March 7, 2003

She Looks... Like... Them

Episcopalians Learn to Use Our Lady of Guadalupe

By Robert Kumpel

The Episcopal Diocese of San Diego held its annual convention at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Palm Desert on February 7 and 8. The Spanish title for the event’s theme (Unidos de la Mano: Hand in Hand for Mission and Ministry) was no accident. The keynote address on Hispanic ministry was delivered by Father Orlando Espin of USD. Espin is the director of the Center for the Study of Latino Catholicism and the Trans-Border Institute. Many of the workshops emphasized ministry to Hispanics.

St. Margaret’s is a large church designed with the tabernacle-free, art-less, industrial-park aesthetic that would please the average Catholic liturgical consultant. On Saturday morning, its parking lot was packed with vans and tour buses. I attended a workshop entitled Nuts and Bolts of Hispanic Ministry.

Most workshop attendees appeared to be Episcopal clergy. Although they were friendly and helpful, it was still uncomfortable for this Catholic to sit in a room with priests, their wives, and priestesses. The first speaker was Reverend Bjorn Marcusson, rector of St. Phillip the Apostle church in Lemon Grove. Marcusson spoke of his life as a Danish citizen transferred to the U.S. from Austria to work in a Polish parish. “So I have an immediate affinity with the Latino-Hispanic community. If multicultural stands for anything with me, it stands for all those identities.”

Marcusson discussed the demographics of his Lemon Grove church. “The congregation of roughly 100 persons a year ago was 90 percent Caucasian, eight percent African-Americans, one percent-Filipino and one percent Latinos. The ethnic diversity within a five-mile radius of the church is 43 percent Anglo and other ethnic groups comprise 57 percent of which the fastest growing group is the Latina-Latino community, currently at 40 percent and projected to grow to 50 percent within the next two years. Our congregation is well on its way to reflect the sociological reality of our wider community. About 40 percent of the congregation is Latino-Latina, and their presence is increasing. Our religious-education program for Latino kids is exploding. Average church on attendance on Sunday has doubled, and religious education for Latino kids has grown to the point that some Anglo kids have asked to be in those classes which is interesting, because they have a lot of fun.”

Marcusson addressed what he called “Myths of the Hispanic Community”: living in poverty as illegal immigrants, illiterate, ill and unemployed versus the reality of Hispanics as an empowered community with economic leverage. He explained how Lemon Grove was a step up for Latinos from living in inner-city San Diego, still working two jobs to survive, but “on their way to realizing the American dream.”

“Where do most Latinos-Latinas come from? Most are people who have been left behind by the Roman Catholic Church. The Roman Catholic Church puts requirements on Latinas-Latinos that they are unable to meet. Thus their children cannot be baptized or receive first Holy Communion because sometimes there is only one parent and the other parent is back in Mexico and the Roman Catholic Church is unwilling to take them under those conditions. Preparation sometimes takes from nine months to a year, and the working schedule of Latinos is such that they simply cannot give up for a one-year commitment. If their schedule changes or they move around, it simply cannot be done. So they’re left behind by a very rigid system. The same thing goes for education for first Holy Communion, and marriage requirements are rigid. Many are reduced to a kind of pariah status on the outskirts of the Roman Catholic Church without an opportunity for full participation in the life of the Church and the sacraments.”

Marcusson said that the two doors for reaching out to the Latino community are 1) the kids and 2) sacraments. “We provide the kids with Christian education. The sacraments are very important in the Latino community, especially the sacrament of Baptism and First Holy Communion, which may be difficult for the Anglo-Episcopalians to understand, because our kids go to communion right away as they did in the early church. This is a cultural reality, and Mother Patricia will talk about that. The question will inevitably come: “Will YOU confirm us? Would YOU marry us? Would YOU baptize our children? And the answer at every parish in this diocese that does Latino ministry is, ‘Of course we will!”

Mother Patricia Calori of St. Matthew’s Church in National City, wearing a white collar and a gray clerical outfit with a skirt, presented her views on “popular religion for indigenous peoples in America.” “It predates the arrival of the Spaniards. It’s in their genetic code, and it is at least 5000 years old. Life is saturated with the divine and the sacred. It’s not in little compartments. The Spanish missionaries, when they arrived in the new world, saw this, and they took advantage of this with evangelization to convert the indigenous peoples of the Americas, and they did it with brutality, oppression, and cruelty. But it has survived, and it shows through the vitality of how Hispanics look at the world.

