Reflection: Daily Border Crossings at a Multi-Cultural Parish

As Francis, whose feast is celebrated around the world on Oct. 4, entered a new world embracing brother leper, Daniel McLellan, OFM, reflects on entering a world that is new to him: embracing brother immigrant. He was asked by the Hispanic Ministry Committee to reflect on entering the new world of this ministry. The theme is significant as friars, who are preparing for their 2011 Chapter, reflect on Holy Name Province’s strategic plan and vision statement. Ministry to immigrants is one of the key themes of the HNP Vision Statement: “Focus on peacemaking, evangelization of young adults, and serving the alienated, the immigrant and the poor, while maintaining our diversity of ministries.”

Whether a parish is large or small, the pastor ought to belong to everyone and not be “owned” by a certain few — school parents, generous givers, the old-timers, the young and married. No parishioner should feel that she or he lacks “access” to the pastor.

That’s a standard hard enough to achieve in a homogeneous congregation. When the distinctions are also cultural, the challenge is intensified. At least I felt that way coming to Immaculate Conception Church in Durham five years ago. The parish was roughly 65 percent Anglo and 35 percent Latino. I spoke no Spanish and found some conventional characteristics of Latinos, as a group, exasperating! With little first-hand experience of Latinos, I was pretty content to let Jacek Orzechowski, OFM, stay the course as the Latino padre. To the extent that I could, I had been pouring oil on troubled waters stirred up by problems — such as last-minute scheduling of Spanish-language events. But I was daunted by the prospect of any really “hands on” ministry on behalf of my Latino parishioners.

The embarrassment of not pulling my weight — I’d never preside at the two weekend Spanish Masses, I was not “meeting and greeting” folks before and after Spanish Masses, and I had become content to stay ignorant of the details of our Latino ministry — finally got the better of me. At last, I decided, “Hey, I can at least say ‘hola, ‘bienvenidos,’ and ‘adios,’ and, if I got into trouble, someone would be around to run interference.”

And so, I set about doing what I do today: meeting and greeting, wandering the gathering space between Masses, learning names, presiding at Mass and other sacraments, celebrating Quinceaneras, taking juramentos, blessing babies and every sort of religious article. I meet monthly with the Latino liturgical ministers and the Latino consejo. I still can’t carry on a conversation in Spanish, and I can’t un-puzzle pastoral problems. But I can “show up” — and I do.

As a result, I think the parish — at least for the Latinos — has changed. Since William McIntyre, OFM, bears the burden of much of the pastoral care that requires better language skills than I’ll ever have, he’s proven an able successor to Jacek as the el parocco in the minds of many of our Latinos. But the leaders and the many of the “regulars” who know I’m the pastor have come to feel more included as parishioners simply by my paying attention. That I offer as much as I can to them in the same way that I offer as much as I can to our Anglos has sent a signal that Latinos are as much parishioners as anybody else. As a result, I now get calls (admittedly, not a lot!) from Latinos wanting to take about a problem or share an idea.

I’ve changed, too. I’m not exasperated anymore. I’ve come to accept — and enjoy — the spontaneity of Latino celebrations. I’ve come to appreciate their popular piety. I’ve come to understand the challenges facing our Latino teens. I’ve come to value their joy in the practice of their faith and to have some of that joy myself.

My “border experience” of stepping over the cultural divide has deepened my sense of what it means to be the church’s minister. Woody Allen was right. A lot of life is just showing up.

— Fr. Dan is pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Durham, N.C.

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