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Building multicultural parishes requires more than sensitivity


We’re trying everything we can, but we just can’t seem to get this community together.” The exasperation in her voice was one I had heard before. This director of religious education of a large parish on the edge of suburbia had spearheaded an effort to forge unity in a largely European-descent congregation with a growing Vietnamese and Latino population. Despite her best efforts with a core group of established English-speaking parishioners, multicultural worship and parish unity events drew a weak response from Latino and Vietnamese congregants. Even worse, some European-descent parishioners bemoaned multilingual worship and parish events and even grumbled that “by not teaching them English you are just holding them back.” The director of religious education’s request that I present a parish workshop on “cultural sensitivity” was urgent and searching for hope: “Are there any parishes you can tell us about where this works?”

Over the past decade I have received dozens of similar requests. The struggle for U.S. congregations to overcome divisive racial and ethnic barriers is evident in numerous faith communities. Despite such efforts, however, a recent congregational study reveals that interracial, multicultural congregations are still few and far between on the U.S. religious landscape. Sociologist of religion and University of Arizona professor Mark Chaves led this National Congregations Study, the most comprehensive to date of U.S. congregational life in all denominations and faith groups. The study produced a wealth of data documenting congregational dispositions and practices. Among its findings were these dramatic statistics: nearly 90 percent of U.S. congregations are overwhelmingly mono-racial (either more than 80 percent white, non-Hispanic or more than 80 percent black) and in the year preceding the study only 16 percent had a parish group that focused on race relations.

Our rich heritage of ethnic and racial diversity challenges Catholics to take the lead in forming parishes that are a countersign and a transforming presence in our fragmented society. Throughout much of our history, U.S. Catholicism has been a predominantly “immigrant church” of largely working-class European émigrés. Today we are no longer an overwhelmingly immigrant church, but a church largely run by middle-class, European-descent Catholics with growing numbers of Hispanic, Asian, and some African immigrants. A number of U.S. Catholics have no family history of immigration to the United States, such as Native Americans, African-American descendants of slaves, and some Latinos from Puerto Rico and the Southwest who were incorporated into the country during U.S. territorial expansion. The demographic shifts in U.S. Catholicism are evident at Sunday worship. Worshipers from an astounding array of language, nationality, ethnic and racial backgrounds participate at Mass on a given Sunday, sometimes in multicultural assemblies but most often in more homogenous groupings.

A number of English-speaking Catholics, most the descendants of European immigrants, have made considerable efforts to offer a sense of welcome to those from other racial and ethnic backgrounds. Since Vatican II, women religious, clergy, and lay leaders have expended considerable time and resources to develop ministries of hospitality and outreach to racial and ethnic minorities. Increases in the number of liturgical ministers of hospitality, parish welcoming committees, Masses and evangelization efforts in diverse languages, and celebrations of patronal feast days for various national groups are just a few signs that U.S. Catholicism is responding to a seismic shift in its demographic profile.

Despite many success stories and good intentions, at times separation, tensions, and even open conflict mark relations between ethnic and racial groups within U.S. Catholicism. The official policy in most dioceses favors a multicultural parish approach, in part because of the declining number of clergy and the fiscal strain from poor inner-city parishes that served previous Catholic immigrants. But as the National Congregational Study demonstrates, most congregations are still overwhelmingly comprised of a single ethnic or racial group. In those parishes where two or more language groups are significantly represented, many congregations effectively operate as distinct faith communities under a single roof, with separate Masses and only occasional contact. But the isolation between the groups is not always peaceful. For example, when newcomers like Asian or Latino immigrants attempt to make a parish feel more like home by placing one of their own sacred images in the worship space or scheduling a non-English Mass in a “prime time” slot on Sunday morning, established parishioners frequently rebuff them with the claim that “our ancestors built this church” or “we were here first.” If the newcomers challenge such a response with protest or complaint, their fellow parishioners often perceive them as being unappreciative of the welcome offered to them.