“Family is everything in Hispanic culture. You see children in church, roaming, talking, singing. They don’t put them in childcare. We love the noise around us. Most of our people live isolated during the week, and going to church is a way of being together in the community, out of the oppressed world, out of where they are treated as fourth- and fifth-class citizens. They have to work three and four jobs, and they are exhausted.”

Calori offered a strategy of reaching out to disgruntled Catholics. “Sacraments are extremely important. There is an extended family through a system of godparents. They take it very seriously. The compadres and comadres are the second parents to a child. The entire dynamic changes in the spiritual and emotional relationship between the family and the godparents. And there are other celebrations. In the Anglican tradition, children receive communion from the day of their baptism. Spanish-Latinos need the solemnization of this sacrament, so we have preparation. We have special confirmation and marriage preparation and there are godparents for all of these sacraments.”

Calori described the traditional clothing and days used for first Holy Communion (she called it “Solemn Communion”) and handed out a flyer with other special days that are part of Hispanic Catholic culture. She then described each event in detail, including Quinceañera, El Día de los Muertos, Las Posadas, the feast of the Epiphany, La Fiesta de la Candelaria, and the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Calori explained that the Our Lady of Guadalupe was important to Hispanics because, “It is the biggest day, because it is the manifestation of the Divine to the oppressed, indigenous peoples of Mexico. The first time that the Divine expresses and shows Himself to an indigenous person. For the first time, after hundreds of years of persecution and oppression by the Spaniards. And if you look at a picture of Our Lady of Guadalupe, she LOOKS...LIKE...THEM.” (Calori seems to have forgotten that Cortez arrived in Mexico City in 1519 and Juan Diego received the apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531—a time span of 12 years).

Calori suggested blessing religious objects for Mexicans and adding saints’ statues and images, especially the image of Our Lady of Guadalupe, to their churches. She said that another way to gain the trust of the Hispanic community is to join them in their struggle against oppression.

After the presentation, I spoke with Reverend Marcusson. He backpedaled bit on his description of how Hispanic Catholics are made to feel by their church: “ I don’t like the word ‘pariah,’ but they are out on the margins and left behind in situations that can’t really be solved within the system of the Roman Catholic Church, thus they don’t get the fullness of what they would rightly expect as members of the Roman Catholic Church. In many instances, they just stop going to church altogether. The majority remain in the Roman Catholic Church, as they should. I do not believe that is the mission of the Episcopal church, or for that matter, any non-Roman Catholic church, to go out and take people who are active members of any congregation. Once they are at stage where they have given up any kind of religious practice, we then become a viable alternative, because they come to us and they will often say, ‘Can we get our children baptized? Can the kids really go to first holy Communion, even though the man I live with is not my husband?’ And our regulations are different than the Roman Catholic church’s. We educate them ‘These are our regulations. You make up your mind. That way, they get back into a community church, which is also part of the body of Christ. We would also describe ourselves as one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, with a different slant.”

Maria Jimenez, a middle-aged Hispanic woman explained why she left the Catholic church. “I felt comfortable and welcome in the Anglican church. It was more cold in the Catholic church. I was in Our Lady of Guadalupe parish in Barrio Logan. I left 17 years ago. It was like, you go to Mass, her Mass, leave and there was no sense of family. When I baptized my daughter, it was like a factory line. There was no personal attention and celebration of baptism of my child. They was no relationship with the priests. There was no coffee hour either! The Romans just don’t have as much warmth and relationship.”

Reverend Paul Carmona, 55, of St. Mark’s church in City Heights is former Catholic who got fed up with the way priests treated him. He became an Episcopalian 10 years ago. “I worked for many years for the Roman Catholic church as a musician. Over a long term, I found the abuse of authority very upsetting. The parish would be run without consideration for ideas. Laypeople are basically powerless. They could say what they thought, but the parish council was taken as just advisory. I saw many of the things happening around me –mismanaged in terms of the big scandal and all that stuff. Some things were being swept under the carpet as the result of the misuse of authority. I’d been thinking about 20 years . They’re somewhat more democratic and balanced in their approach to the use of authority. We’re not perfect, but at least more eyes have to look at things and more minds are put together. I feel that gives a certain amount of openness to the Holy Spirit speaking through everybody in the church.”

(Reprinted from San Diego News Notes, Volume 13, Number 3/March 2003).

Return to the Frontpage