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Jill RauhApril 18, 2024
Photo via iStock

In a homily for Corpus Christi Sunday, Pope Francis declared:

In celebrating and experiencing the Eucharist, we too are called to share in [Christ’s] love. For we cannot break bread on Sunday if our hearts are closed to our brothers and sisters.

What a challenging call this is! We seek to reflect Christ’s love in our relationships with one another, but in reality this vision can sometimes seem far from our actual parish experience. 

We often do not know the names—let alone the hopes and fears—of the people we sit beside in the pews each Sunday. Many parishes have multiple cultural families who worship in the same space but exist as parallel communities. In addition, we often select our parishes based on theological or political leaning, thereby creating communities that are homogenous. We sometimes lack the skills—or the interest—to get to know one another and to talk about meaningful issues. 

These are difficult challenges, but I believe we have the tools to address them.

About 10 years ago, I was a member of an urban parish in a neighborhood in Washington, D.C., that was historically working class but was quickly being gentrified. As the home for many African American, Salvadoran, Haitian and Vietnamese Catholics, the parish benefited from the gifts of multiple cultures and language groups. More recently, young white professionals had moved to the neighborhood as it became more “desirable.” At times, the parish experienced tensions worsened by a lack of interaction among the various races and ethnicities in the church.

Sometimes parishioners in one language group felt that those in a different group were receiving more attention from the pastor, in the form of the number of ministries, the ability to reserve prime meeting space or the times for Masses celebrated in that language. Some who had worshiped at the parish for decades had disagreements with newcomers, mostly young adults. For many members of the parish, the most common interaction with members of other cultural families took place between celebrations of liturgy, when one group was leaving and the other arriving. Opportunities for authentic encounter were much needed in this parish of separate communities. 

Several strategies can help to bridge communities and heal divisions—for example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ training on building intercultural competencies, which teaches Catholics how to minister effectively among diverse cultural communities (by developing cross-cultural communication skills, understanding racism, fostering integration and inclusion, etc.).

An additional tool that I have found particularly effective is community organizing, which helps neighbors discover concerns that they have in common. A central tool in organizing is a one-to-one conversation of around 30 minutes. Each participant in these face-to-face encounters aims to better understand the other’s gifts, challenges and priorities. 

With the blessing of the pastor, a parish team at my church adopted the goal of completing 100 listening conversations among parishioners. The entire parish family was invited to a meeting in the church basement for a brief training, then parishioners paired up with people they did not know (with encouragement to connect across cultural groups). 

Parishioners who did not attend the gathering could also participate; announcements at the end of Mass on several Sundays invited anyone who was willing to get involved. The parishioners leading the effort held conversations at the back of the church or outside on the sidewalk after Mass. The conversations were grace-filled and life-giving. 

Our one-to-ones focused on two questions: “Why are you a member of this parish family?” and “What challenges or concerns prevent you, your family or community from thriving?” I found myself moved by the love that my fellow parishioners had for their parish family. I was also challenged by honest sharing about tough realities facing community members: quickly increasing rents and concerns about the cleanliness of the neighborhood, as well as struggles to make ends meet. Through the one-to-ones, I connected with my fellow parishioners in new ways. The experience of encounter opened my heart to my brothers and sisters.

Besides fostering relationships, the conversations helped identify common needs and interests across the parish. We found, for example, that leaders from several cultural groups were concerned about the trash and plastic water bottles that often littered the sidewalks and park outside the church. Some suggested helping those within their own community better understand the need to care for creation. This led to the integration of this important topic into existing religious education programming. In addition, a team of young people became recycling ambassadors, standing near the receptacles in the back of the church to ensure that items like plastic water bottles and paper were properly disposed of. 

We also learned that leaders in multiple cultural groups were concerned about homeless members of the community who frequently sat on the steps near the church entrance and sometimes sat in the back pews during the liturgy. As a result, members of cultural groups who had not previously volunteered at the parish’s dinner program began to do so. More parishioners became active in the parish’s work with Washington Interfaith Network (a local community organization that has received funding from the Catholic Campaign for Human Development) to advocate for more affordable housing in Washington, D.C. 

Later, parish leaders received training from WIN before city elections for nonpartisan “get out the vote” efforts, going door to door in the surrounding neighborhood. The parish joined other WIN member institutions at citywide forums to remind candidates to prioritize the needs of the poor.

The work of parish organizing developed over multiple years and was not easy, but that is because relationships take time. When done well, the result is stronger, better-connected communities. Such communities can relate to one another as members of a family instead of as strangers and can work together to address issues that impact many peoples’ lives.

A New Parish and a Synodal Process

Fast-forward to 2021. Having moved to Maryland, I was now a member of a different parish, St. Camillus, a large multicultural community whose parishioners come from more than 100 countries. As in so many other parishes, our wonderful ministries—from children’s liturgy to in-person adult faith formation—were disrupted by the pandemic for much longer than anyone expected. Upon returning to in-person worship, I found myself feeling disconnected from parish life and from those I sit beside at Mass. 

The parish’s engagement with Action in Montgomery, another community organization funded by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, has proven effective at opening my heart to my brothers and sisters in my community. AIM, as it is also known, is a nonpartisan, multifaith, multi-ethnic organization whose member institutions help families thrive. AIM institutions work together on issues like affordable housing, child care and environmental justice. 

Shortly after I joined the parish’s community organizing ministry, I was invited to participate in a listening campaign. From previous experience, I knew that the Holy Spirit could work through such efforts of encounter.

I volunteered to participate in listening conversations with individuals as they were waiting in line at the parish food pantry. These conversations felt privileged and sacred; I was surprised by how eager people were to share their stories. One woman, for example, lamented the unavailability of affordable, high-quality child care as a barrier to finding employment to supplement her family’s income. Another person spoke about job loss and the rising cost of living, including skyrocketing rents that left him worried his family would eventually have no place to live. A mother spoke of her anxiety about the safety of her children because of crime and fast-moving traffic in a neighborhood near the church.

A second experience of sacred listening was with the parish’s large, active Hispanic young adult group. Participants discussed challenges like (again) rising rent, pandemic-induced mental health concerns and access to higher education. Meanwhile, other members of the community organizing ministry connected with parishioners involved in other ministries within the parish. 

The listening process was quite synodal—as has been the case elsewhere in the church. During this three-year Synod on Synodality, Pope Francis has invited us to encounter one another, for in doing so, we encounter the Lord in our midst (“Instrumentum Laboris,” No. 6). In our parish, we found that the listening process of organizing facilitated this encounter. In addition, we were able to share findings from our listening with the parish synod coordinator, helping to ensure the inclusion of voices from the margins—from the food pantry line, for example—in this important process. 

The Work Continues

Over the past few years, members of the community organizing ministry have listened with and accompanied parish neighbors. Through leadership training offered by organizers from AIM, a group of immigrant mothers in a neighborhood near the church are learning to advocate for measures to slow down automobile traffic on a busy street in front of a school. They have successfully won the installation of a stop sign, improving safety for children and their crossing guard at the start and end of the school day. In addition, as a direct result of their advocacy, sidewalks will be installed on several neighborhood streets that currently lack them. 

I have attended several meetings of these empowered mothers with the county chief of police, officials from the county Department of Transportation, and county councilmembers. As I listened to the mothers share their challenges and experiences with those who can influence those issues, I felt grateful for such a tangible way to express my unity with my fellow parishioners and neighbors.

Members of the parish organizing ministry are also working with AIM organizers and the principals of two local schools to empower local parents to become active leaders in the schools’ P.T.A.s. In fact, one parishioner and neighborhood resident recently became the president of a local school’s P.T.A. The leadership skills these parents are developing will benefit their children, schools, neighborhoods and parish.

At the county and state levels, parishioners have joined their voices with those of other AIM member institutions to seek solutions that will benefit many families. Parish members were proud to contribute to the passage of an important rent stabilization bill that will help prevent families from being priced out of their neighborhoods. With AIM, we are currently weighing in on other bills in support of affordable housing and expanded availability of pre-K. 

As these efforts continue, I often reflect on how this work is both rooted in and an expression of our celebration of the Eucharist each Sunday. We gather together to receive Christ’s body, and then we are sent to become bread broken for others. Sharing in Christ’s love, we open our hearts to our brothers and sisters as a means of building unity as members of Christ’s body, and then those relationships help us to transform our communities

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