Fall 2008 Issue

New Faces in God's House

As the Catholic Church in the U.S. becomes more rooted in the Latin American traditions, a group of young Hispanic lay leaders is emerging – many of them trained at Barry’s Institute for Hispanic/Latino Theology and Ministry.

By Rebecca Wakefield

The Youngsters, members of a youth group from the Dolores Mission Church in East L.A., pose in front of a mural of the Virgen de Guadalupe painted by local artist Jose Rimerez.

As a teenager growing up in suburban California, Vince Olea was prone to getting into trouble. Often bored and frustrated, he wasn’t sure who he was or what he wanted out of life but he knew just enough to know that he wanted to find something that would keep him not just engaged, but fascinated, something that would give him a sense of himself from day to day and allow him to connect to others.

That’s what drew him to ministry in the first place.

He grew out of teenage angst, in part thanks to a connection he found in the Catholic Church, where he became a youth leader. But the drive to discover the communal power in everyday rituals, both religious and cultural, led him to reconnect with his own distant heritage as a Mexican-American; even if he had to come all the way to the East Coast to Barry University in Miami to understand it.

“I struggled with my identity most of my life,” he says. “It was the study of Hispanic theology, of popular religion, that really was a huge discovery for me of who I am.”

Olea’s is one face of the evolving Catholic Church in the United States. The church is in the midst of huge shifts in demographics, driven by immigration from Latin America, a higher birth rate among Hispanics, and a general growth in lay leadership.

Reality-based communities

Vince Olea (left) walks around the campus of Loyal Marymount University in Los Angeles with several teens from The Youngsters, a youth group from the Dolores Mission Church in East L.A.

The evolution from European-centered traditions and congregations to ones that are more grounded in Latin America was part of the inspiration behind Barry’s decision to create the Institute for Hispanic/Latino Theology and Ministry within the Department of Theology and Philosophy. Now just over two and a half years old, the institute is cultivating a small cadre of emerging leaders in Hispanic ministry, giving them an intellectual dimension to take back to their field work in parishes throughout the country.

“A Catholic university in Miami, as far as I’m concerned, must do things like this,” says the Rev. Mark Wedig, OP, chairman of the department. “We’re at the crossroads of North and South America, of Latin America and whatever the United States is evolving into as a country.”

A $660,000 grant from the Marie V. Gendron Estate jumpstarted the institute, making it possible for Barry to offer scholarships to students wishing to take part in the program. Wedig is also directing an effort to raise $2.7 million to create a permanent endowment. The institute has also begun a new partnership with Convivium Press to produce books highlighting Hispanic ministry and the work of the institute.

There are 21 students in the institute at the moment including Olea, most of whom are older, with many years in Hispanic ministry. They are attracted to the program in part because it allows them the option to study from wherever they are, using the Canvas online classroom system. The flexibility to study from anywhere in the country is essential for most, since they are often integral parts of their local ministries. In January and June there are intensive two-week residencies at Barry’s main campus.

“We have the cream of the crop here,” says Dr. Alicia Marill, an associate professor who directs the Doctor of Ministry Program. “One of the essential elements of Hispanic/Latino theology is that it must be experienced based.”

Grounding in the world is necessary, as Wedig explains it, because Hispanic culture has a different relationship to religion than Euro-American culture. It’s important to appreciate the background of a community and the rituals and traditions with which its people connect. “We’re helping them to root themselves in their traditions,” he adds.

Olea sought a way to create new traditions out of the broken pieces of old ones. It is the crux of his ability to connect with the inner-city youth he’s trying to pull away from gang life in East Los Angeles. On paper, Olea should have a hard time connecting. Although he’s third-generation Mexican-American, he doesn’t speak Spanish, and his links to the culture of his grandparents are tenuous.

That fact worried him when he first came to study at the institute.

“My parents were Americanized,” he says. “Spanish wasn’t spoken. We had no real cultural connection.”

However, Olea found that at Barry, he was surrounded by a cadre of equally passionate people from across the spectrum of American Latino experience. His lack of Spanish wasn’t a problem. The key was simply being committed to Hispanic ministry, in whatever form or context.

“It was just amazing. It was as much the people as the program. They didn’t reject me because I don’t know Spanish. They were very hospitable, very loving, allowed me to voice my struggles and my [search for] identity.”

Olea, who has an M.A. in Theology from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, has been working in youth ministry for 15 years, most of it in suburban California. Last year, he accepted a position directing youth ministry at Dolores Mission Church in East L.A., where he found a bridge back to his roots.

Olea always had a passion for connecting to young people using the common language they understand – pop culture. “Through music or movies, the way narratives are told is through the symbolic world,” he explains. “The language of pop culture, it was a natural language to share with young people.”

