How a church transforms immigrants and immigrants transform a church
Posted March 18
For Catholic immigrants new to the United States, church is the only place that feels like home for a while.
Jorge Tetzaguic knew little English when he arrived in Boston 26 years ago. He’d go to youth group on the hunt for friends or, at the very least, full conversations, relaxing into the Spanish he’d been raised speaking in Guatemala.
Raisa Carrasco-Velez sought music and memories. She missed her friends and family in the Dominican Republic and leaned on familiar rituals during worship to transport her back to them.
“Sometimes I just cry listening to the songs I used to listen to as a kid,” she said.
Like many other immigrants, Tetzaguic and Carrasco-Velez credit their Catholic community with sustaining them through the early, uncertain days of building a life in the U.S. The church offers language support, job advice, financial resources and fellowship, helping newcomers get their feet on the ground while staying connected to their faith.
“The meaning of the church in my life as an immigrant was so different than the role it played when I was growing up,” Carrasco-Velez said. “It was so important and significant in my transition.”
Outreach efforts aimed at new immigrants don’t only fulfill the church’s social justice mission. They also safeguard the Catholic community’s membership, influence and relevance, as the American-born contingent of believers ages and declines in size. In 2014, 27 percent of U.S. Catholics were born outside of the U.S., compared to 23 percent seven years earlier, according to Pew Research Center.
The Catholic Church in America, with its long history of transforming through immigration, serves as a microcosm of how immigration continues to change the religious landscape in the U.S. Foreign-born believers are a growing share of worshippers and leaders in many of America's faith communities, which means the institutional health of many religions may be impacted by the Trump administration's strict immigration enforcement policies.
Although immigrant Catholics praise their faith communities, they want to be seen as more than a source of growth or a group that needs to be protected. They’re increasingly accepting leadership positions and calling on their fellow Catholics to recognize the unique skills and insights they bring to the church.
A new study shows that there are now 4,000 nuns serving or training in the U.S. who were born outside of the U.S. Additionally, 3 in 10 priests ordained last year were foreign-born.
Immigrant Catholics are “expanding the imagination of Catholicism in the U.S.,” by drawing on their experiences with Catholicism in other countries, said Hosffman Ospino, an assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College. He's hopeful that American-born Catholic leaders will continue to listen.
In search of community
As Tetzaguic and Carrasco-Velez noted, the U.S. Catholic Church has a variety of programs in place to serve new immigrants. But awkward moments, homesickness and confusion are still an inescapable part of the transition process, said Ospino, who moved to the U.S. in 1997 to study and then planted roots.
“There was a little bit of cultural shock” at first, he said, describing how his early worship experiences in the U.S. compared to growing up in Columbia.
“During the week, people don’t engage with their faith as much (in America.) You go on Sunday, do your thing, check that off your to-do list and move on,” Ospino added. “I came from an environment in which faith and life were intertwined — not only on Sundays, but on Saturdays, Wednesdays, at home and at school.”
In other countries, and especially in Latin America, the Catholic Church is so dominant in day-to-day life that religious practices become community activities.
For example, Tetzaguic remembers his entire neighborhood having work off during Holy Week, the week before Easter, and spending hours decorating their streets for a weekend of festivities.
“The whole neighborhood would get together and prepare for the (Easter) procession to go through,” said Tetzaguic, a 43-year-old CAD designer.
In the church he attended in Guatemala, the priest was more than just a religious leader. He was like a master of ceremonies, lawyer, psychologist and spiritual guide all rolled into one, charged with leading a messy, energetic family, Tetzaguic said.
“Here it’s more like the priest is the priest and there’s several other leaders to take care of the rest,” he noted.
Sometimes this division of responsibilities is necessitated by the size of congregations, but it becomes a problem when only some staff members overseeing a bilingual faith community speak both languages, said the Rev. Henry Petter, who leads St. Ann Catholic Parish in Coppell, Texas.
“When I came five and a half years ago, there was only one Spanish-language coordinator who answered all the questions from Hispanic families,” he said, noting that around 3,000 families only had one gateway through which to access or ask questions about the church’s resources.
These differences in community life and leadership between immigrants’ childhood churches and parishes in the U.S. are most problematic when they affect parents’ ability to pass their Catholic faith on to their children, said Carrasco-Velez, an educational administrator in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Her life in the Dominican Republic was infused with reminders of the value of strong personal faith. Her grandmother, a key religious mentor, attended a church function nearly every night and counted family, friends and neighbors as allies in her efforts to keep Carrasco-Velez interested in the Catholic Church.
“I remember my neighbors walking down the street with me to go to Mass,” Carrasco-Velez said.
Now a mom of two kids, ages 16 and 24, she struggles to create the same kind of environment for them.
“I’m happy we have access to material things my family didn’t have before, but I don’t want to sacrifice the things that weren’t material,” Carrasco-Velez said.
The U.S. Catholic Church has a long history of integrating immigrants. From around 1820 to 1920, most European newcomers to the U.S. were Catholic, and faith was the cornerstone of building a life in their new land, said Timothy Matovina, author of “Latino Catholicism: Transformation in America’s Largest Church.”
“There wasn’t anybody, in a sense, to receive the immigrants. The immigrants were the church,” he said.
But immigration slowed beginning in the mid-20th century, and the Catholic Church gradually developed a rooted, more uniform personality that was somewhat detached from its early immigrant identity, Matovina added. Catholicism became America’s largest faith community, and its members gained social and political clout.
