Vocations in a Multicultural Church

Untitled-1It is no secret that the ethnic composition of the United States is changing. Although English is the dominant language in the United States, the flow of immigrants from Latin America has now made the U.S. the fifth largest Spanish-speaking country in the world. Since the Asian Immigration Act of 1965 opened up immigration possibilities for people from that region, the Asian population in the U.S. has grown as well. The 1990 census showed some seven million Asians and Pacific Islanders in the country. That number will likely more than triple by the middle of the next century.

These changes are reflected in the Catholic Church as well. Hispanic people now constitute about a third of America's 60 million Catholics. The percentage of persons of Asian descent who are Catholic is generally small (except for Filipinos). Yet they are making their presence felt in the church. A look at the 1999 Catholic Directory indicates that there are some 200 priests who bear the Vietnamese surnames of Nguyen, Pham, and Tran. A recent survey of seminarians has indicated that 25 percent were born outside the United States.

While there are no clear statistics yet for the numbers of these immigrants and descendants of immigrants in religious congregations today, we know that the numbers are growing. Vocation directors are on the front lines when it comes to shaping the ethnic and racial nature of religious orders in the future. A vocation director may be the first contact that Hispanic or Asian prospective candidates may have. What should vocation directors know about ethnic and cultural issues? How should they interact with such prospective candidates? How might they help their congregations prepare to welcome such candidates? (Because they represent the large and fast growing ethnic groups in the U.S. church, this article addresses Hispanics and Asians. However, many of the principles slated here might also be applied to working with other minority groups.)


American Catholic religious congregations are overwhelmingly white. In addition to being imbued with the majority culture of the United States, they often retain remnants of their ethnic origins in Europe, even though they may have been present in America for several generations. Many have tended to draw their candidates from certain European ethnic groups (such as Polish or Italian, for example), which serves to strengthen and perpetuate these ethnic cultural features in them. While they may want to welcome candidates whose roots are in Latin America or Asia, it is fair to ask how good the “fit” will be—for the candidates as well as for the congregation.

Untitled-2Many if not most religious congregations want, in principle, to welcome these new candidates. They want their membership to reflect the face of the church. They want to be inclusive. But congregations may not know how to welcome Hispanics and Asians and may inadvertently actually be unwelcoming. What does the vocation director communicate to potential candidates about the congregation, and what questions should be discussed with the candidate about pitfalls which the candidate may experience?

This article tries to outline the steps for the two parties involved in answering these questions: the congregation and the prospective candidate, with the vocation director as the intermediary. It is important to begin with the congregation itself: is it indeed welcoming and will it be a hospitable place for candidates with backgrounds in Latin America and Asia? Then the vocation director will know what kind of reality—with its strengths and its limitations—candidates will be welcomed into. To begin with the congregation, four areas will have to be pursued: (1) the kind of culture which the congregation itself represents, (2) how it understands the process of welcoming, (3) how it deals with cultural differences, and (4) how it deals with issues of race.

1) Auditing the community's culture

Untitled-3Congregations who wish to welcome Asian and Hispanic candidates have to become more aware of what kind of culture exists within themselves as congregations. By “culture” I mean ways of doing things (making decisions, organizing households, responding to requests for special needs), as well as how and when celebrations are held and how elders are treated. It also involves such basic things as relations to time (how important is being “on time”) and space (how much personal space is allotted). To understand their own internal culture, congregations need to reflect on how they do things and organize their lives. For example, if a Mexican-American candidate shows up at the community house right at dinner time, accompanied by his or her parents and a sibling or two, and assumes that they all can stay for dinner, how does the community react? Would the community be upset that the candidate had not telephoned ahead of time? In the candidate's culture, that would not be expected: one is always ready to welcome guests.

To help audit a congregation's culture as an “American culture,” a handy point of reference is Edward Stewart and Milton Bennett's book, American Cultural Patterns. This book was written originally for foreign student advisors who wanted to explain American culture to students who were arriving at U.S. colleges and universities from abroad. I have found it useful for Americans who want to understand how they appear to others. The book covers such things as forms of nonverbal communication, how activity is organized, how social relations are maintained, and how conflict is dealt with.

