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Diversity defines Catholics of the 90's

NCR Staff
Los Angeles

Two Anglo women began grumbling softly to each other during a recent religious education session here when they realized they could not understand the language being used on the video.

The creation stories told during the November workshop at the San Gabriel, Calif., regional religious conference began with a bold video version of Genesis in Spanish.

The women's dissatisfaction subsided minutes later, however, when an African-American man bellowed a black spiritual poem, a slightly different account of that same first chapter of the Bible.

"He's telling the story we heard in the Spanish video," a bilingual Latina explained to the English-speakers during the session at Baldwin Park High School in East Los Angeles. A conversation ignited.

The women stopped chatting only when two Chinese dancers appeared on stage to communicate through their art the story of Pan Gu, the mythological Chinese being who created sky and earth and from whose dying body sprang the wormlike Nu Woe, the mother of humanity.

After Pan Gu, a slide show narrated the story of "The Broken Bamboo," a Philippine tale from the southern island of Mindanao that teaches how abundance flows from that which has been broken. And the conference theme celebrated the storytelling traditions of the "first people who lived, worked and played" in this region of the United States, the Native American Indians.

Conferences like the one held in San Gabriel -- attended by about 1,200 people -- might surprise some Catholics accustomed to more Eurocentric experiences of worship. But living the Catholic faith amid a diversity of cultural viewpoints has become common practice in the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

'This is church'

"We don't do these things because it's nice to do it or because it's politically correct," said Sr. Gretchen Hailer, vocations director for the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary and a former teacher of world religions. "We do it because this is church. This is the Catholic church. It's another way of entering the sacred, through experience. It introduces us into the great mystery of God."

In Los Angeles, the largest diocese in the United States with 3.6 million Catholics -- 4.5 million by informal tallies -- people worship God and create Catholic community in many tongues. The story of the glory and of the life of God resonates in parishes through African-American gospel music and mariachis. It becomes incarnate in Mexican posadas and Philippine celebrations of Simbang Gabi. It resides within Advent wreaths and Pueblo Indian circles of prayer.

Los Angeles, perhaps the most diverse archdiocese in the United States, is an intense example of the kind of change occurring on a smaller scale in parishes across America. The archdiocese here serves Catholics of 102 different ethnicities. It is home to a multilingual church where weekend Masses are said, according to conservative estimates, in 55 languages. As an institution in the world, the church here must respond to a complex society where North, South, East and West, rich and poor, glitz and pain all collide. Here, being church is a wonderful and difficult task.

"Wherever you are (in Los Angeles), there's diversity. It's not just racial, but it's age, sexual orientation, economic, political, educational, literacy," said Fr. Kenneth Deasey of St. Agatha's Catholic Church, a largely African-American and Latino parish in South Central Los Angeles.

With such widespread diversity and rapidly shifting demographics, however, come problems, according to Los Angeles Catholic leaders. There are tensions over emerging models of church, shortages of language-skilled priests, resistance from some Catholics to non-Eurocentric representations of faith, and a general, ongoing struggle to find ways to unify the church as one body of Christ while also respecting each culture.

It's a constant debate between "separate but equal, versus we are all the church and it is messy," Hailer said. Bishop Gabino Zavala heads the pastoral region of San Gabriel, one of the most diverse areas of the city. He said the diversity of his region "is a gift and a blessing, when it can be appreciated." But this blessing, he said, is often misunderstood.

"Different people come with different structures. Another question is space -- the space of people coming together in community -- with the changing demographics and the different way people look at parish," Zavala said.

Hanging on to power

One difficulty with the demographic shifts and multiplicity of cultural needs is that at times "the older Anglo community has it's own issue of feeling like it is disappearing, but people are wanting to hang onto their power and position in the parish," Zavala said.

Other church leaders said that different immigrant and ethnic groups may also find it difficult to understand one another's cultural needs and particularities.

Zavala himself is an immigrant whose father worked as an undocumented laborer. Zavala's parents brought him and his five siblings from the Mexican state of Michoacan to Tijuana when he was a baby. After his father died in a fire, Zavala's mother brought her children to Los Angeles.

Zavala said many English-speaking parishioners in Los Angeles are "very critical of this whole Spanish language question," even though an estimated 60 percent of Catholics in the archdiocese are Spanish-speaking. "People say, 'These people have been here a long time. They should know or do know English,' " Zavala said. But he and the archdiocese are staunchly committed to providing communities with the opportunity to worship in their own languages.

"Many people don't realize that spirituality and the expression of faith is a very personal thing," Zavala said. "I could be fluent in English, but because of the nature of personal expression, language and culture are very important. My language speaks to me more loudly than any books on theology. It is an ontological part of who I am, of my very being."

Bishop Stephen E. Blaire, who heads the centrally located Our Lady of the Angels region, echoed Zavala's comments during a lecture he gave at the San Gabriel conference.

"Christianity is rooted in and transforms culture. Knowledge and revelation come from the religious symbols and practices of the people they serve," he said. The church, he added, must exhibit "reverence for traditions without creating divisive spaces." But it must also "meet each group on its own turf."

Zavala said that priests can find themselves in a bind, trying to minister to several language and ethnic groups at once. "They realize the situation; they want to serve," he said, but many do not have the language skills they need or they find it difficult to grasp cultural nuances.

No turning back

"It's a challenge to have a sense of parish," he said. Blaire said there is danger if groups grow apart. And Zavala and Hailer both agreed that the church cannot return to the national parish model of the 1950s. Then, Zavala said, the assumption existed that people would eventually assimilate toward an ideal of what was American. But that ideal -- and the very meaning of what constitutes national identity and Catholic identity -- is undergoing sweeping changes today, challenging the church to develop new models.

