Breaking Down Intercultural Barriers Through Encounter

My husband was working at a parish leading Hispanic Ministry and several times he would have people at the English masses ask him, “How’s ministry going with all those Mexicans?” Being raised in Mexico himself, he was bothered by all Hispanics being lumped together. Comments like these speak to an unfortunate lack of awareness of the diversity within the Hispanic community—and they also point to a deeper issue.

There are very real obstacles to intercultural integration in our parishes and ministries. In the previous posts in this series, we have explored diversity in the Church of the United States, dimensions of culture, and intercultural communications in ministry. Module 4 of Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers challenges us to take an honest look at the obstacles of prejudice, stereotypes, and racism. This module explains what was happening in the situation described above.  It is called in-group, out-group dynamics: “Those we do not know or trust and those who seem different from ourselves in whatever way (e.g. skin color, language, customs) constitute the ‘out-group.’  We judge these individuals by different standards than those we use for our own group” (BICM, p. 22).  Some of the common ways we judge the “other” are named in Module 4: generalizing, demonizing, colonizing (seeing them as children), trivializing differences, and making them invisible.

I have found that these dynamics are usually subtler than in my opening story, but they are very much present. I remember that when I first started meeting Latin American immigrants I was surprised at the level of prejudice they had towards other Latinos from different countries or socioeconomic levels. But if I take a moment to analyze my own tendencies, I can see these in-group, out-group dynamics at play inside of me as well. I can easily generalize about a group that I don’t know and yet see all sorts of differences within my “in-group.” I recognize a lot of differences even among European Americans from different socioeconomic realities or geographical areas I’ve lived in. Someone looking from the outside could simply see people with the same skin color, language, and cultural heritage and group us all together. After recognizing these dynamics at play, it’s easier to understand how unfair it is to lump all Hispanics into one generalization.

It is possible to make progress in overcoming these barriers of prejudice and racism. As Module 4 explains, it takes an intentional and counter-cultural approach that includes breaking the silence and denial that often surround the challenges of racism. One piece of the solution is addressing the racial anxiety described by Fr. Boniface Hardin, OSB: “Our racial anxiety arises from these three areas: fear, ignorance, and guilt—thus, the FIG Complex. Intercultural leaders are called to move beyond fear and anxiety as they lead the Body of Christ into the beloved community of the Fatherhood of God” (BICM, p. 24).

Another powerful way to overcome these obstacles is to encounter the “other.”  I have a friend who is an immigration lawyer and she has shared with me countless stories of U.S. citizens who come to her to find out how to “get papers” for their friend. The faceless, nameless “other” of the undocumented immigrant has now transformed into this faith-filled, hard-working, family friend named Juan. Of course, she has to break the news to them that Juan, like millions of others, has no line to stand in to apply for residency. The point, however, is that we are much less likely to fall into the traps of generalizing, demonizing, trivializing differences, treating the “other” as children or invisible if we have been intentional about spending time encountering people in the “out-group.”

In our parishes and ministries, it will take an intentional effort, starting with the leadership, to overcome our fear, ignorance, and guilt in order to recognize and confront our own prejudices. Only then will we, as people of faith, be able to begin the work to transform the systems and policies that have helped to sustain these in-group, out-group dynamics and historically made it more difficult for certain groups to succeed. By bringing these issues into the light and finding our voice to discuss and transform them together, we will be building up the Body of Christ, the one family of God.

Going Deeper

Visit the USCCB’s webpage on Racism for information on responding to the sin of racism and other helpful resources.

Face

Patti Gutiérrez, Diocese of Owensboro

After working in Hispanic Ministry at the diocesan and parish levels in Western Kentucky for 14 years, Patti Gutiérrez now blogs about ministry and offers resources for Catholic ministries at www.patticc.com

 

 

Cultural Clashes During Meetings and What to Do about Them

Are you part of a shared (multicultural) parish?  Over the past several months, several posts have explored the modules of Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM), a resource from the USCCB.  As I noted in my last post, we all have our own cultural icebergs.  When parishes and ministries become more culturally diverse, we need intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes to work together successfully.  Module 3 of BICM explores how different cultures communicate, conduct meetings and handle conflict.

What’s the difference?

I quickly learned the differences in meeting styles when I was living in Ecuador.  I was part of the young adult group at the local parish.  I was raised in the prevailing culture in the U.S. where meetings start at the agreed upon time and if you come in late you creep in, make a hand gesture to apologize and quietly try to figure out where the group is on the agenda.  In Ecuador, the meetings did not start until a good portion of the group was there.  Then, every single time a new person arrived, everyone would stop talking, the person would make their way around the entire room, greeting everyone individually (with a kiss on the cheek) and the meeting would continue.  This happened over and over as people continued to trickle in.  After what we learned in Module 2 of BICM we can name the dynamics at work here—a collective culture following explicit rules for social interactions, valuing relationships and harmony.   Although this dynamic is less pronounced with Hispanics living in the U.S., it is still very much present.

