Preaching to multicultural assemblies can be very challenging, especially when a number of subcultures are present. As Archbishop Wilton Gregory asks, “Is there any other kind?” The turning point came with the Immigration Act back in 1965. Asians, such as Vietnamese, Hmong, Chinese and Japanese, have increased threefold. In 1900, there were 8.8 million African–Americans; now there are over 37.6 million. It is very difficult to estimate the number of Hispanics because many are undocumented, but the prediction is that, by 2050, they will number 102 million or 24.4 % of the total population.
In two decades Hispanics are expected to constitute 40 percent of the Catholic population in the United States. It is hard to comprehend that Native Americans were once denied citizenship and that, in 1790, African–Americans were considered three-fifth’s of a person.
Before briefly considering ethnicity, class and displacement as effective ways to understand and preach to various cultures, we first need to know ourselves, our strengths, our weaknesses, biases, prejudices and blind spots. We might have a tendency to favor one culture over another. We need to remember that we were also aliens (Ex 22:21).
Pope John Paul II used the expression “creative minority,” which was first used by Arnold Tonybee. A conversion comparable to Saul’s might be in order so we also can invert our lives as he did, and then immerse ourselves into Jesus’ Paschal mystery as Paul did. This ongoing conversion will make our preaching even more effective. Accepting cultural differences in family, history, education, philosophy and religious background can be challenging. One of the big mistakes often made is to fake a culture other than your own. We can learn from another culture but not ape it. We are different. St. Paul preached differently to the various groups that he encountered, including the Athenians. Yet he insisted “There are different kinds of spiritual gifts but the same Spirit” (1 Cor 12:9).
Ethnicity plays a very important role in our preaching to multicultural assemblies. It suggests how groups to which most people belong shape the ways they think and act, as well as how they listen and relate to our preaching. Trusting and caring relationships are most important. In The Difference God Makes, Cardinal George states that we are defined by our relationships, not our individualism. It is impossible to relate well to a group unless the members of that group trust us. Some preachers are gifted in this area and can relate to various cultures.
Some of the ways to help us are to study the group or subgroups. Jesus advanced in wisdom and age. Good therapists are able to think like their clients. Traveling to the group’s homeland, even though it is costly, will prove worthwhile. Learning their language, being aware of their current affairs through ethnic magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and other technological sources can be most helpful. St. Augustine insisted that we not only know our assembly but that we also love them.
Another way is to participate in their activities. Jesus went to the wedding feast at Cana and changed the water into wine. As the poet Crashaw wrote, “The conscious water saw its God and blushed.” Living in their neighborhood, involvement in their community, taking part in their festivities, funerals, weddings, anniversaries, schools and stores can have an impact. If we have not been in the marketplace, how can we be in the pulpit? What happens outside of the preaching event is sometimes more important. Being approachable and outgoing are of the utmost importance.
Displaying symbolic markers such as artwork, banners, books and welcome signs in your office or meeting room and wearing vestments that speak to the other culture are very beneficial. In one parish that I visited the pastor had a lotus plant as well as various other kinds of markers symbolizing the cultures represented in his parish. He pointed out that his bulletin was in various languages. We need to take the initiative in understanding others’ customs and in being sensitive to their lifestyles, prejudices, biases, addictions and struggles with the economy.
Interviews with parishioners can also help. In one of the last issues of Church there was an article about a newly appointed pastor to a multicultural parish. His first item of business was to interview a variety of parishioners to find out what was happening in the parish as well as what needed to be done. Some people are a repository of local lore. So have your questions prepared.
I read of Pastor Efrem Smith, a senior pastor of the Sanctuary Covenant evangelical church in Minneapolis, who has a multicultural parish made up of 50 percent white, 40 percent African–American, and 10 percent Asian and Latino. He wanted them not to just sit next to each other during worship time, but to get involved in one another’s lives by meeting each other’s needs and supporting each other. One way was to have potluck meals where individuals from each culture brought dishes representing their culture or heritage and everyone ate together and shared stories of their background.
Every culture has core values which define their personal identity: beliefs, patterns, symbols, styles, stories, family and social relationships. Hispanics, as well as some other groups, greatly value family life.
We need to be careful in our use of language. The word “bread” in Vietnamese means a frivolous piece of pastry rather than the source of our basic sustenance. One preacher compared Christ to the sun. In India, however, the sun is an enemy that brings unbearable heat and possibility of sunstroke. So they seek the shade. A lotus plant has much meaning to Vietnamese, but not other groups because it is mired in mud when it grows. A word like “banana” can have different meanings for various groups.