For example, Mary Blatz, pastoral director of the Mount Carmel Cambodian Center, said that defining what is mainstream is difficult in Long Beach, where the Mount Carmel Center -- a Cambodian Catholic church -- is located. "To what culture would [the Cambodians] assimilate?" Blatz asked. "I am practically the only Anglo they see. They live among Hispanics. They would have to assimilate to the TV set as far as the larger Anglo majority goes."

Zavala said there is an urgent need to try to bring different ethnic and cultural groups together. He said there may be a need to "do church a little different than with the old structures." Parishes, he said, can get too big. The need often arises to restructure parish models to bring people closer, approaching them, for example, through small faith communities.

Efforts must also be made, he said, to help people from different groups take ownership of the activities of the parish community and to share leadership and planning.

Zavala listed the difficult questions he thinks the church must confront: "What does it mean to be a colorful Catholic community bound by the universal? How do you respect diversity, the gifts each group brings, but at the same time have a sense of unity?"

Beyond food and music

Irma Isip came from Manila to work for the archdiocese on religious education programs seen from the Asian and Pacific Islander perspective. During a workshop with Comboni missionaries on multicultural education, Isip said that the church must "go beyond food, fabric and music" when it embraces different ethnic expressions of the faith.

"We need to go to spirituality, to the really good values of the culture that will ... define the values of American culture in the future," Isip said.

St. Joseph the Worker Parish, with about 2,800 families, is one of those places where the multicultural church has begun to go beyond the obvious. Located in Canoga Park in San Fernando Valley west of Los Angeles, the parish held a Thanksgiving Mass incorporating eight languages: Latin, Greek, Vietnamese, English, Spanish, Tagalog, and Singhalese. "These are the current languages of the people who live here. Then we included some of the languages of our Catholic tradition with the 'Gloria in Excelsis' and the 'Kyrie Eleison,' " said Fr. James Gehl, during a telephone interview in December.

Language, Gehl said, is "something that connects people with their initial experience of God, and that in itself is very powerful."

Gehl said the community at St. Joseph the Worker "reflects where our world is." Gone, he said, is the "melting pot" of America "where you put everyone in one kettle, boiled it down and came out with what those who are in control want it to be." The church in Los Angeles, he said, is not a melting pot, but it is rather "like Joseph's multicolored dream coat ... it is a wonderful texture, a wonderful tapestry."

Weaving that tapestry as a community of faith is not easy, according to Gehl and to his associate, Fr. Chanh Nguyen, from Vietnam. "We have begun the process, and so far our achievements are good, but we have a long way to go," Nguyen said. "We have to understand each different ethnic background and reassure people that they have to keep their own identities before coming into integration."

For immigrants who have experienced great disruption in their lives, solidifying their identity is essential. "If you introduce yourself, you tell me who you are, where you work. You must first be firm in yourself before you can introduce yourself to me," Nguyen said.

Gehl, meanwhile, said there "is no secret answer" to ministering to such a diverse community. St. Joseph the Worker Parish, located in San Fernando Valley to the northeast of Los Angeles, was "strictly Anglo" and mostly white collar for 40 years, serving scores of workers from the aircraft and aerospace industries.

The arrival in recent years of Vietnamese, Filipino, Mexican and Central American immigrants has transformed the area into a multicultural community. The parish has undergone a similar face-lift with Masses and adult religious education classes held regularly in Vietnamese, English and Spanish, and with some special events -- like the Christmas Simbang Gabi celebrations -- held in Philippine Tagalog. While separate, language-specific parish councils meet, representatives from each come together for parish planning meetings. A trilingual baptism ceremony is celebrated almost every weekend.

Family is the image

Gehl said not everyone is pleased with the changes. Some people stay away "because they are all angry inside." But many "have just been made more aware of who we are as a parish family, as a church in the United States right now."

It is times like Holy Week that this family truly comes together. On Holy Saturday, for example, the whole parish meets in the church parking lot for the lighting of the new fire. Priests bless the Paschal candle in three languages. Then, each language group celebrates a separate Liturgy of the Word, "one in the church, one in the parish hall and one outside," Gehl said. This allows each group to "hear God's word, the story of creation, the history of salvation, in their own language, respecting their backgrounds and their diversity," he said. The parish family draws together again to close the service.

The lessons learned at parishes like St. Joseph the Worker are useful not only to the larger church but to society as a whole, according to John Orr, a professor of religion and the director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

"The church is experiencing the challenge that the city is experiencing. Our neighborhoods are changing, many very rapidly, and from the neighborhood on up we are all trying to discover how to build multiethnic institutions when in fact the history of our institutions at the neighborhood level has been monoethnic. This is an extremely difficult challenge," said Orr, a Methodist minister.

The spiritual benefits of forging a model of church that celebrates diversity while seeking unity are many. Sr. Gretchen Hailer said that embracing the diversity of the new Catholic immigrants "helps us enter the mystery of church." Exploring that mystery, she added, "cannot be nice and cushy." Hailer, a professor of world religions, drew a parallel to the primitive Christian communities. "Look at the story of Pentecost in Acts! Who were those people? They were Parthians and Medes, they were the Elamites and the Who-lamites and the What-lamites," Hailer said. "They would all have been people who were immigrants, for heaven's sake!"

National Catholic Reporter, January 17, 1997