Cultures Clash in Immigrant Parishes

TUCSON, Ariz. — A Mexican group leads the hymns. The celebrant and lector alternate between Spanish and English. And the congregation follows with missals in two languages.

Mass at San Martin de Porres Parish, south of Tucson, Ariz., along the

Old Nogales Highway
, attempts to span two cultures and more than two centuries of diverse history at this southwest corner of the nation. However, it’s not just the Mass that is attempting to bridge the cultural divide.

Built on land donated by the Walden family, owners of the surrounding Green Valley Pecan Co. orchard, to provide a place of worship for their mostly Hispanic workers, the once-remote parish is now bordered by several hundred acres of suburban housing in the high-dollar and rapidly growing Rancho Sahuarita, Rancho Reserve and Quail Creek developments — inhabited mostly by Anglo-Americans.

As California, New York and other parts of the country grapple with continuing growth in the immigrant community, this part of Arizona is seeing a reverse trend or sorts.

For six years, guaranteeing that diverse people unite as one parish has been the mission of the pastor, Society of the Divine Savior Father Michael Shay. A former provincial for the Society of the Divine Savior, Father Shay said keeping everyone engaged and involved, with nobody feeling left out, is an ongoing task. From the religious education and liturgy committees to the parish’s St. Vincent de Paul chapter, parishioners “work to include everyone because they see this church as family.”

He cites “Strangers No Longer,” a 2003 pastoral letter on migration, published by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Written by the bishops of Mexico and the United States, the letter calls for “a conversion of mind and heart [that] leads to communion, expressed through hospitality on the part of receiving communities and a sense of belonging and welcoming on the part of those in the communities where migrants are arriving.”

While the Diocese of Tucson points to San Martin de Porres Parish as an example of cultural integration, the parish’s transition from primarily Hispanic to mixed ethnicity is the opposite of what is being experienced by other U.S. churches, especially in the Southwest.

More typical have been parishes transformed from an almost entirely non-Hispanic congregation to a mixed or even majority Hispanic congregation. However, for all of them, “the ideal is to have the best of Hispanic and the best of Anglo culture brought together by a common faith,” said Rubén Dávalos, director of Evangelization and Hispanic Ministry for the Diocese of Tucson. As for how to accomplish that, he said, “You do the best you can.”

He dismisses the concept of a written strategy for accomplishing integration, noting that each situation and each parish has its own challenges. Instead of rules, he said, “It requires a lot of understanding, patience and prayer.”

What keeps the Church united around the world is “our religion and common veneration of the Virgin,” Dávalos said. “Through those, we can transcend any barrier that stands in the way of community.”

Arizona’s experience has been modest compared to California, where the growth of the Hispanic population since 1990 has dominated the state’s overall gain of 6.8 million people. Hispanics have gone from 26% of the state’s residents in 1990 to 36% in 2005, and at the current rate of growth, will be the majority by 2030.

According to a report by Seattle-based researcher Joseph Claude Harris, commissioned by the California Catholic Conference, the impact of this growth is felt most by the state’s Catholic parishes.

Even though in California the rate of first Communions is 68% of those baptized, and confirmations are 37%, well below the national average of 85% and 63%, Harris said the number of Catholics in California has risen from 7.3 million in 1990 to 11.1 million today, and is expected to be 16.6 million, or slightly more than half the state’s population, by 2025.

At the same time, the percentage of Hispanic Catholics has risen from 24.5% to 30%, and is forecast to reach 36% in the next 20 years, he said. “This has implications for the Catholic Church, where one in five U.S. Catholics will live in California and more than one in three of those will be Hispanic.”

As president of the California Catholic Conference, Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton is witnessing the transformation, both locally and on a statewide basis.

“It’s certainly the greatest challenge we face as a Church,” he said. “There are so many different levels because there’s no Hispanic stereotype you can use.”

As with the non-Hispanic population, Bishop Blaire said, “There’s a multiplicity of cultures and backgrounds. There are Hispanics who have been here for generations and speak only English. There are some who are bilingual and other who speak only Spanish. Some are financially successful and some are not.”

While he agrees that there’s no single strategy for integrating the Hispanic and non-Hispanic populations, some methods have helped ease the transition. Based on the successful experiences of several dioceses, including Stockton, the bishop said many of California’s parishes are focusing on “raising up parish-based leadership that can help to bridge the cultures.”

Beyond that, he said, the increased awareness of the issues involved in the Hispanic migration and enculturation has helped encourage more action. “Life in a parish is never divorced from the reality of the wider world.” Increased attention is raising the consciousness about the need to build a sense of unity through faith, Bishop Blaire said, “even if the politicization of it has added another level of complexity that’s not always helpful to that process.”

Ultimately, integration of immigrants, including the Hispanic immigration, will depend on teaching people to overcome their fears, said David Stout, public outreach and education coordinator for the Justice for Immigrants Office at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

“It’s always an educational process of overcoming myths and educating people about different cultures, to see the positive value that immigrants can bring,” he said. “From there, they’ll be able to see beyond their fears to welcome strangers into their parishes.”

Philip S. Moore

writes from Vail, Arizona.