Every group is unique because so much depends on its history. All this is filtered through the group’s experiences. Some view the Church in a cynical or alienated way, while others are have warm feelings. We need to appeal to the marginalized and alienated. What is their daily life in the community like? Do they have decent housing? Are they subject to violence or substance abuse? Do they rely on common sense rather than book sense?
Most Native Americans and Puerto Ricans, as well as other groups, have a high respect for older people. Some Americans are skeptical of those in power. In some ethnic groups the preacher symbolizes God’s voice. This reminds us of the little girl who told her mother that a certain preacher sounded like God or Moses. We need to ground our homilies in Sacred Scripture, but be careful not to speak down to any group. We discover the text together because at times we have to struggle with the text. Avoid the dryness of a lecturer and the shrillness of a diatribe. William Sloane Coffee states that the Bible does not solve all our problems, but it is a wellspring of wisdom. The Bible is a signpost, not a hitching post.
Class is the way we divide people economically, socially and religiously. We can travel first class or coach. We have white-collar workers and blue- collar workers. Identity can be rather complex, especially when determining who are the poor in the parish. We might find out through our pantry or by people letting us know. Some people have a very good income, but not a good education. Others are unemployed but highly educated.
People are diverse. One pastor in Silicon Valley maintained that 40 percent of children live below the poverty level. The rich are becoming richer and the poor are a blob on the computer screen. Many Native Americans live below the poverty level. So Jesus’ saying, “Blessed are the poor,” might mean something different to each group. Also their poverty might be periodic because of being out of work or because their work is seasonal.
Usually the economically well off view authority beneficially. This might not be true with the destitute because some authority figures have harmed them, leaving some long-lasting scars. Our assemblies are shaped by our personal authority and how we exercise it. Some pastors can be heavy-handed in their parishes. We need to preach and be beacons of hope, especially when people feel that they are on the lower rung of the ladder. Caring relationships, servant leadership and commitment are most important.
As far as proclaiming the Scriptures well, much will depend on the educational level of our parishioners. Usually the less educated are more docile, whereas the more educated might disagree or argue with us. The best way to handle both is to make the connection between the text and what is happening in their lives. Pope Benedict XVI said recently “Those who minister the Word of God must be well prepared, and the cultural dimension of faith needs to be cultivated.”
Views of God often vary among cultures. Some look upon God as transcendent, a judge, a punisher. They often have a hard time understanding why God allows or does not intervene especially when tragic events happen. We have to invite them to live with more questions, mysteries, unknowns, and seeming contradictions than they every imagined. If we believe that God is at work in all cultures, then the images and ideas about God that emerge are necessarily produced from and tied to that particular culture. Metaphors of God as Rock, Jesus as good shepherd and bread of life, and the Holy Spirit as fire, wind and healer need to be emphasized. We have to stress how we all are children of God, much loved, but sinners in need of redemption. One pastor was told by some people in his assembly that his homily had a deep effect on them because they had never been told how much God loves them.
The concept of Church for many is a building or a place of worship rather than the realization that they are the Church. We need to help by asking our parishioners to repeat “We are the Church.” One teacher tried to get this across to his students by putting this on the board: Ch and then a space followed by the letters ch. Then he asked what was missing. Once people realize that they are the Church, then who are they criticizing when they criticize the Church? The Church is the herald of Good News, a hospital for sinners. So if they are the Church and the mission of the Church is to bring the Good News to others, every person is involved in this invitation.
We have to ask whether we are a mission-oriented outreach parish or a more maintenance-conscious parish. Recently I gave a renewal in two parishes and found that this was the main difference between the two. The outreach parish was far more alive, vibrant and active. We might ask parishioners how they would describe their parish: gossipy, airing their dirty laundry, critical — or good hearted, kind, welcoming and possessing a broader view of Church?
Displacement means any movement or shift from a customary setting where one has experienced familiarity, control and safety. Psychologists say people who are displaced experience culture shock; they often don’t understand their environment or the rituals and customs of people with whom they interact in their new culture.
