Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Reflecting on Multicultural Ministry

All fourth-year college and pre-theology students at Mount Angel Seminary take a course entitled "Ministry in a Multicultural Church."  The course is taught by Ms. Kathy Akiyama and features a number of guest speakers.  Brent Crowe, a Pre-Theology student for the Archdiocese of Portland, has submitted this reflection on one of those guest speakers.

Ministering to Hispanic Catholics
by Brent Crowe

On April 29, 2013, Father Gerardo Alberto, a member of the Missionaries of the Holy Spirit and a spiritual director for Mount Angel Seminary, spoke to the Ministry in a Multicultural Church class about some of the joys and challenges of ministering to Hispanics in Catholic parishes.  Hispanic populations are increasing in most areas of the United States, which is putting pressure on all levels of society to respond to the changing demographics of the country.

Many Hispanics are immigrants or migrant workers who often live near or below the poverty line.  Many of them do not speak English.  Some of the immigrants are here illegally and therefore are afraid to register with parishes or to seek help when they are in need or being taken advantage of.  Because of the cultural differences between Anglos and Hispanics, many Hispanics may feel unwelcome in English-speaking parishes.  I saw this at work in my home parish where I was assigned at the end of my first year in seminary.

The patron feast of my home parish in Medford, Oregon, is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, which occurred on June 15th last year.  Sacred Heart has over 2200 registered families and celebrates Sunday Mass seven times on the weekends, five times in English and twice in Spanish.  During the weekend of our parish feast day, the Hispanic community had a special Spanish Mass on Friday night followed by a huge celebration with dozens of food booths, music, and dancing.  The entire parish was invited but when I walked in with the pastor, I was surprised to see that there were only two Anglos there: the pastor and me.  The event was fun, however.  I was able to practice my Spanish, and I enjoyed watching the dancing and eating the food that night, but I left that night wondering what could be done to bring the two different groups together.

The following day, I saw the celebration through a different lens.  Because it was our parish feast day, the pastor was given the option of transferring the celebration from a Friday to the following Sunday.  Beginning on Friday, a special shrine was set up to one side of the sanctuary, which featured a statue of Jesus pointing to his Sacred Heart.  The shrine remained in place throughout the weekend.  I was in the sacristy after the Saturday morning Mass when an elderly Anglo woman came in, irate over the Sacred Heart shrine.  She called it a monstrosity.

The pastor explained that it was in honor of the feast day, which was an important celebration for the Hispanic community.  This explanation only made her angrier because she didn't like the way the parish was "being forced" to accommodate these "foreign" influences.  The pastor assured her that the shrine wasn't permanent and that the sanctuary would look normal after the evening Mass on Sunday.  She went away unhappy but I did see her at Mass again later in the week.

I have been going to Sacred Heart since 2006, which is when I first decided to become a Catholic, but up until that weekend, I had never really thought much about the dynamics between the two different cultural groups that called the parish home.  Afterwards I realized that we were really more like two completely different parishes that just happened to use the same buildings.

Some of this is to be expected.  Most of the Anglos don't speak Spanish and many of the older Hispanics don't understand English.  It makes sense that there isn't a lot of mixing between the groups at Mass except during Christmas and Easter when the big liturgies are frequently bilingual.  Another difference that I have observed is that with the abundance of young children and babies, the Spanish Masses have a lot more noise and commotion.  Although there are young children at the English Masses, there aren't nearly as many of them and the families with young children usually sit at the back of the church.  The different Masses have very different atmospheres about them, which makes it less likely for crossover between the two groups.

There are other, deeper tensions as well.  Most of Southern Oregon is very conservative.  Racism is unfortunately common, especially toward Hispanics who are often regarded with suspicion of being here illegally.  Also, I have frequently heard comments about how the Hispanics don't contribute financially to the parish; the reverse of this complaint is that the Anglos don't help out with parish ministry.  Although there is some level of truth in these statements, they are frequently based on cultural misinterpretations.

For example, when Fr. Theodore Lange, one of the formation directors for Mount Angel Seminary, spoke with our class a week after Fr. Gerardo visited, he explained that in Mexico, the people frequently had to pay for the sacraments and therefore did not contribute to the collection during Mass.  Education of the Hispanic community helped to turn that around in Fr. Theo's former parish in Central Point, which is the neighboring parish to Sacred Heart in Medford.  I also know from my own experience that, while the collections in the Spanish Masses in Medford don't match the collections from the English Masses, the Hispanics rarely have problems recruiting people for the various ministry needs in the parish, meaning that they are contributing in other vital ways.

When looking back at this situation one particular scripture passage came to mind: "You shall treat the alien who resides with you no differently than the natives born among you: you shall love the alien as yourself; for you too were once aliens in the land of Egypt" (Lev. 19:34).  Jesus put this more succinctly when he told the Apostles, "Love one another" (John 13:34).  It is difficult when people from other places bring their different cultures into an established community, but it is important to remember that the newcomers are also uncomfortable in their new surroundings.

With immigrants, many of them have left behind families and friends to come here.  They do not always come here by choice; sometimes they are driven from their homes by government persecution while others are forced to leave for economic or other social reasons.  Regardless of their legal status in this country, Catholic social teaching requires us to treat all people with the rights and dignity due to them as human beings.  This includes trying to make them feel welcome in our parish communities.  We need to be more charitable and to try to understand where the other person is coming from.  This is what God was trying to tell the Israelites in the passage from Leviticus; Jesus expands this to include all people.

My parish experience convinced me that one of my roles as pastor - if I get that far - will require me to not only be a bridge between the people and Christ, but also between the people and themselves.  If the pastor is welcoming and open, he has a better chance of helping his flock to become the same way.  It might require some extra work.  I don't have to wait until ordination though.  In my next assignment, I can make more of an effort to engage those in the community who are different from me.  Yes, the differences will make us uncomfortable, but that will diminish in time as we get to know each other.  More concretely, I can continue to work on my Spanish here at the seminary and interact more with the international students that are here.  The important thing to remember is to see Christ in everyone and treat him or her accordingly.

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