Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Welcoming the stranger among us?

Welcoming the stranger among us is the title of a pastoral document on immigrants issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2000. I’m using it ironically here, following an unpleasant e-mail exchange yesterday that left me feeling quite UNwelcome.

The process began with a routine inquiry that came in to the Renovación Web site: María Lis from Paraguay wanted to know about Spanish-speaking charismatic prayer groups or priests in a certain mid-size Midwestern city.

We try to answer these questions when we can. I start by looking for a Web site for the Spanish charismatic renewal in the geographical area and, failing that, for the diocesan Web site. If I can’t find information about Spanish charismatic groups, I at least try to provide the inquirer with a list of parishes that have Spanish Mass. This can usually be found on the diocesan Web sites, although sometimes it’s buried pretty deep.

In the case of this particular archdiocese, the most I could find was the name and e-mail address for the priest who was designated coordinator for Hispanic ministry. So I did what any well-trained librarian does: I reached out to this priest – the person who would “need to know” the factual information I was seeking. I expected either a) no response at all (this is depressingly common) or, b) a list of parishes that offer Mass in Spanish. I was floored when I got this curt reply: “I would like to know who the sister is and where she is from before releasing the information.” I had not initially provided any identifying information about the person making the request but I responded with María Lis’ complete e-mail message. This was the response from the good father: “I am a little cautious because we have had some problems with uninvited guests come to confuse the people here in the Archdiocese. Please pass on my e-mail to her and I will be happy to talk with her directly.”

Excuse me, Father, but this is America in the 21st century, not the early Christian church dodging Roman soldiers and hiding out in the catacombs. Our Hispanic ministry should be publicly available and well publicized – not squirreled away as if it were some private “buried treasure”. If we live and share our faith fully, openly, and lovingly, that is the best defense against the evangélicos who would “confuse” people and poach from our flock. I can guarantee you that if I had written to the Adventistas, the Mormones, or the Testigos, I would have received an immediate welcoming response and my biggest problem would have been getting them to REMOVE me from their e-mail lists!

Word to Fr. Allan Deck, SJ (preaching to choir, but I know the man – he listens and gets things done) and to mis queridos obispos de la Iglesia Católica en Estados Unidos: Here are two things you can do right now to be more welcoming to us:

1. Understand how Spanish-only speakers navigate the “Anglo” Web: We look for “en español” or “Spanish” and we cliq there. Even my diocese with its huge Hispanic population doesn’t get it when it comes to Web design. Put that “en español” button on the home page and let it lead the viewer to an area where they can get the information they need in the language they speak, as translated by a real human being not a computer (this aside is necessary because I just clicked on my diocese’s “en español” button and was informed of the death of a certain “Obispo Thomas J Galés” – that would be Monsignor Thomas Welsh). English may be the language for daily business, but español is the language of my soul. Es el idioma que uso para comunicar con Papa Dios, mi Madre Santísima, y la Santa Iglesia Católica.

Now some people are going to protest that this goes against the “universality” of the Church. “Why should we cater to Spanish speakers in particular?,” they ask. Because Latinos are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. Catholic Church. Because they are already the majority in some areas and well on their way to becoming so in others. Because there is something we can learn from Coca Cola, McDonalds, and the major political parties: when you target the Hispanic market and speak to us in our language, we buy. So this is one thing the Catholic Church can do to beat the evangélico competition.

2. Talk to the person you have designated to do Hispanic outreach for your diocese. What are they putting out there? Are they responding to polite, factual requests in a friendly or alienating manner? Are they welcoming the stranger or sending them into the arms of the evangélicos with their negative attitudes?

If you, mis queridos obispos, show that you care about Hispanic ministry, the priests under you will follow – if not out of personal conviction, out of mere obedience. And when the Catholic Church genuinely welcomes, listens, and responds to the Spanish-speaking faithful, they will not be tempted to stray.

Photo: What a welcoming church looks like -- Most Precious Blood Catholic Church in Oviedo, FL

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