If you attend intercultural meetings, you may have run into the same issues that have challenged me when leading our Hispanic Committee meetings at the parish where I have served for many years. As Module 3 of the BICM resource explains, meetings in an individualistic culture tend to be more focused on accomplishing tasks, moving through an agenda and making decisions, often with a vote.  On the other hand, meetings of a collective culture prefer to focus on building or maintaining relationships and working together.   It is important to have a sense of harmony before the meeting begins and not end until it is re-established.  At times I can feel myself very frustrated at the slow pace of our meetings and not getting through the agenda.  But I can also recognize that once the entire group has processed the issue together, everyone has had a chance to talk, and a collective decision is made, then look out!  There is no stopping our Hispanic leaders once they’ve decided on a project.  Everyone comes together, lends a hand, and things that I would have stressed out about how to plan for weeks are done within hours.

How can we come together?

If you have a group of leaders from different cultures that want to have effective meetings, consider taking some time to talk through the five parameters of culture from Module 2.  Many of us don’t realize how much our upbringing shapes the way we do things.  Sometimes we assume everyone else’s iceberg looks like ours underneath.  Just sharing a little about the invisible parts of our icebergs can go a long way to creating understanding and cooperation between people of different cultures.

If your goal is to make a meeting of European Americans more open to a collective culture, here are some ideas:  1) Consider having a social time before the usual meeting time to share some food and talk about each other’s families in order to create a sense of community.  2) During the meeting, when an important discussion point is brought up, invite the elder from the collective culture to address the issue first.  3) Remember, those from a collective culture may need someone else to invite them to give their opinion.  4) Consider the power dynamics in the group and remember that it would be considered disrespectful for many cultures to directly contradict what an elder has said, so pay attention to clues in the conversation that may be more indirect ways of communicating.

A little bit of background work and mindfulness during a meeting can go a long way to successfully working together across cultural differences!

Patti Gutiérrez, Diocese of Owensboro

Patti Gutiérrez has led ministry at the diocesan and parish levels in the Diocese of Owensboro for 13 years. This post is adapted from her blog where she shares resources and practical advice for other intercultural.

What’s Below the Surface is Affecting Your Ministry

Patti Gutiérrez, Diocese of Owensboro

Early on as a Pastoral Associate in a multicultural, rural parish I often found myself bumping up against unwritten rules of interaction and I couldn’t figure out what was going wrong.  For example, my default way of communicating about an upcoming activity was to post a blurb in the bulletin, make an announcement from the pulpit at the end of Mass and send out a mass text message via an automated service.  For our European American parishioners this worked fine, but for the growing number of Hispanic parishioners it proved completely ineffective.  We weren’t getting a good response.  Many times, I assumed it was because no one was interested.

The problem is that when people of different cultures are interacting there are dynamics at play that may not be obvious on the surface.  This is when the workshop and practical guide that was created by a task force of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) called Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM) can be extremely helpful.  In Module 2, Seek an Understanding of Culture and How It Works, we learn, “Intercultural Competence is the capacity to communicate, relate and work across cultural boundaries” (BICM, p. 9).   In order to cross these cultural boundaries better, we need new knowledge, skills and attitudes.

To provide new knowledge, Module 2 begins with an explanation of culture.  Culture can be thought of like an iceberg—there are parts you can see, but most of it is below the surface.  For example, we can see how a certain cultural group acts; we can hear their language and see their dress, their food, their dances and other cultural expressions.  But the bulk of what makes up our culture, our way of seeing the world, is unseen.  This can include our values, our beliefs, our assumptions, our perceptions and other invisible things that affect our behavior.  When we interact with others, sometimes our cultural icebergs are crashing below the surface and we are unaware of the dynamics at play.

One way to analyze culture is by looking at the dimensions defined by the Hofstede Model.  The five dimensions described in BICM can be thought of as spectrums with two extremes.  A given culture will fall somewhere along the spectrum, closer to one end or the other.  These spectrums are: 1) Collective vs. Individualistic, 2) Hierarchy vs. Equality, 3) Low vs. High Tolerance for Ambiguity, 4) Masculine vs. Feminine Gender Roles, and 5) Lived Experience vs. Abstract view of Time.  Learning more about these dimensions can help us better navigate intercultural interactions in ministry.

By learning about the collective vs. individualistic dimension, I could see how our different cultural icebergs were affecting the way Hispanic parishioners experienced my communication.  I come from New England of European American descent.  The culture I was raised in taught me to communicate directly, quickly and concisely and emphasized independence.  My culture falls on the individualistic side of the spectrum.  However, the majority of those I was communicating with were recent immigrants from rural Mexico and Guatemala, most of whom belong to an indigenous culture group.  Their culture taught them to communicate indirectly in order to emphasize respect, harmony and unity above independence.  Their culture falls on the collective side of the spectrum.  Understanding this cultural dimension helps me to communicate more effectively between cultures.