He saw the symbolism in culture as a way to introduce invented rituals – the emotional subtext through which individuals create a sense of community and shared traditions. In immigrant communities, particularly poor ones, there is often a disruption of those rituals, leaving children to try to find new ones – good or bad – that give them a context for who they are.

One year Olea came up with a ritual he dubbed “The Boat.” Part performance art, part intervention, the ritual involved a reenactment of Jesus walking on the water.

Picture a darkened stage, on which a small boat sits among strewn seaweed. In the boat, blindfolded teens sit as others rock the boat and splash them with water bottles. In the background, the sound effects of the sea mix with strobe lights and video images of a violent storm.

Someone reads aloud a script based on the gospel account of the incident. Then the children hear their names called and they step out of the boat, where they are wrapped in a blanket. When they open their eyes, they discover that it is their family that called their name, and whose handprints decorate the blanket in which they are wrapped.

The idea, Olea explains, was to create a pedagogical experience that would become the basis of a communal experience. “We began to realize this was as much for the parents as for the kids,” he recalls. “We were able to talk about the scripture passage in a more personal way.”

At Dolores Mission, the teens Olea deals with are mostly first generation Mexican-Americans, impoverished, and at high risk for falling prey to one of the three gangs controlling the surrounding neighborhoods. With a local dropout rate of 70 percent, Olea says he was told when he accepted the job that his primary mission was to get them through high school. He works out of a trailer in the church parking lot he calls the bungalow.

In this place, unlike the wealthier, more assimilated culture in Encinitas, there is a strong religious undertone in the community. People are poor, but generous with what they have. When the gang activity starts to heat up with shootings and painting graffiti tags to claim new territory, the church and community respond. They gather and walk through the streets en masse, reclaiming what is theirs with prayer and song.

“If my agenda was ‘get ’em to Mass,’ I would fail every day,” Olea says. “But my agenda is, identify what is there. We want our lives to have meaning and purpose and to know we make a difference and matter. That’s the spiritual nature of the person as it collides with everyday life. That’s what I see in young people, the desire to discover all that.”

Olea is on the same journey. He says that the Institute for Hispanic/Latino Theology and Ministry gives him the intellectual tools to bridge “a necessary dialogue from the work we do in the trenches and the theological world.”

“Barry is insistent we integrate the experience and theory,” he says. “I’m looking at narrative theology as a way of giving voice to stories of people in the community. And communal voice, looking at social location – how can we critique, how can we envision a future? As I work with the kids on education and employment, I need to look at the person as a spiritual whole. We can then move into things like the future, a job, hope.”

Laying the groundwork

As the director of the Institute for Hispanic/Latino Theology and Ministry, the Rev. Mark Wedig, OP, pictured here in his office on Barry's Miami Shores campus, helps to educate an emerging group of young Hispanic lay leaders.

The Catholic Church in the United States is quickly morphing from a predominantly European-based faith to one that will soon be mostly Latin American. Hispanics make up more than 40 percent of the estimated 67 million Catholics in the United States, and within 20 years Hispanics will comprise nearly 80 percent of Catholics in the country, according to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The Catholic Church in the U.S. began to recognize Hispanics as a subset of worshippers as far back as 1945, when a Spanish office was established under the auspices of the National Catholic Welfare Council. But it wasn’t until 1970 when the first U.S. Hispanic bishop was named.

Two years later, the first national Hispanic Encuentro (Encounter) gathered to call for more participation of Hispanics in church leadership. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops responded by creating a Spanish-speaking Secretariat in 1974.

In 1987, the bishops created a national pastoral plan for Hispanic ministry. By the time of Encuentro 2000, the gathering had grown to some 5,000 church leaders in Los Angeles, where the church seemed to have accepted, at least in theory, the notion of Many Faces in God’s House (the theme of the gathering).

But progress in the evolving church is often uneven. Last year, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops did away with the Secretariat, subsuming Hispanic ministry under a new Office of Cultural Diversity. Groups such as the National Catholic Council for Hispanic Ministry protested the move because of a concern that Hispanics would get lumped in with every other non-white group of Catholics, creating a U.S. Church that is “white” and “non-white” and possibly retarding the forward momentum of Hispanic leadership formation.

The Rev. Alberto Rojas, director of Hispanic Ministry at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/ Mundelein Seminary in Chicago, who is pursuing a doctorate through Barry’s Institute, says that there is a great need for developing Hispanic leadership in the church.

