From Gomer to Gomez: Grief and Joy in Hispanic Ministry

Article excerpt

Toward the end of her recent three-month investigation of the reaction of the Catholic church in the United States to its growing Latino population, French journalist Laurence Monroe interviewed me. She told me many people simply refuse to admit that a third of the church in the United States is Hispanic. Others admit the demographic data but react with resentment or even antagonism. Very few people seem to be able to respond with that welcoming phrase: "Hispanics are not a problem to be solved, but a blessing to be embraced."

I instantly recalled On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. What Ms. Monroe was describing were stages of grief. She reports on people who are facing the death of something dear to them and who often react with denial, anger, bargaining and depression before they can ever get to acceptance.

For some time I have written about the urgency of attracting and graduating Hispanic leaders for church ministry. Without in any way diminishing that indispensable need, however, I am beginning to believe that there are two other related issues of importance.

More than Mayberry

I come from a Southern city a lot like the television town of Mayberry. It was full of warm, country people who were friendly and neighborly. But Mayberry had no African-Americans. No people of the First Nations. No one, in fact, who wasn't white and Protestant. And there were no poor people. Even Otis, the lovable alcoholic, maintained a middle-class lifestyle.

I love the television program as I love my hometown, but Mayberry is changing. The Gomezes have moved next door to Gomer. And their children go to the same school as Opie. And then priests like me even throw open the door of the last safe haven, the parish church! The church where Mayberry folk were baptized and buried; the church with the stained glass windows bearing family names; the church of southern fried chicken and iced tea is suddenly supposed to welcome tamales and tortillas.

So the first issue I am contemplating is that many non-Hispanic Catholics, perhaps especially in the South, grieve over something dear to them that seems to be disappearing. The parish they have known all their lives, a Catholic Mayberry, is dying. And the natural reaction of humans to death is denial, anger, bargaining and depression before they can ever get to acceptance.

A great error of priests is to expect Catholics to instantly act like Christians. By that I mean that we pastors might be more patient with our parishioners if we expected humanity rather than heroism. We can call people to heroism, but I'm not sure it is reasonable to expect it at precisely the moment we demand it.

Too often we just force an issue, often a wonderfully Christian issue like hospitality to Hispanics, and then when people react as humans we get frustrated because they aren't living up to our expectation. Of course, I am not saying that we should do less for Hispanics--we need to do a great deal more! But we are pastors of the whole community, and in order to usher in the resurrection that good Hispanic ministry represents, we must minister to those grieving the death of something dear. …