but on the side of the Lord rather than on the side of death and despair.
“So when you teach them how the church works, how God works, how the respect works, it’s actually the same thing but into the army of God,” she said.
“I’m telling them…your life is going to change, because you’re going to…be happier than ever, you’re going to be with the truth of grace, and you’re going to live forever. So they feel like they really have something now, they’re worth something…we give them the hope of life, of eternity,” she added.
Del Toro takes little credit for her own efforts – it’s the work of God, she says.
“I can’t convince them, that was God doing his work.”
Del Toro says she gets a front-row seat to the work of God through her work with Magnifica. One woman, Rachel (whose name has been changed), approached Del Toro recently to tell her the story of her life.
When Rachel was just 14, she snuck out of her parents house to go to a party. That night, she was kidnapped and brought from Mexico City to the U.S. border, where she was sold to a man who kept her in captivity for 10 years.
Rachel had two little girls by her captor, and was never allowed outside. Eventually, a neighbor called the police, and Rachel and her daughters were rescued. She connected with Del Toro through her Theology of the Body classes, and is now finding help and healing in the Church through her Magnifica group.
“The beauty of this one is that they were never mad at anyone,” not even their captor, Del Toro recalled. “She’s always happy, always smiling, thanking God for everything.”
There are many other stories like this, of women like Rachel who have experienced domestic violence and don’t know where to turn until they start building trust with people like Del Toro. According to the National Latin@ (sic) Network, one in three Latinas have experienced domestic violence.
Another woman, Monica (whose name has been changed), approached Del Toro after meeting her through Magnifica.
Like Rachel, Monica had been kidnapped for several years by her ex-husband. He abused her and used her body to extinguish cigarettes; he also drove screws into her skin.
Although she was able to leave him, her second husband was also abusing her “almost every day,” recalled Del Toro. “Her body is completely destroyed, but you never see that because she’s always covered,” Del Toro said. “But every time that I think about her, I feel like she is like Jesus Christ, she was put…on that cross.”
Monica’s husband is now in jail, and she now works to help other women that she meets through Magnifica groups.
“She helps others with smaller problems without (talking about her past),” Del Toro said.
“She is absolutely amazing, and that’s when God shows you hope for humanity, because when you see someone in bad shape with that kind of problem, you’d think they would want nothing to do with God, but that’s not true,” she said. “These people want everything to do with God and they want to help others.”
“So there’s always hope out there,” she added, “and God through these programs has been giving us so much grace to help others without doing too much. He does his work and he does it well, so you just need to sit next to him and enjoy the miracles that he’s doing all around us in our Church.”
Del Toro said Magnifica groups have been specifically designed to meet the spiritual, and practical, needs of Hispanic women, especially those who are immigrants to the United States.
When she approaches Hispanic women about Magnifica, Del Toro first gets to know them, asking them about their families and their lives. Most women who begin attending Magnifica are looking for a community, she said. “We meet and read for an hour and a half and then we have food, we have a party, all of us together with the kids,” she said.
She also has to train her Magnifica facilitators to be prepared to help women who are dealing with domestic violence, post-abortion trauma, and other serious issues that are prevalent among women participating in Magnifica groups.
“Hispanic mothers, they have a harder time here, they’re coming from the low class… so we have to be patient, we have more single mothers in our program, we have more abortions,” she said, because abortion clinics often intentionally build facilities in lower class neighborhoods.
“I have to make sure my facilitators understand all of this, because they are not jumping into a regular reading group, we’re talking about serious problems,” she said. “And I always say to them, you might find out horrible things, but no matter what you find out, it’s always the Lord next to you, and next to them. That’s why these girls are walking into your group, so give thanks to the Lord because these girls are getting into your groups.”
Lessons for the Church
Del Toro’s ministry experiences with Hispanic Catholics offer lessons for the Church in the United States, which is increasingly made up of people of Latin American origin.
Hispanics made up about 40 percent of the Church in the United States in 2016, with especially large representation among youth and young adults: 50 percent of Catholics ages 14 to 29 are Hispanic; and 55 percent of Catholics under 14 are Hispanic. Though immigration rates from Hispanic countries have begun to slow in recent years, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics in the US is expected to continue growing during the next decade.
Del Toro is a leader with V Encuentro (Fifth Encounter) a national gathering of U.S. Hispanic leaders and ministers held in order to consult with Hispanic Catholics and respond to their pastoral needs, the next of which will be held in Texas in September.
“The culture is completely different,” Del Toro said of Hispanic/Latino culture versus white Americans.
For example, and as evidenced partly by her own success stories, “A Latin opens their heart very easily and they give themselves to the Lord right away,” she said. “They’re more affective than Americans, Americans have to think. A Latin is just like, this is what I feel, so I’m jumping, no matter if it’s right or wrong.”
There’s also a stronger cultural devotion to the faith – and particularly to the Blessed Virgin Mary – beginning in the home for many Hispanics, she said.
“You listen to your mother pray the rosary your whole entire life,” she noted. “Americans in general, they’re not very close to the rosary, but for us it’s normal to always have a rosary and pray it throughout the day your whole life.”
In fact, she said, Mary is usually the best place to begin the evangelization of Hispanics.
“Our Lady is always around us, Our Lady of Guadalupe is in every single street corner, you have her in houses, everywhere, we are very connected to her. So when you work through her, very few people will close the door to her…sometimes they reject Jesus, but if you work through Our Lady? Piece of cake.”
In her work with V Encuentro, Del Toro said she tells her groups to be aware of the different problems that Hispanic women face, like domestic abuse, increased rates of single motherhood, and abortion.
“They need help and they need big protection, because if we don’t protect these women, the next generation is going to become worse and worse, so this is the time to do something real.”
Del Toro said the two biggest mistakes she sees the Church making today, especially when it comes to evangelizing to Hispanics, are failing to be direct about sin, and not taking the time to develop real relationships with people. When Catholics stop talking about what “the Church” should be doing and instead focus on what they can be doing as Christians, it’s much more effective, Del Toro said.
“You think that a program will change them? No, they need to feel the love, and if you don’t feel the love from someone else in there, you’re not going to change,” she said. “Another thing is stop to talk about the Church only. Why not give the example? Why not live the life you’re supposed to live? Because to talk about the Church is very easy. But follow the Gospel? That’s the hard part.”
“Listen to them first of all,” she said, to understand them and their lives. Only after you listen can you talk to them about God.
“Give them a good example. Hug them. Ask them – what can we do for you? How can I help you? How often do we ask that?” she said. “We don’t want to have the trouble, we don’t want to have one more thing because (we’re) so busy, so we forget very easy things that are the basic things. Simple things like that would make a huge change in the community.”
That’s what Del Toro has been striving to do during her many years in ministry.
“The people that know me know that what I do I do through my heart, otherwise I could be doing different things for a lot of money,” she said. “But my (goal) is heaven and I want to be a saint, I really want to be a saint. So I just relax, letting God do whatever he wants to do with me.”
But she’s called in a special favor from heaven. She needs Mary’s protection.
“I told Mary – don’t leave me alone my entire life!”