One important area to consider, for example, is the relationship between egocentric and sociocentric cultures. Egocentric cultures focus upon the individual and see the group from that perspective. Sociocentric cultures operate the other way around. Egocentric cultures prize individuality, whereas sociocentric cultures are more focused upon group solidarity. U.S. majority culture is strongly egocentric, whereas the cultures of Latin America and Asia are typically sociocentric. Sorting out what it means for a person from a sociocentric culture
to enter and be welcomed in an egocentric setting will be one of the first tasks in an audit of the congregation's culture.[1]

In addition, communities with strong European ethnic heritages need to examine how these influence life in the community. Customs, food choices, dealing with conflict, and relations with family often bear a strong ethnic imprint. These are all things which make someone feel “at home” or not.

2) Welcoming candidates

Untitled-4If a congregation has some level of cultural awareness about itself, how does it maintain a welcoming environment for candidates with a different cultural background? The first and most important thing to know is that welcoming is also culturally related. What constitutes a welcome from the perspective of the community may not be so for the candidates. American hospitality is perceived by others as at first warm and gracious, but actually superficial and ultimately confusing as to what relationship has been established. This happens because Americans often see hospitality as a sign of their general friendliness, and as a way to achieve a certain result. When the result has been achieved, they go back to their normal routines. For many people from other countries, hospitality is not oriented to any specific goal; it is about the process of building social (and personal) relationships.

For that reason, congregations have to have a sense of what counts for hospitality with the candidates they hope to welcome. In some cultures, the rules of hospitality are not only defined, but gradated according to the level of the relationship. The general cheerfulness of American hospitality can be confusing to someone, say, from an Asian culture with, say, a Confucian background, who expects relationships to be clear.

3) Helping the congregation deal with cultural difference

Untitled-5People not used to intercultural living are likely to harbor stereotypes about people different from themselves. They are likely to generalize about them (saying such things as “all Mexicans are like this”), forgetting that people have individual temperaments in every culture. Frequently, people can accept difference initially, but they often implicitly believe that the formation process will iron out the differences. By the time of vows or profession, the candidate will be just like the rest of us. In almost every instance, there will be stereotyping
going on until people become able to genuinely live with difference.

A useful model to explore the move from negative stereotyping to genuine acceptance of difference has been developed by Milton Bennett, already mentioned above. In an article entitled “Toward Ethnorelativism: A Developmental Model of Intercultural Sensitivity,”[2] Bennett charts six stages people go through on the way from denial of difference to the capacity to integrate difference. Congregations would want to work toward what Bennett calls “ethnorelativism,” that is, a place where cultural difference is accepted as part of every-
one's identity. Congregations are frequently at the denial stage, as though difference doesn't matter.

The vocation director is of course not in a position to change the congregation or perhaps even ask the congregation to take up these considerations. But vocation directors should prompt conversations within the leadership and with those responsible for formation. They should discuss the congregation's self-awareness about its own culture and how it deals with difference.

4) Racism

Untitled-6Closely tied in with the matter of dealing with difference is the matter of racism, the discrimination against people because of skin color and other physical characteristics. Physical appearance cannot be erased or hidden, and so any congregation wishing to accept candidates of color will have to examine itself regarding racism.

There are two issues involved here. First of all, it is not a matter of finding out whether or not there is racism in the congregation. One should start with the assumption that there is racism; then one proceeds to find out how it is manifesting itself, both institutionally and individually. Racism is so woven into American culture and society that it is not escapable. How people of color are cast as inferior manifests itself in many different ways, and there are programs and workshops that can help raise awareness of it.

The second issue is the relationship of race and ethnicity. People sometimes think that if they are capable of being sensitive to ethnicity and culture, they are then sensitive to race. While such sensitivity may help, it does not reach far enough to deal with all the dimensions of racism. To be able to accept cultural difference does not address adequately the assumptions of inferiority which are built into racism. These have burrowed deeply into the white psyche, and are held in place there by histories of the subjugation of peoples with different skin color.

Trying not to be racist will not be enough. Identifying ways in which a congregation—both as an institution and as individuals within the congregation—expresses its racism is the first step toward becoming a more hospitable place for nonwhite candidates to enter.

Working with vocation prospects

Untitled-7How does the vocation director work with Latin American and Asian prospective candidates who wish to enter a largely white congregation? As has already been indicated, the work begins with the congregation itself. The congregation must ask itself questions about its own self-awareness and the level of its commitment to welcoming candidates of Latin American or Asian descent. Without this preliminary work, it isn't really fair to the prospective candidate to be brought into such an unprepared community.

