Building Solidarity

Recently, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Philadelphia gave a talk at the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders (CALL). As someone who has not been shy about criticizing Archbishop Chaput, it gives me great pleasure to commend this talk to my readers. Yes, his blaming both parties for the failure to fix our nation’s immigration system is a bit like blaming both Democrats and Republicans for raising taxes, but most of the speech called attention to the need to pay greater attention, as a Church and as a country, to the nation’s demographic future, and that future is largely Latino. (I will note in passing that the issue of catechesis versus evangelization that +Chaput raises is one that requires much further analysis and insight but that issue is not my central concern today.)

The influx of Latino immigrants comes at a time when both the Church in the U.S. and the ambient culture desperately need the cultural contributions and insights that Latinos bring with them. It is a simplification, but not a distortion, to say that Latino culture is born from the Catholic faith and prioritizes solidarity while U.S. culture is born from an admixture of Calvinism and Scottish Enlightenment influences and prioritizes individualism. The challenges the nation faces, from race relations to climate change to inter-generational responsibility to income inequality, all are unsolvable without a greater sense of social solidarity and a lessened sense of individualism. This is as obvious as day.

So, the question for the Church, which is often the first institution that immigrants turn to, is this: How do we help Latinos assimilate to U.S. culture sufficiently that they can participate in that culture, enter the workforce and prosper in education, but not assimilate so much that they lose the very cultural referents that they bring with them and which we in the U.S. so desperately need? As is often the case, the way to achieve solidarity is to practice solidarity. Or, as Napoleon famously said in a wildly different context, “If you intend to take Vienna, take Vienna.”

Last week I was speaking about this issue with a priest friend. In the 1990s, he was a pastor at a church in Chicago with a large Latino population. He quickly realized that the large majority of the Latinos in his parish were from the same town in Durango, Mexico, La Purissima- Tepehuanes. The pastor in Chicago contacted the pastor in La Purissima-Tepehuanes and invited him to come and visit every year, which he did. On one of those visits, the pastor from Mexico admired the pews in the Chicago church and said they were hoping to get pews at the church back in Mexico. A special collection helped with that. The pastor did more than bring back cash. He brought stories, letters, a shared history to the immigrants in Chicago. And he brought something else, the chance for the people in this Chicago parish, immigrant and non-immigrant alike, to exercise solidarity.

This Sunday, the parish bulletin at my home parish, St. Matthew’s Cathedral advertised autumn classes in English as a second language and also classes in Spanish as a second language. No matter how many people take those courses, everyone who read the bulletin understood that inculturation is a two-way street, that we Anglos can learn from the Latinos and vice-versa. Back in the 1990s at the restaurant I managed, we hired a large group of Bosnian refugees. In teaching the waiters the menu, I realized that there was something infantilizing about holding up a cucumber and saying “cucumber” to a man in his early 30s with an advanced degree in engineering. So, I would hold up the cucumber and ask the trainee how this was called in Bosnian. Krastavac. Then I gave the English. Suddenly, and usually as a result of my mispronunciation of Bosnian words, the whole process of teaching the menu was less demeaning.

In my home diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, as long as I can remember we have had a special relationship with Haiti. The diocese collects funds, organizes trips by physicians and school kids who go to volunteer for a few weeks in the summer, and otherwise creates bonds that did not previously exist.

At the recent National Migration Conference sponsored by the USCCB, one of the best panels was a presentation by Dani Abrams and Colleen Mahar-Piersma from the Center for Applied Linguistics and Marisa Rogers from the USCCB’s Migration and Refugee Services. They discussed best practices in cultural orientation programs, how to adapt such programs to local needs and conditions, an some of the obstacles that ministers in these immigrant communities will face. The presentations were smart, nuanced, sophisticated. Dear bishops – if you have not invited Marisa Rogers to come and speak in your diocese, you are missing a great opportunity.

Earlier this year, the USCCB also sponsored a Mass at the Border to pray for those who have died trying to cross the border. It was hoped the event might prick the conscience of certain highly placed Catholic Republicans to move on immigration reform, but that hope has apparently been unfulfilled. But, whatever the political consequences, the pastoral effect was obvious: As pictures of Cardinal Sean O’Malley and Bishop Gerald Kicanas distributing communion through the slats in the border fence went viral, every Latino on both sides of the border understood that the Church will stand with them. Indeed, the response of Church leaders nationwide to the plight of the undocumented and unaccompanied children flocking to the border this summer has made us all proud.

What more can be done? I am inherently suspicious of programmatic solutions to ecclesial problems: The Spirit blows where He will. But the architecture of the Irish Church can still be put to good use in serving the Latino immigrants coming to the U.S. today. Earlier this year, I called attention to a study of Hispanic ministry conducted by Dr. Hosffman Ospino at Boston College from which it is obvious that if we dedicate resources, time, personnel and a bit of creativity to meeting the needs of our Latino Catholics, the churches will be packed. Ospino focused on the ways the extant parish structure can be used to promote Hispanic ministry and how some dioceses and parishes are doing wonderful things. Every bishop should familiarize himself with Ospino’s work.

Why does not every diocese pair with a diocese south of the border? Why does not every parish have a sister parish south of the border? It is more than fifteen years since the Synod of the Americas and St. Pope John Paul II’s subsequent apostolic exhortation Ecclesia in America. What steps have been taken to put some flesh on those bones? In this internet age, it is not difficult to connect Catholic school children in New York with Catholic school children in Nuevo Leon, to get parishioners in Savannah chatting with parishioners in Santiago. We must learn something about the culture we hope to help our Latino brothers and sisters preserve, yes? And, in the process, build up some of the solidarity we are trying to achieve? The AFL-CIO has “solidarity centers” worldwide. They work to protect union organizers who are threatened by police or arrested. They help provide organizing skills in the field. My conservative friends paint the fall of the Berlin Wall as a duet sung by Ronald Reagan and John Paul II, but it was the AFL-CIO that sent over the Xerox machines and the other organizing assistance that really helped Solidarnosc pull off its non-violent revolution in Poland. Indeed, the Church should work hand-in-glove with organized labor in helping Latino immigrants in the U.S. because we both need to organize them or our own futures will be imperiled.  

There is a deeper reason for the USCCB and individual diocesan bishops to take the lead in creating these bonds of solidarity between North and South and Central America. The Holy Father has reminded the whole Church to get out of the sacristies, to get into the streets, to seek God among the poor and the marginalized. If you do a word search for “sacred” in the text of Evangelii Gaudium you will find that every use of that word entails engagement with the world, not withdrawal from it. Parishes that lack energy stateside might be rejuvenated by an engagement with parishes in Guatemala or Peru precisely by breaking the rhythms of the ordinary and reaching out to the margins. The USCCB spends a lot of time focusing on things that are, shall we say, less than essential. The Church will survive any iteration of the contraception mandate. The Church will survive the new Mass translation as it survived the old. The Church will survive almost anything: But, is we do not do a better job helping our Latino brothers and sisters hold on to the Catholic culture they bring with them, and if we Anglos do not learn to appreciate the insights of that culture, then nothing else will matter. Archbishop Chaput, in his talk at CALL, pointed us towards a path we must take, or we will wither like the seed cast among the rocks and the weeds. 

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