Isolation can overwhelm them. These feelings usually drive individuals inward. They experience feelings of discomfort, fear and especially danger. That is particularly true of immigrants, especially those who are undocumented. We need to offer these parishioners figures in the Bible who were displaced: Abram to Haran; Hagar and Sarah; Mary, Joseph and Jesus in Egypt; Jesus going from place to place, and the Canaanite woman (who might be considered a two-edged sword for her persistence and also being obnoxious). Do you know anyone in your parish like this? One pastor was inviting a lady back to the parish, but she refused, saying, “All you Catholics are hypocrites.” So the pastor continued to dialogue with her like Jesus did with the Samaritan woman, but she kept on repeating, “All you Catholics are hypocrites.” Finally, the pastor said, “You know what, why don’t you come back? There is always room for one more hypocrite.” Remind them also of Psalm 13, which is a prayer for one in distress: “How long, Lord? Will you utterly forget me?” Psalm 86, also a prayer in distress: “Hear me, Lord, and answer me, for I am poor and oppressed.” and Psalm 88, a despairing lament: “Lord, my God, I call out by day; at night I cry aloud in your presence.” These and other psalms can be spiritual balm in the lives of people struggling to adapt to a strange, new home.
The Exodus event can graphically point out the difficulties involved in this process, the wilderness, lack of trust and complaining, which lead finally to liberation and the promised land. We need to remind our displaced parishioners that we are a pilgrim people on the march, sojourners who have no lasting place here as the book of Hebrews points out (13:14). Walter Bruggemann, the Old Testament scholar, describes the process as orientation, disorientation, and a new orientation. This process often results in ambivalence of feelings. Caught in a dilemma, people are pleased with the new situation but are also plagued by a sense of loss which can be an enduring problem that doesn’t easily disappear with time. This ambivalence can even afflict the well-adjusted adults.
In a United Nations report, one out 130 people on earth has been forced to flee. There are 23 million refugees. In the United States, people have to go wherever they can find work or are re-assigned to an area. As a result there is much mobility, especially with migrants. The perception often is that they have adapted well, but that is not true. Even moves of short distances can be traumatic. So there is nostalgia, which comes from the Greek nostos meaning to return home, and algos , meaning pain, a form of homesickness. This can also be true of individuals who feel loneliness or a loss of God. Someone described loneliness as a homesickness for God.
A sense of belonging is most important for these people. They can often feel like strangers to others which can lead to alienation, quarrels, complaining, and the like. They feel like aliens, outsiders, especially when laid off from work or retiring. Jesus said that he was “a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). We have to reach out and make a concerted effort to welcome these individuals and give them a sense of belonging to the community.
Some other effects are confusion because their talents are not appreciated. They feel powerless and unable to communicate when not fluent in a language not their own. We need to help them accept the powerlessness the way Mary did at the foot of the cross, or the way Paul did. He allowed the greater power of Jesus to come alive in him when he experienced his powerlessness and wanted to be delivered of his affliction. Displaced people might feel rejection, especially when hostility is shown toward them. The prophets certainly experienced this in their lives, especially the greatest prophet of all, Jesus. He made it very clear that a prophet is not accepted in his own country.
Some individuals experience the various stages of grief depicted by Elizabeth Kubler Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and finally acceptance. We have to help them integrate all this, especially any hidden wounds or scars. Some don’t realize that others are experiencing the same plight. They often don’t use the resources available such as support groups. Our task is to bring the reality out into the open and make it visible.
Being in contact with these people, especially by visiting them, helping them to find jobs, asking the right questions and enabling them to name what is bothering them. They need to name, claim and tame whatever it is. We declare the reality back to them: loneliness, numbness, despair, but always honoring and respecting them, not saying, “You are stupid, don’t you understand? Get with it!”
All of these people are on a journey. They are a pilgrim people who sometimes have excess baggage, the stuff they bring with them which acts as a burden. The first and second generations of Japanese who came here are looked down upon by their people back home because they are considered failures. They could not make it in Japan, so they came here is the attitude toward them.
Many displaced people have one foot in one culture and the other in another. Stories abound of the hardships they endured in coming and settling here. Their destination can appear elusive and unattainable, but we need to remind them that God is fashioning something new as the book of Revelation says, “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, (for) the old order has passed away” (21:4). They need to be given a sense of hope as Pope Benedict XVI writes about in his beautiful encyclical on hope. St. Paul reminds us, “If God is for us, who is against us” (Rom 8:31). Before Jesus left the Apostles and was assumed into heaven, He said, “I am with you always until the end of the world.” This, one of the most uplifting passages found in Matthew’s Gospel, can bring great peace of mind. TP
FATHER HART, O.F.M. Cap., is the director of preaching for the St. Joseph Province of the Capuchins. He has written articles for Pastoral Life , Human Development, and Teacher’s Journal.