Although still actively providing social services like food for the hungry and shelter for the homeless, the U.S. Catholic Church became well-known for its high-profile involvement in political debates over abortion rights, religious freedom and other issues. One of the biggest Supreme Court battles of 2016 pitted a Catholic charity, the Little Sisters of the Poor, against the Obama administration.
The Catholic Church is increasingly seen as part of a contemporary culture war, and some immigrants noted that they’re surprised by their faith’s tense relationship with other Americans.
For example, Bishop Oscar Solis, installed this month as the leader of the Diocese of Salt Lake City, said he's observed growing hostility toward organized religion since immigrating to the U.S. from the Philippines in the 1980s.
“There’s no such thing anymore as neutral tolerance. We’re pitted against culture,” he said in a Jan. 10 interview.
The Catholic Church is a political force in most countries where it's practiced, but major American debates don't always resonate with Catholic newcomers, Ospino said.
"If you get up every day and your first thought is, 'How am I going to survive?' and you're dealing with racism or poverty or being undocumented, the last thought going through your head is religious freedom," he said.
Sergio Cardona's family had no time for national politics when they arrived in the U.S. in the early 1980s. He estimated that his parents had less than $40 when they moved him and his two siblings to New Orleans.
"They wanted us to have a better future. They saw the writing on the wall in Honduras," said Cardona, who was only 7 or 8 years old when he arrived in the U.S.
When his dad left the family about five years later, the Catholic community stepped in to support his mom. "They had a program to focus on widows and women who were single with kids," he noted.
As he aged, Cardona looked for opportunities to aid church programs that respond to the needs of families rather than hot-button political debates. He's led outreach to troubled youth and volunteered with religious education programs.
Cardona now lives in Tuscon, Arizona, where he and his wife work with the same Catholic family program that saved his mom nearly three decades ago.
"It's my way of giving back in honor of what was given to me," he said.
Immigrants like Cardona have helped the Catholic Church "rediscover its social justice mission," prompting increased activism around issues like illegal immigration, Ospino said.
The same is true in many of America's faith communities, which have emerged as outspoken opponents of the Trump administration's initiatives to reduce illegal immigration and improve national security by building a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico and stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants.
An example of religious opposition is when interfaith leaders gathered on March 10 at Madina Islamic Center in Salt Lake City to support a Muslim couple from Kenya taken into Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody for overstaying temporary visitor visas by nearly a decade.
"Immigrant communities are expressing concern about potential changes to policies," said Matthew Soerens, the U.S. director of church mobilization for World Relief, to the Deseret News earlier this year. "Pastors in immigrant congregations, as well as in the broader church, are asking, 'How do we serve people well? How do we support people who feel vulnerable?'"
The Trump administration's stricter immigration policies are causing anxiety and complicating efforts to connect with the children of immigrants, who are the future of the Catholic Church, said Debbie Gonzales, St. Ann's director of family life.
"If young people know their parents are being viewed in a certain light or persecuted because they're immigrants, they may not feel they fit in at school or church," she said. "People are living with a lot of fear."
Raising their voice
Cardona's volunteer work is familiar to many of the Catholic leaders who work in diverse congregations. Immigrants, who now represent nearly 3 in 10 U.S. Catholics, are quick to donate their time and energy back to the church that helped them make a home out of an unfamiliar country.
Latinos, in particular, are overrepresented among church members who sign up for diocesan leadership training, said Matovina, who serves as a teacher for the program.
"Some of my students just worked a 60-hour work week, but they spend their Saturday listening to me explain ecclesiology. It humbles me and it inspires me," he said. "These people love their Catholic faith. … They want to be agents of evangelization and hope."
However, the church's leadership of priests and bishops is still primarily composed of white, American-born men, while the church is developing diversity-focused recruitment initiatives, said Bishop Daniel Flores of the Diocese of Brownsville, Texas, who previously served as the chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committee on cultural diversity.
"There has been a conscious effort" to train a diverse group of lay leaders, he said. "You want the parish (leadership) council to be a fairly good representation of the local population."
The Rev. Steve Deleon, who was trained and ordained in the Philippines, was recruited to the U.S. by a fellow Filipino priest a little more than 10 years ago when the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia, expressed an interest in applicants from other countries.
"I'm the first non-white pastor of what was a predominately Caucasian congregation," said the Rev. Deleon, who serves at Star of the Sea Parish in Virgina Beach.
He's worked to integrate the devotional practices he grew up with into his congregation's beloved traditions, encouraging people to get out of their spiritual comfort zones.
"Now we have people coming from all different cultures, and the parishioners love it," the Rev. Deleon said.
The potential for this kind of transformation is growing at Catholic churches across the country, as growing numbers of Hispanic, Asian and African immigrants fill the pews.
But the process will require American-born Catholics to pay attention to their foreign-born fellow worshippers, even if they're not the one wearing the priest's collar like the Rev. Deleon, Carrasco-Velez said.
"We should all keep our eyes and ears open to hear what the people in front of us have to say," she said. "Catholic leaders have to make sure there are avenues in place to meet everyone where they are and see their reality."
These "avenues" can come in many forms, such as an English translation to a special Spanish-language service that will take place at St. Ann Catholic Parish next month. All of the church's 9,000 attending families will be invited to the annual Stations of the Cross event on Good Friday, at which Hispanic young people reenact key moments from the last day of Jesus Christ's life.
"People coming from Latin American countries are very accustomed to doing this. You might have small towns completely shut down," Gonzales said. "We're trying to increase awareness of these traditions of devotion on the English-speaking side of the congregation."
Email: email@example.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas