With countless parishes in the United States seeing a growing number of immigrants, many ministers are unsure of what the best ways to integrate the old and new parishioners are. Patti Gutierrez has served in Hispanic ministry in the Diocese of Owensboro, Kentucky, for the past 13 years, and provides insight into best practices for continuing and developing Hispanic ministry.
Her first tip is patience with the process. “The stages of ecclesial integration was a really comforting thing to learn about, because for most of us we want that integration to happen, well, yesterday,” Gutierrez said.
“The material from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ workshop, Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers, describes the natural stages of integration. It just takes time and we should focus on what needs to happen in the stages we are in now and not jump ahead to the next stage.”
Gutierrez emphasized the difference of integration over assimilation, meaning two cultures become more connected
without losing the distinctions in either. “We can come together and be enriched by each other and respect the other’s way of looking at the world,” she said.
Looking at one’s own cultural worldview is an important aspect of coming together. “Often, we don’t really know we are doing anything specific, it’s just how we were raised. For example, I tend to be very direct and short and to the point. My family is from the Northeast and that’s how it is. The key to understanding the Hispanic culture is much more communal,” she said.
In Hispanic culture, she explained, there is much more time spent greeting people and asking how they are. She advises, “Always start with relationships — meet people in their homes, get to know their family, learn their popular devotions and find ways to support them, find some customs from home they can also practice here, such as posadas and processions.”
She shared how the practice of starting with relationships led her to understand some of the barriers that kept people from getting involved in the parish. The ministers saw a low level of attendance for children’s sacramental preparation and religious education classes.
Through getting to know the families, they discovered that this was due to lack of transportation. The families had one car and many of the fathers worked a second or third shift. Some parishes moved the sacramental preparation to just before Spanish Mass on Sundays, while others found rides for the children.
While programs have their place, Gutierrez said that it is important not to get make them the focus. “I got in the trap of activities and looking at the numbers. If we’re nice and busy, but people’s lives aren’t changing, that’s not enough. It’s important to help people encounter Jesus because he’s the one that’s going to change people’s lives.”
To this end, one practice of her small-town parish is to keep the doors open all day and all night, for people to be able to find quiet time with the Lord, no matter what shift they work or how chaotic their house is.
Gutierrez offers advice for ministers. “I would encourage all ministers to make the time to stay connected to God, to have support in their ministry, to set healthy boundaries and limits, take the time for personal growth and have a sense of balance,” she said. Otherwise, they will either leave ministry or no longer be life-giving in their ministry.
“I used to feel that the Gospel call to serve the poor meant to give of myself as much as I possibly could,” she said, especially when the needs of immigrants can be overwhelming. “But not taking care of myself spiritually, physically and emotionally was not truly loving.”
Instead, she advises, “Recognize what you do best, and what brings you life and find ways to eliminate, automate or delegate as much as of everything else as you can.”
— Anamaria Scaperlanda Biddick
(Scaperlanda Biddick is a freelance journalist. Learn more about the U.S. bishops’ program, Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers, at www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/cultural-diversity/intercultural-competencies.)