The following comes from an September 25 Tidings article by Maria Luisa Torres:

For Antonieta Zuniga, a long-time parishioner at Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, her life thus far has dealt her many unexpected blows and heartbreaking twists — in short, she said, “I never thought this would be my life.”

Zuniga’s son has been in prison for 16 years. As a young adult ensnared by drug addiction and criminal activity, he fell victim to California’s “Three Strikes” law, despite committing only non-violent offenses. He was sentenced to 35 years to life.

“We were preparing for different things, for a different life — for our children to grow up, choose a career and go to college,” recalled Zuniga recently. “Today I visit the prison nearly every week, and I always plead with people who have loved ones in prison: Please don’t abandon them … because that’s when they need mercy.

Zuniga shared her heartfelt testimony during a special parish gathering at Dolores Mission addressing the inequities of the criminal justice system, which is just one of the important topics being explored as part of a seven-week series of bilingual Friday night community gatherings.

The weekly get-togethers feature statements by Pope Francis, Bible readings, small group discussions and personal stories like Zuniga’s to help bring each lesson to life.

Zuniga praised Dolores Mission for allowing her and fellow parents of incarcerated sons and daughters to share their stories and talk at length about their situations. By contrast, she explained, “there are many churches and places where we can’t talk,” where families like hers are looked down upon or simply ignored.

The Friday night discussion series is based on a six-week study guide created by PICO, a national network of faith-based organizations that work together to address an array of issues in communities across the country.

To encourage greater community participation, Dolores Mission temporarily suspended all other non-essential parish meetings for the duration of the series, which has resulted in growing weekly turnouts. A total of 100 youth, young adults, families, guests and even some homeless individuals (who are receiving support services from the parish’s homeless outreach ministry) participated in the first session on Aug. 28, with several more attending each subsequent week. More than 120 were on hand for the fourth session on Sept. 18 addressing criminal justice.

According to Ellie Hidalgo, pastoral associate at Dolores Mission, it has been “amazing” to witness so many people actively engaged in the weekly dialogues.

“People are really hungry to hear what Pope Francis has to say,” she said.