Much of the difficulty in developing multicultural congregations stems from lack of attention to power relations in parochial life and ministries. Like the aforementioned director of religious education who invited me to her parish, frequently lay leaders and clergy stress that established parishioners need to extend a spirit of welcome and cultural sensitivity toward newcomers. While welcome and “cultural sensitivity” are an essential first step for building strong multicultural congregations, these notions subtly (and at times not so subtly) embody the message that newcomers are guests and the longstanding (usually European-descent) parishioners are the owners of the house. Intentionally or not, the concept of cultural sensitivity implies that those in power will remain in power, although they may choose not to exercise it autocratically. A certain degree of pluralism in traditions and religious expressions may be tolerated, but it is the established group that controls the limits and conditions of this diversity. It is as if Asian, Latino, Black, and other newcomers are told, “Welcome to the home of God’s family, but please don’t touch the furniture without permission.”

One way to help parishioners have a stronger sense of belonging and ownership in a parish is to ensure that all groups are well represented in parish leadership. In the early church, when Greek-speaking Christians protested that their widows suffered neglect as compared to Hebrew-speaking widows (Acts 6:1-6), it is no accident that the Twelve Apostles chose seven Greek appointees to remedy the situation. The apostles’ pastoral response to communal conflict was not just a promise of increased cultural sensitivity, but a recognition that all groups needed to participate in communal leadership and decision-making. Once the community addressed this concern directly, “the number of the disciples in Jerusalem enormously increased” (Acts 6:7).

Similar dynamics are evident in vibrant multicultural parishes today. One such parish is St. Ann’s in Fayetteville, N.C., a congregation comprised primarily of African-American, Korean and European-descent parishioners. Oblate Fr. Harry Winter, pastor of the parish from 1991-1994, observes that African-American participation “shrank” whenever black Catholics were underrepresented as lectors, eucharistic ministers, and on the pastoral council and other parish groups. During Winter’s tenure as pastor, Korean Catholics, who initiated a Korean Mass at the parish in 1988, had their own charismatic prayer group, Legion of Mary, elected pastoral council and bank account. The pastor’s concern for representative leadership, which extended even to Korean leaders controlling their own finances, reflects a pastoral vision that goes beyond cultural sensitivity to the more complex task of addressing power relations within a faith community.

The St. Ann’s example also illustrates the ongoing desire for ethnic and racial groups to claim their own “turf” and have indigenous community leaders. In 1996, Korean Catholics in the Raleigh diocese, many of them from St. Ann’s, founded St. Andrew Kim chapel. Although St. Ann’s still has a recognizable group of Korean parishioners, it no longer has a weekly Korean Mass. Nonetheless, Jeanetta Clark, the current office manager at St. Ann’s, proudly notes the various multicultural parochial events and liturgies that bring together St. Ann’s African-American, Korean, and European-descent congregants, along with smaller numbers of parishioners from Vietnamese, Filipino, Hispanic, and other backgrounds. She also attests that the success of such events and the overall cooperative spirit of the parish are rooted in the ongoing racial and ethnic diversity of parish leaders.

Those of us who are active or work within the church are not used to discussing power relations and representative leadership in our parishes or other faith communities. We are, after all, called to be communities of service; our model is the one who came to wash feet, not to be served, but to serve. But, if we are honest, often those of us who have power are the first to speak most emphatically about service and to discourage discussions of power as unseemly in church circles. A large part of the challenge in building multicultural congregations is moving beyond cultural sensitivity to mutual ownership, beyond extending welcome to a sense of belonging, beyond hospitality to homecoming. This is no easy task. It requires concerted effort, regular self-examination, a willingness to risk, and the courage to admit mistakes, forgive and begin again. Above all, it requires a deep conviction that the house of God is holy not just because all are welcome there, but because all belong there. As Sr. María Elena González, president of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio, put it, “we all need a place to belong, a place bigger than we are, but a place that invites us in because we already belong.”

Tim Matovina teaches in the department of theology at the University of Notre Dame. [This article resulted from a Lilly Endowment grant to the Alban Institute, a congregational support organization based in Bethesda, Md., to help disseminate results of the National Congregations Study.]

National Catholic Reporter, July 27, 2001 [corrected 08/10/2001]