This week I was in San Antonio at the Mexican American Catholic College (MACC), co-presenting a workshop on Latino youth and young adult ministry with Dr. Arturo Chavez, the president of MACC. I will have some photos and more to say about that workshop in my next entry. Today I want to discuss one of the questions that always comes up at this type of conference: should a parish create a separate program or group for Hispanic youth, even if all or most of the young Latinos speak English? By coincidence, we also received an email at the Research and Resource Center with a very similar question this week:
Over the years I’ve encountered a number of parishes that serve large Latino and Anglo populations and have two very separate youth groups. The pastoral leadership often desires to integrate these groups in some way, as opposed to having two exclusive groups that rarely interact. As an expert, I was wondering about your perspective on this—how should this be approached?
It seems timely, therefore, to provide a thorough response, not only for the correspondent who submitted the question, but also for the audience of readers who follow this blog. I recognize that there are many perspectives on this question, and some may have strong opinions one way or the other. I would encourage readers who have a different take, or who have experiences of either forming separate groups or combining them, to leave a comment using the form at the bottom of this page.
First of all, regarding those parishes that already have two (or more) groups, I would start by commending the pastoral team for recognizing and supporting the need to offer programs that respond in a differentiated way to the distinct segments of the youth population in the parish community. That said, I understand their uneasiness about having two similar-age groups in the parish that do not interact with one another. In many ways it is similar to the uneasiness pastoral leaders feel when their adult parishioners who attend Mass in Spanish do not interact very much with their adult parishioners who attend Mass in English. Of course, when there are a lot of people on both sides who only speak one language, the possibilities for interaction are limited—but they are not non-existent!
The worst mistake in this situation would be to try to force interaction by cancelling both the Spanish and the English Masses and replacing them with an all-bilingual Sunday Mass line-up. Most likely you would alienate 90% of the parishioners that way, and they would go looking for another parish or another denomination that was more attentive to their needs. However, shared social events are possible in which the various linguistic groups (some parishes I know of have four or more large language groups) take responsibility for different aspects of the event, all participate in the planning and promotion, and they incorporate mutual service or sharing of gifts (such as food, music, dance, etc.).
Similarly, the occasional bilingual liturgy for an all-parish celebration can work well if the choirs and liturgical teams from both communities have an equal part in the planning and serving as liturgical ministers. Collaboration on social and liturgical activities can lead to collaboration at the level of the pastoral council and mutual support in accomplishing the mission of the parish in pastorally and culturally appropriate ways in each community. Of course, having key bilingual leaders in place, starting with the clergy, is required to make these options work.
Missed opportunities in the one-youth-group parish
With respect to youth ministry, in many parishes the majority of the Hispanic teens are bilingual, so some might assume that means there is no need for a separate group. It is my considered belief that cancelling one of the groups and moving all the young people into one group is a mistake in almost every case. There are multiple reasons for this, such as:
- While it may be true that the vast majority of young Hispanics in the Spanish group are bilingual, there may be some who speak little or no English. In addition, there may be others in the parish community who are not yet participating, but who are also primarily Spanish-speaking. When the Spanish group is closed, it creates an insurmountable barrier to entry into the program for all of the Spanish-dominant young people in the parish.
- There needs to be sensitivity to the demographics of the two groups. In many places, the grupo juvenil (Spanish-speaking youth group) consists mainly of immigrants between 16 and 24 years old, many of whom are not in school but rather work full-time, and many are financially supporting relatives in their country of origin while living at a bare subsistence level for themselves in this country. Even if they speak some English, these young people will not have much in common with Anglo teens who are in school and college-bound, and their perspectives on faith and life will be very different. Being together in a pastoral or faith formation setting would most likely inhibit open dialogue, and since participation in youth group is usually optional, you would likely find that most young people from one or the other of the linguistic groups (or in the worst case both) would just opt out.
- Even in places where the vast majority of the Hispanics in the group are English-dominant, under age 18, and in school, there are valid reasons for maintaining a separate group for the Latino youth. Two of the major tasks of youth ministry are to present the Good News to young people in a language and cultural context that they can understand and readily absorb, and to develop a ministry that builds on and coordinates with their spiritual life at home. If the parents of the young Latinos are Spanish-dominant, then most likely the family’s prayer life (to the extent that it exists) is also in Spanish. Also, the popular devotions and traditional celebrations of the Hispanic community may have a role at home.
If youth ministry does not build on those devotions and traditions—without making a spectacle of them in front of non-Hispanic youth—and if it does not equip teens with the ability to share prayer with their parents (and the parents with their kids), then it is doing a disservice to the families. Sociological studies have proven that this type of spiritual disconnect between parents and their adolescent children increases the likelihood that the teens will walk away from their faith by the time they become young adults. I’m not saying combining groups in a culturally diverse setting will always end in failure, but to make it work you need an adult leadership team that has a high level of intercultural and linguistic competence, that reflects the cultural diversity of the overall community, and that deeply understands and appreciates the culture and faith life of both the immigrant community and the mainstream Euro-American community. I have not come across many parishes with that type of youth ministry leadership in place.
