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Reaching out to neighbors in faith communities goes a long way to bringing us together: Edith Avila Olea

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Bishop Malooly processes to the altar during Our Lady of Guadalupe Celebration at St. Paul Church, Dec. 12, 2016. Dialog photo/Don Blake

There is a growing phenomenon happening across Catholic churches in this nation: the merging of parishes. Watching a parish close, no matter how small, naturally brings a certain sadness. It signals that a once thriving Catholic community is no longer present. Perhaps it’s a sign of current times.

Edith Avila Olea, associate director of justice and peace for the Diocese of Joliet, Ill., writes the “In Pursuit of Justice” column for Catholic News Service. (CNS photo/courtesy Edith Avila Olea)

Merges can have a negative impact on the local community or, as I see it, also can be an opportunity to build bridges. There is only one kingdom. To paraphrase what my pastor said in a recent homily, in heaven, there are no divided communities. Sections for Anglos, Latinos, blacks and other communities are nonexistent in heaven. There is only one body of Christ, and it’s crucial that our earthly parishes be a representation of it.

While hearing this homily, I couldn’t help but notice the irony. In almost every parish that I’ve seen with both a Hispanic and an Anglo ministry, these ministries are explicitly divided. In many instances, there are few attempts to bridge or blend these communities. I think it’s because leaders have confused the difference between assimilation and integration.

I’m speaking as a member of St. John Paul II, a parish born from the closing of three older parishes. As you can imagine, there were mixed feelings about this significant moment. Ask anyone, and they’ll share stories both good and bad.

I came into this parish three years after the merge, and I’ve witnessed a transformative and empowered community. In building a new community, it’s clear that the pastor prioritized the integration of the three former communities and helped shepherd a new church where all are welcomed.

St. John Paul II has become my home away from home. Like most young adults, I was a parish visitor for about 10 years. After I left my childhood parish, I never felt inclined to join another community. I didn’t see the need to join a parish. Yet, I knew I did miss one thing about my home parish in Georgia: the community, the feeling of walking in a parish and knowing the people you feasted with every Sunday.

When I walked into the doors of St. John Paul II, I quickly felt welcomed. First, it was the instant welcome that two parishioners and staff members gave me and my husband. But what kept us coming back was the culture of the community. It was the inclusion of all parishioners. It was the diversity of the parishioners. It was the representation in the parish leadership and staff.

One of the first experiences that made me feel at home was the bilingual celebration of the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. There was standing room only at both Masses and the fiesta was vibrant. Then there was the celebration of the Mexican Independence Day at the parish with English and Spanish music and activities. The volunteers were from both communities too.

In both English and Spanish weekend Masses, it’s not uncommon to see Latinos in the English Mass and Anglos in the Spanish Mass. All the mandatory Catholic feast days are offered with a bilingual Mass. Instead of fearing what blended communities might bring, my new parish has embraced it.

I know there have been struggles in getting here. When the Latino children joined the English religious education classes, there were several families who chose to leave the parish.

The pastor doesn’t shy away from these challenges. Instead, he challenges the community to choose love over fear. Again and again, his homilies urge that we must choose each other over division. It’s this Gospel message that speaks to me. When we choose love, it brings healing to a broken world.

It’s natural to fear change, but one does not have to succumb to it. This is the type of community I’ve desired for a very long time. It’s a joy to be a part of a community who chooses daily to overcome fear of the other.

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Edith Avila Olea is associate director of justice and peace for the Diocese of Joliet, Illinois. The 2015 winner of the Cardinal Bernardin New Leadership Award, she holds a master’s degree in public policy and a bachelor’s degree in organizational communication.