Our Diversity Is Our Strength

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

Deacon Al Turner, MTS

When I was director of the Office of Black Catholics I was often asked these questions: “Why do we need an Office of Black Catholics? Doesn’t that promote division among us?”

These questions indicate the need to acknowledge that diversity is a part of who we are as a community. This outreach is not an indication of our divisions as much as it is an indication of the beauty of our diversity.

We need look no further than Scripture to see the place of diversity in the church. St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians reminds us of who we are as members of the body of Christ: “As the body is one though it has many parts, and all the parts, though many, are one body, so also Christ. For in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one spirit” (1Cor. 12:12-13). St. Paul’s message resonates for us today as we face the new reality of the church as being diverse within its unity.

Recognizing and addressing the need to have leadership reflect the face of the faithful has at times been a slow process. Our diversity is our strength and our beauty. We are a “patchwork quilt” of many pieces and each piece brings with it its own beauty that should not be lost within the overall quilt.

The message found in the New Testament is that we are all one in Christ, that we are our brothers’ keepers, and that God shows us how to be one with our brothers and sisters, as He became one of us. We, as followers of the Lord, must do all we can to mirror the life of Christ, we in leadership positions all the more. I call this “empathic leadership.”

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, has reminded us that the shepherds must take on the smell of the sheep. By that, I believe that he also means that the shepherds should also look like the sheep.

As I look around me, today, I do not see a clergy and religious that reflect the reality of our present demographics. In this age of the New Evangelization, it is very important that the actions of the Church match the words of the Church. If the New Evangelization is to be a new beginning, then those who lead must be culturally, racially, and ethnically representative of the faithful. How can this be done?

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) is involved in a number of efforts to help.  For many years, I have served on the planning committee for the Diversity Outreach Initiative (DOI) at Catholic Social Ministry Gathering. The goal of DOI is to develop leaders from diverse Catholic communities for ministry in the Church.  The initiative expresses our commitment to strengthen the Church’s social ministry by reaching out to Catholic ethnic, racial, and disability communities and encouraging members to lift up the richness and diversity of their gifts in our shared mission.

The USCCB has also adopted several priorities to assist ministers in the recognition of cultural diversity as a reality in the Church today and how it can be lived on a day-to-day basis. The USCCB Committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church has taken up this challenge and created a way to begin to address ministry to the faithful in a more useful way. The result is the “Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers” (BICM) program. The aim of BICM is to foster sensitivity to the various cultural, spiritual and worldviews that all who minister in the church will encounter in the “vineyard of the Lord.” The committee has identified six cultural “families” to be ministered to in the United States: African Americans, Native Americans, Asia and Pacific Islanders, Hispanics/Latinos, migrants/refugees/travelers, as well European Americans. Ministering with sensitivity to the culture of those we encounter is one way to start to reclaim and to reactivate the missionary call, which is the very core of the life of the church.

If we are to grow the church in the “fields” we wish to evangelize, we need to actively grow the leaders from among those we evangelize. This means that our seminaries must be actively seeking vocations from men who come from those who make up the faithful in our area. We cannot just invite them, we must go out and “make disciples”. Our diocesan offices must be populated by people who look like the faithful. We must be all things to all people.

The church must embrace our diversity as strength and not as a weakness. We must thank God for the wonder of the diversity of his creation and use it as he intended, so that all may be one and share his love with all.

Deacon Al Turner, MTS, is the former Director of the Office of Black Catholics for the Archdiocese of Washington and is currently assigned to St. Joseph Catholic Church in Largo, MD.  

Learn more about building unity in diversity and developing diverse leaders at We are Salt and Light, a project of Justice, Peace and Human Development/USCCB.

50th Anniversary of the Immigration and Nationality Act

Sr. Joanna Okereke photo

Sr. Joanna Okereke

October 3, 2015 is the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which made changes to U.S. immigration policies that helped bring about a beautiful, multi-cultural society in the United States that can be celebrated with honor, pride and great satisfaction, not only to new immigrants but to all the members of the local church. Prior to this important Act, U.S. immigration policy gave preference to northern and western European immigrants and excluded Asians and Africans.

Today, the United States is blessed with the presence of many people from various cultural backgrounds and languages.

Many parishes have committed themselves to welcoming these immigrants by engaging in special evangelization for and with immigrants, such as encouraging, catechizing, and celebrating liturgies in their native languages.

Meanwhile, others organize different inter-cultural activities. Many archdioceses/dioceses have developed structures which encourage and support local Churches to respond to the pastoral needs of these diverse communities, thereby manifesting the universality of the Catholic Church in its richness in positive ways.

In their pastoral letter Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, the U.S. Catholic bishops write, “The Church of the twenty-first century will be, as it has always been, a Church of many cultures, languages, and traditions, yet simultaneously One, as God is One — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” We must acknowledge that, despite our different cultures, genders, religions, languages, and ethnicities, human persons – men and women – are created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:26-27).

The liturgical life of a parish must encourage active participation by immigrants as members of the faith community. The faith community into which the immigrants are received is enriched with their spiritual gifts, deep cultural values, and wealth of faith traditions.

In welcoming immigrants, the Church has always contemplated Christ, drawing inspiration from His words “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt. 25:35). It is important that languages, cultural values, and the religious traditions of these diverse communities be respected. It is important to protect and honor the dignity of every human person.

Conscious of the need for unity in the Catholic Church which is visible, alive and active among all peoples, cultures and languages throughout the world, I join my supplications with the prayers of Jesus, “May all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me” (John 17:21).

As we relate with the immigrants and strangers in our midst, let our lives, animated by Christian faith and love, reflect the mind and heart of Jesus who, Himself as a baby, was a stranger in Egypt. He said “He who welcomes you welcomes me.” (Mt.10:40).

As the U.S. Catholic bishops said, “The Church must, therefore, welcome all persons regardless of race, culture, language, and nationality with joy, charity, and hope” (Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope).


Sr. Joanna Okereke is Assistant Director for Pastoral Care of Migrants, Refugees and Travelers in the Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

For resources on celebrating and fostering cultural diversity in the Church, visit the webpage of the USCCB Secretariat for Cultural Diversity in the Church and the Diversity and Leadership Development sections of WeAreSaltAndLight.org.