“In Chicago almost half the Catholics are Hispanic, but the percentage of priests who are Hispanic is maybe 3 percent,” he reveals. “I’m grateful to all those priests who are not Hispanics but are working with Hispanic populations. Thank God there are more people interested in lay leadership as well.”

“One of the most pressing issues today among Catholics and mainline Protestants is that the fastest growing constituencies of Christians in the U.S. are Hispanic,” Wedig says. “All the churches are facing the fact that if they do not respond to this ministry, in some ways, they will go away. The greatest need right now is for Hispanics to become degreed and credentialed in ministry and theology, so they can make inroads into the leadership.”

Dr. Elsie Miranda, an assistant professor of practical theology and director of Ministerial Formation at Barry says that more lay people will need that education because the shortage of priests and nuns isn’t going to go away.

“The minister has changed, but the ministry and needs of the community have actually expanded,” she says. “Lay people are stepping into those roles that were traditionally for priests. We’re providing people with a degree that gives them more professional experience and stronger credentials.”

In the trenches

Maria Teresa Lopez, director of religious education at St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest, works with children in a special needs class. The Church serves approximately 900 children, a majority of whom are Hispanic.

One example is Maria Teresa Lopez, a former public school teacher and parish volunteer who is now director of religious education at St. Louis Catholic Church in Pinecrest, a neighborhood south of Miami.

The 44 year-old native of Venezuela used to be a speech pathologist in the Miami-Dade Public Schools but last year she decided to make her parish volunteer work a career. She started a program to teach religion to children with disabilities.

She is also trying to figure out how to bring a fuller experience to the approximately 900 children, a majority Hispanic, the church serves; especially since each child comes from their home country with a different spiritual tradition. Spanish Catholicism has combined with African and indigenous cultures in a variety of ways throughout the Americas.

“There are different customs in Peru, Nicaragua, Cuba,” she says. “Barry has been great because we talk about the variety of spiritualities in our experiences. You understand what works for one person doesn’t have to work for another. I felt called to work full time for the church. I wanted to learn more so I could be better at it. I love it that [at Barry] we review the documents and the origins of the liturgy. Writing the papers I’ve learned a lot and I apply this to my ministry.”

Rudy Vargas is the epitome of the potential of lay leadership. A Brooklyn-bred Puerto Rican, he’s spent his entire life working to promote education and access for laity in Hispanic ministry. At 48, Vargas is the executive director of the Northeast Hispanic Catholic Center, a regional office that supports and provides services to 34 dioceses from Virginia to Maine.

Vargas is something of a mentor to other students, such as Olea, who calls Vargas “a rock, a source of wisdom.” His focus is in connecting church leadership to emerging community leaders, as well as connecting those Hispanic leaders to the education they need to engage on that level.

“He’s been in the trenches forever,” Olea says. “He’s helped me, informed me as an outsider to the insider perspective [on Hispanic leadership in ministry]. He was in my first class at Barry. There was a point in a project I didn’t know what I was doing and he met with me and within half an hour gave me a picture of what I was doing. You don’t find that at a lot of academic institutes. Knowing our work is different, we also found out it’s connected. So I’ve sought out the new people to say, ‘Hey, if you need help, I’m here.’”

Vargas, himself, credits the geographic, cultural and experiential diversity of the institute’s students has being instrumental in deepening his understanding of Hispanics in the United States. “My time at Barry has been an amazing transformative experience for me,” he says. “There were lots of discussions in the classrooms about what Hispanic ministry is like in different parts of the country. There are immigration issues, class issues, advocacy for education. It confirmed my belief that Hispanics need to be more active and present in the parish councils and take on leadership roles in social ministry.”

Accompany me

The strength of the institute at Barry is that all these students’ experiences and views can be accommodated and enriched, says Wedig. A Mexican-American priest in Chicago, a Puerto Rican lay leader in New York, a Venezuelan religious director in Miami, or an assimilated Mexican-American youth minister searching for his roots among the barrios of East L.A. – they are all a part of the Hispanic experience in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Wedig has high hopes that the institute will help a broad spectrum of leaders in Hispanic ministry find their purpose. The program is set up to allow for students to determine the agenda, based upon what they are looking for, and what gaps in their development need to be filled. Ideally, the contacts they make at Barry will form a network of leaders across the country, constantly adapting their theological studies and ministries to an ever evolving practical reality.

“The effect of Barry doing this, making an incredible difference in the lives of these people, being able to educate them, effects the way they will influence future church leadership,” Wedig says. “The basic tenet of Hispanic ministry is accompaniment. We’re walking with them. And they will walk with others.”

Rebecca Wakefield is a freelance writer based in Miami. She covers politics, culture, and characters for a variety of local and national publications.