- Finally, just in terms of numbers, the average Catholic parish in the U.S. is called to be the spiritual home to more than 250 high school-age adolescents who identify themselves as Catholic. In some parts of the country, such as California, that average could be as high as 1,000—and an especially large parish might be home to 2,500 or more self-identifying Catholic teens. In general, there is roughly one high school-age Catholic for every four registered families—and even more in areas where large numbers of parishioners have not registered, as is common in Hispanic communities. So simply dividing the number of registered households by four provides a ballpark estimate of how many Catholic teens are living in the area. Are parishes really doing such a good job meeting the needs of all of their teens in one group? Is it really that common to see a weekly youth group with 1,000 or more participants?
I firmly believe that rather than eliminating youth ministry options, parishes should be steadily adding options—then the young people can decide for themselves in which program or group they feel most comfortable, and in which language(s), without being pigeonholed by race, ethnicity, social class, or some other characteristic. For example, I am familiar with a parish in Texas that went from a youth ministry with 12 participants and one group in 1996 to having more than 20 youth programs, more than 50 groups, more than 200 volunteer leaders (adults and teens), and more than 900 youth who participate at some level today. The young people there will tell you that in their parish, every night is youth night. Even so, it is possible that they are still not yet reaching about half of the young Catholics living within their parish boundaries. Of course that type of growth takes time, good leadership, and a community willing to invest both human and financial resources—but it is almost certain that it would not happen with the mindset of a one-size-fits-all youth ministry with just one youth group.
Achieving integration in the multi-youth-group parish
Getting back to the original question, the writer asked about parishes in which the pastoral leadership wants to integrate the groups in some way. If that was meant to include options other than closing one of the groups, then I would say yes, there are definitely ways to go about the process of greater integration. Here are some suggestions:
- If there has not been much communication between the leaders in both ministries, then that is the place to start. The leaders of both groups should come together periodically to share goals, plans, calendars, struggles and challenges. If necessary, translators should be available to facilitate the dialogue.
- Within this setting, it would be appropriate to do some leadership formation. The vision, mission, goals, and principles of both Catholic youth ministry (i.e. Renewing the Vision) and pastoral juvenil hispana (i.e. Conclusions of the First National Encounter for Hispanic Youth and Young Adult Ministry) should be presented and discussed. The local diocesan offices of youth ministry and pastoral juvenil can provide support in this regard, and there are several national organizations that offer more in-depth training in these areas, such as Instituto Fe y Vida, Ministry Training Source, Cultivation Ministries, Center for Ministry Development, Notre Dame Vision, the Southeast Pastoral Institute, and others.
- Once the leaders have a common framework and vocabulary, it will be possible to begin some pastoral planning in common, starting with an analysis of the pastoral needs of various segments of the young people in the parish. In this process, it is likely that the socio-cultural differences between the groups will become clearer, and this will help everyone to understand the importance of maintaining a differentiated approach to youth ministry in the parish. For example, the first issue of Fe y Vida’s Perspectives Series (Welcoming Hispanic Youth / Jóvenes in Catholic Parishes and Dioceses) describes four distinct pastoral categories that require different approaches to pastoral care and faith formation—and that’s just among Latinos!
- While developing programming and activities that target particular segments of the youth population in the parish, it will be possible to simultaneously plan activities or responses that can be done together, like liturgies, youth days, outings, service opportunities, and even retreats—as long as the leadership teams of all the groups involved participate equally in the planning and promotion of the events.
As the number of combined events with good participation from all of the groups increases, it is likely that some or even a lot of the teens will start to ask for just one group, especially if there are just a few groups or the groups are relatively small. I would caution against moving too quickly in that direction, for all of the reasons identified in the first set of bullet points above. In fact, I am familiar with a parish in which this dynamic took place after a parish-wide youth retreat, and very quickly the new combined group ended up becoming a mostly-Hispanic group as many of the previous participants in the English group found other things that they would rather do with their time. In most of the other cases with which I am familiar, it was mostly Hispanics who opted out—even though a few invariably survived the transition and found their place in the all-English group.
Structuring for growth: the community of communities approach
I hope by now it is clear that the differentiated youth ministries I am talking about do not involve segregation, but rather pastoral segmentation. In other words, it is a way to structure pastoral care and accompaniment that meets young people where they are and allows the ministry to grow even as the numbers approach 50% to 60% participation rates, without losing the human dimension of personal relationships. Pope John Paul II highlighted the importance of creating peer groups with a reasonable size limit when he called for the renewal of parish ministry by visualizing it as a community of communities and movements:
“It seems timely therefore to form ecclesial communities and groups of a size that allows for true human relationships… In such a human context, it will be easier to gather to hear the word of God, to reflect on the range of human problems in the light of this word, and gradually to make responsible decisions inspired by the all-embracing love of Christ.” (Ecclesia in America, no. 41)
In other words, if our aspiration is to gather all of the parish’s 250 to 2,500 teens in a pastoral setting that is attuned to their needs (and I believe it should be), then the structural framework for the ministry should be set with that in mind from the start. The community of communities approach allows for additional groups and programs to be added organically over time as the recruitment and formation of leaders permits and the perception of pastoral needs requires.
Much more could be said about this here, but this is enough for today. If you would like to read further pastoral and theological reflection on this matter, take a look at Chapter 10 of Fe y Vida’s book Pathways of Hope and Faith Among Hispanic Teens. Also, in the Spring 2013 issue (Volume 7.1) of the Lifelong Faith Journal, I profiled the above-mentioned parish in Texas as a case study for youth ministry structured as a community of communities (see article #9 on page 39 of the journal).
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