I came to understand over time that I needed to focus more on my relationships with our Hispanic parishioners as well as harness the power of working collectively.   I also came to see that there were informal hierarchies that had formed in the different sub-groups in our parish.  So, I began to foster better relationships with those who were key leaders and funnel information through them.  Now, ten years later, when there is an upcoming event I make sure that I give those key leaders all the information in a personal way and encourage them to invite their group to participate.  By using this collective method and informal line of communication, we have seen a much better response.

If you think that “cultural icebergs” may be affecting your ministry, check out Module 2 of USCCB’s Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers resource. It will surely help you like it did me!

Patti Gutiérrez has served in Hispanic Ministry for 13 years in the Diocese of Owensboro.  This reflection was adapted with permission from Patti’s eBook 5 Cultural Differences You Need to Know to Succeed in Hispanic Ministry.

How to Navigate Cultural Shifts in Your Parish

The faces of many of our parishes are changing.  The Catholic Church in the U.S. is the most ethnically diverse denomination in one of the most multicultural countries in the world.  New parishioners bring with them many gifts, insights and experiences. At the same time, changing demographics in a parish can leave others feeling overwhelmed and unequipped.  Maybe your own parish has experienced discomfort due to change.  There is hope and help!  The U.S. bishops have created a workshop and a practical guide called Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers (BICM).  This guide is broken up into five modules, the first of which is entitled, “Frame Issues of Diversity Theologically in Terms of the Church’s Identity and Mission to Evangelize.”

Growing Pains

For the past 10 years I have served in a parish whose face has been changing just like many across the country.  It’s a small parish in a small, rural town in western Kentucky that has seen enormous demographic changes over the last 20 years.  Hispanic immigrants have been moving in while the people who were raised there have been moving out and into the cities.  At our parish, St. Michael’s, about 75% of our 350 families are first and second generation Hispanic immigrants.  Of those Hispanic parishioners, the majority are from indigenous cultures with their own ancient languages and cultures.  As the introduction to BICM says, “Today’s urban and suburban parishes are becoming ‘shared’ or multicultural parishes.  They find themselves serving a daunting combination of nationalities, language groups, cultures, and races” (p. xiii).  Sometimes this shift comes with seemingly constant growing pains and cultural clashes.  I’m reminded of a recent situation during our Saturday vigil mass in English.  Our parish is always open and people pop in at all times of the day or night to pray, especially people from cultures where doing so is the norm.  When a woman and her three kids came in to pray right in the middle of Mass, kneeling in the corner by St. Michael with her candle, praying out loud in her native language, while the three kids climbed around and played behind her, some of those attending Mass felt distracted the confused.  Thankfully those participating in Mass were understanding, helped manage the kids, and Mass continued.

BICM Provides Guidance

As part of my efforts to help my own parish navigate these growing pains and cultural clashes, I attended a BICM workshop and found it extremely useful—even after so many years of being immersed in Hispanic cultures through family and ministry.  The workshop helped participants name the cultural dynamics we experience as well as see the natural stages and movements most parishes follow as we work to integrate new groups into the parish.  It was also helpful to be encouraged to use neutral terms.  For example, to speak of the prevailing culture instead of saying predominant, which expresses more power.  And then there’s the problem of what we call each group.  While recognizing there is diversity even in each group, we still need a respectful way to speak about each other.  We were always running into this in our parish—do we say Americans, Anglos, whites, English-speaking, non-Hispanics?  None of those seem to fit.  At BICM we were taught that the USCCB has decided to say: 1) European Americans, 2) Hispanic/Latinos, 3) African Americans, 4) Asian and Pacific Islanders, and 5) Native Americans.  Even just that small change has helped me in intercultural conversations and has given us a common language.

In the first module of BICM, we were reminded of the Church’s mission to evangelize not just individuals but also cultures.  The Church is called to represent the communion of the Trinity, “to mirror that communion of Divine Persons in the way it welcomes and gathers all peoples – ‘every tribe and tongue, people and nation’ (Rev 5:9)” (BICM, p. 4).  In order to be faithful to our mission, we need “intercultural knowledge, skills and attitudes that enable ministers of the Gospel to proclaim Christ’s message effectively among all nations” (BICM, p. 5).  These are necessary at all levels of ministry – from the leadership to the people in the pews.

Patti Gutiérrez has served in Hispanic Ministry for 13 years in the Diocese of Owensboro.  Her reflection was adapted with permission from Patti’s Catholic Corner.

Going Deeper
Visit the webpage of the USCCB Secretariat for Cultural Diversity for more information about intercultural competencies and other useful resources.