Renewed anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the current state of the U.S. economy make arriving in the United States today as a new immigrant particularly challenging. Entering a new language and culture can be difficult and isolating, even when immigrants find established communities of people from their countries of origin. The prevailing image of cultural encounter in the United States has been that of a melting pot, in which each immigrant assimilates to Anglo cultural reality. In our increasingly culturally diverse parishes, a pastoral alternative would be the integration of varied cultural faith expressions within a parish as analogous to creating a salad. Each ingredient maintains its identity, while together creating a new and rich common reality.
Hispanics often experience pressure to assimilate to an Anglo approach to work, education and worship. While some have resisted assimilation and prefer to function as much as possible with people who share their cultural framework, others assimilate to the dominant Anglo culture. Sometimes both resistance to cultural assimilation and the desire to assimilate rapidly are present in the same family. José and Margarita Suárez (the names have been changed) immigrated to the United States from Mexico in the early 1980’s and settled in a large Midwestern city, where they have been leaders in the local Mexican community. Their three children were born in Mexico, but as they have grown, they prefer to assimilate into Anglo culture and to speak only English rather than Spanish. They also tend to have an individualistic focus that is different from the communal or family focus of their parents, as well as a direct approach to conflict that clashes with their parents’ more indirect approach. This introduces new challenges to family communication.
In the Suárez family, as in many other Latino families living in the United States, the children feel betwixt and betweennot truly part of either Latin American or Anglo culture. The prevalent assumption has been that Anglo cultural values are superior to others, and the Suárez children are trying to fit in. In a very true sense, the Suárez children and many new immigrants are given a choice in U.S. society: maintain their language and culture as part of a subgroup of society, or conform to Anglo cultural norms in order to blend in and succeed. The family, school and workplace dynamics surrounding this choice often become pastoral issues in parishes, as the choice to assimilate or remain isolated in cultural pockets even becomes implicit in parish settings. Some parishes are becoming places where families can openly dialogue about cultural differences in the context of the cultural exploration of the whole parish community.
The kind of parish where such a dialogue takes place is one in which members are connected with their own cultural values, and are also open to the languages and cultural values of their fellow parishioners. This vision of intercultural community does not require recent immigrants or already established parishioners to sacrifice or lose their cultural faith expression. No cultural heritage is valued above others.
In the vision of intercultural parish community, no single cultural framework is given precedence. Through hard work, dialogue and sacrifice, the parish strives to express in worship, priorities and activities the integration of the varied cultural expressions of faith present in the community. The resulting community life is not exactly what any one cultural group may have experienced in the past, but it combines essential elements of various faith expressions and places equal importance on key faith expressions of the various groups.
Laying the Groundwork
A parish I served planned to hold a synod in order to determine the future direction of the parish. This parish had a large Polish community, as well as growing Mexican and Puerto Rican communities. The assumption held by all was that synod meetings would be held separately in English and Spanish. But parish leaders thought this might not be the most fruitful approach and suggested asking interpreters to be part of a conversation that would involve mixed-language small groups for a more fruitful dialogue. There was grumbling about the increased time this would take and fear that there would be excessive conflict. There was also tension around the idea of changing the way the parish had functioned for many years. Despite these misgivings, both language groups agreed to hold the synodal discussions in mixed-language groups.
Before the synod, each language group spent time separately articulating what was important to them about parish community. The opportunity to reflect on cultural reality within one’s own cultural group is an essential first step in what is eventually to become an intercultural process. This is especially true for recent Latin American immigrants, who perceive themselves as more removed from power or less powerful than their Anglo counterparts. Although the difference in perception of power does not necessarily reflect who actually holds the power in a given situation, it may mean that all participants in dialogue or conflict may not feel equally confident about expressing their opinions in mixed groups. Educating the parish community about cultural differences, like perceptions of power that may not be apparent, is also crucial to the process of creating an intercultural parish community.
The parish did go ahead with the mixed-language groups following the initial discussions in separate groups, and the synod did take longer than it would have taken in monolingual groups. But people in that parish began to understand one another’s faith perspectives and took their first step toward walking together as an authentic intercultural community.
This vision of intercultural community is motivated not only by contemporary pastoral reality in the United States, but also by Vatican documents like Ecclesia in America, published in 1999, following up on the Special Assembly for America of the Synod of Bishops (1997), which proclaim the dignity of every human being and the richness of a varied cultural landscape. Ecclesia in America states:
The phenomenon [of immigration] continues even today, especially with many people and families from Latin American countries who have moved to the northern parts of the continent, to the point where in some cases they constitute a substantial part of the population. They often bring with them a cultural and religious heritage that is rich in Christian elements. The church is...committed to spare no effort in developing her own pastoral strategy among these immigrant people, in order to help them settle in their new land and to foster a welcoming attitude among the local population, in the belief that a mutual openness will bring enrichment to all.
In summary, there are four key things that are important for communities seeking to live an intercultural vision:
Each person needs space to articulate his or her hopes and fears.
Each person has the right to express what is important to her or him about worship and community.
Parishioners and leadership need to be prepared to listen to one another and make individual sacrifices for the benefit of the whole community.
Parish members need to learn about basic cultural differences within their parish.
Becoming an intercultural community is a dynamic process without a static ending point. The process can be long and challenging, and requires patience and commitment on the part of the pastoral staff and the parish community.
The fruitfulness of intercultural community lies in its authentic expression of what Catholic parishes in the United States are increasingly becoming: home to many people from diverse cultural perspectives. The formation of intercultural community calls parishes to reflection, listening, transformation and to a life of faith together.