But what about the prospective candidate? There are a number of things which the vocation director needs to consider. First, how many generations has the prospective candidate's family been in the United States? If the person is first generation, i.e., was born in another country and came to the United Stales either as a child or an adolescent, there may well be issues about still coming to terms with U.S. majority culture. If the person is
second generation, i.e., was born here of immigrant parents, there is a special set of issues. The person may feel conflict between the parents' culture and the U.S. majority culture and may feel that he or she is occupying a “third space,” and is not accepted fully by either culture. When that is the case, the candidate may be looking for an acceptance in the congregation which has not been found in either the parents' culture or the U.S. majority culture. If the prospective candidate is third generation or more, cultural issues may play a lesser role. However, there are instances where Hispanic candidates rediscover their hispanidad (being Hispanic), and this raises a whole set of other formation issues about identity. Whatever generation the prospective candidate may be, the issue of race is never overcome. That is why it is so important to deal with racism in the congregation.

Untitled-8A second consideration is the prospective candidate's own awareness of the issues involving cultural difference and race. Candidates of Latin American or Asian background who have grown up in the United States will already have a considerable awareness of cultural difference and race. These are things that they have had to negotiate in school, in the workplace, and in the social arena. What the prospective candidate may not be aware of are the implications of joining an overwhelmingly white community. Thinking through the implications of this with the prospective candidate will be necessary. It must be done in a way that does not leave the candidate feeling unwanted or unwelcome. Yet at the same time it must be done with a gentle realism. This kind of conversation involves a commitment of the vocation director, and later the formation director, to walk with the candidate as the candidate and the congregation negotiate the difficult terrain of cultural difference and race. Just as vocation and formation directors have developed sophisticated instruments of psychological testing, so now they need instruments to aid discernment regarding matters of cultural difference and race.

The bottom line

Untitled-9The ultimate consideration in accepting a candidate from a Latin American or Asian background is whether the candidate has a sense of belonging. That involves both the candidate's sense of being welcomed and cherished, and the congregation's commitment to live with difference in a caring and integrated way. It is a learning experience for both parties, and the vocation director stands at the crucial first point of encounter. For vocation directors to do their work, to having to learn to dwell with difference. The vocation director must be also willing to bring up questions with the candidate about experiences of being treated differently and feelings of difference. This may at first seem daunting because most vocation directors have not been prepared to do this. But just as the details of psychological testing once had to be learned, so now will the details of cultural difference and race have to be confronted and learned. Doing this not only brings a realism to the decisions for the candidate and the congregation, but also shows the level of commitment congregations have to being genuinely inclusive in a multicultural church.


[1] Gary Riebe-Eslrella, SVD, has written well on this subject as it pertains to religious life. See for exam-
ple "Movement from Monocultural to Multicultural Congregations," Review for Religious 55 (1996) 506-
520 [See Cultural Audit Resources VI 20-28.]"; "American Cultural Shifts: Formation for Which Candi-
dates? For Which Church?" Seminary Journal 2 (Fall,, 1996) 27-33.

[2] To be found in: R. Michael Paige (ed.), Education for the InterculTural Experience. Yarmouth, ME: Inter-
cultural Press, 1993, 21-71. [See Cultural Audit Resources IV 7.]

Reprinted with permission of the author from HORIZON, the quarterly journal of the
National Religious Vocation Conference. © 2001, 2002, Center for the Study of Religious Life

Untitled-10A Twelve Step Program to Greater Intercultural Sensitivity and Communication

1. Evaluate personal and/or communal stage of cultural development.

2. Seek appropriate information and skills training.

3. Acquire a broader perspective on communication theory and technique.

4. Get to know your strengths and weaknesses through the lens of culture.

5. Become more open to “thinking through others,” “feeling through others,” “living through others.”

6. Begin the conscious journey to the “margin” as soon as possible.

7. Build on your personal experience of marginality/marginalization.

8. Foster both personal and communal growth toward the goal of cultural integration and positive marginality.

9. Intensify your engagement in a process of ongoing formation from the cultural perspective (kenosis).

10. Focus your journey of discipleship on following Jesus, “the marginal one.”

11. Work to build a community of memory, listening, and reconciliation.

12. Remember: If at first you don't succeed, try, try again as you move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence to unconscious competence.

Adapted from Walter, 1999.