That all may be one

As a novice, María Elena González wanted to be a "kitchen sister," just like the sister she admired. That was not, however, what was in store for her. Still, she wanted to be with the people, to work in a parish. She did work in Guatemala for a while. Later, she was happy serving the people of Lubbock, Texas as diocesan chancellor when she was called to have a still larger impact: to become the first woman president of the Mexican American Cultural Center in San Antonio.

The center serves as a cross-cultural education center for theology, pastoral ministry, leadership, and language studies. In recent years both González and the center have concentrated on training leaders for a wide variety of multicultural communities. She is known for her workshops and lectures on "Parish Restructuring in Multicultural Communities" and "Heart Speaks to Heart: Engaging the Ethnic Voices."
A consultant to the U.S. bishops' Secretariat for Hispanic Affairs and member of the Encuentro 2000 National Steering Committee, González also helped plan Encuentro 2000, the large national Catholic gathering July 6-9 in Los Angeles that focuses on diversity in the church.

The previous three national Encuentro gatherings were focused specifically on the concerns of the Hispanic Catholic community. The theme for this year's Encuentro, however, is the multicultural challenge for the whole church. Why this change?
For me—and this is part of a larger theological framework—the challenge of the gospel has always been the same: That all may be one. As Saint Paul puts it, "There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Jesus told us that the first commandment is to love God above all, but the second one is to love your neighbor as yourself.

That is where I would base this approach of the Encuentro, which I believe is not just an event, but a way of being church: I cannot love God and profess that I love my neighbor if I don't love myself. And to the degree that I am human, to that same degree will I be holy. And that is true for all of us, for the whole church.

A new way of being church?
Not really. We have always been challenged to do this, particularly after Vatican II. But perhaps our diversity has not always been as challenging as it is now. Encuentro 2000 makes sense because we are finally challenged to look at our reality honestly. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in the midst of big waves of immigration, we did not have to be concerned with this because we had national churches and each group was more or less comfortable in its own community.

I believe national churches are no longer appropriate for this time. I do not believe we are called to be separated as Hispanic, Polish, Filipino, or Irish. We are called to be one. It may be comfortable to have national parishes, because that allows people to avoid conflicts, but it is not being a eucharistic church.

For a large group of us, who are Mexican Americans born in the United States, being one makes lots of sense because we have never known any other church. We have always been a minority in the Catholic Church of the United States. Some immigrant groups have different experiences because they were always a majority in their own countries, so they might feel they can continue to be separate. But I think the experience is that increasingly we do not want to be separated, we want to be part of the many faces of the one God. Unless we get into the system, we are always going to be left out.

Won't that mean mere assimilation? Don't different groups have a right to preserve their own identity?
For many years some Mexican Americans have misguidedly resisted assimilation, and that has led to segregation, less education, and therefore less opportunity. As a result, many doors have not been open to us because we didn't have the education. We were punished for speaking Spanish at one point, and now some want to punish us for not speaking Spanish any longer.

But I don't think that to become part of the system you need to lose your identity. Virgilio Elizondo put it very well in The Future Is Mestizo (University of Colorado Press, 2000) when he said that the great novelty of the Christian message is that we don't have to be either-or any longer. We can be both-and.

We can be hyphenated Americans: Mexican-Americans, Italian-Americans. And in the same way we can be mestizo-Christians. Elizondo says, "In this process no one ceases to be, but all are enriched. All have to die to their exclusivity, but no one will simply die. On the contrary, all will become richer in the process."

Does the term "mestizo-Christians" apply only to Hispanics who have adapted to the dominant culture?
No. I mean that all Christians are called to do this. And this is difficult. When I give workshops here at the Mexican American Cultural Center (MACC) on the "Heart of Multiculturalism," I don't so much stress multiculturalism as the heart. Does each one of us have the heart to deal with our own diversity? What I am basically asking is: Do we have a heart that is open to conversion? Because a change of heart has to happen. Otherwise, we can't have a diverse family.

I see it in my own personal family, where we have intermarriages—we have to go through a conversion of heart to accept what our nieces and nephews are doing and the intermarriages that are happening. Do we have the heart to be open to that? And, of course, this is not just happening in my family; it's happening in every family. Every family is being called to look at diversity, especially related to ethnicity and race.

Some groups that try to look at diversity do things like explicitly welcoming every single cultural group in their parish or diocese—except the Anglo group. Dioceses have "Offices for Ethnic Affairs" that lump together Hispanics, African Americans, Asians, and Native Americans—everyone but the Anglo group. Is that the way?
Certainly not. That is one expression of the mind-sets that are obstacles to a true transformation of the church. These mind-sets do not apply to every person or group, but they are often strong enough to hinder progress.

There are certain mind-sets among dominant groups, such as the one you just described, that are harmful not just to the minority groups, but to the dominant culture as well. The problem there is that the dominant culture is not aware of its own culture, is not in touch with its own cultural heritage. When that's the case, how can it understand others?

What are some of the other barriers to diversity in the church?
There is another mind-set in the dominant culture that sees those with a conscious and different cultural heritage as "the problem": They are the ones who have to have a special Mass using their own language and customs. They are the ones who have to have the church opened up at special and odd times. This mentality wants people to adapt to the dominant culture, which it sees as normative. This is dangerous because it is very divisive.

Another assumption there is that the church belongs to the dominant group. That is actually taking the table away from its rightful owner—Jesus and his "abba" (father)—and reserving the right to invite to the banquet whomever they see fit, not everyone as Jesus would. It also means that the dominant group may be equating being Catholic with being American. And that is denying the very meaning of the word catholic.

Because we are a catholic, a universal family, all are welcomed into the family. In fact, the more diversity we have in our parishes the more catholic we are.

You're really talking about conversion. But who has to convert?
Everyone does. Not just the dominant group. Minority groups also have some mind-sets of their own that can become huge obstacles in the process of becoming one. A low self-concept, which some groups may have because of historical circumstances and internalized oppression, may lead to fatalism, to self-depreciation, to thinking that the American way is the best and only way, or to seeking comfort in the safety of their own place, without mixing with others.

We all need to change these attitudes. We need to change the way we think about God, about ourselves, and about each other. That is at the very core of the Christian message. If we are made in the image and likeness of God, we cannot afford not to accept ourselves and others.

After going to grade school in a barrio school, I was one of only three Mexican Americans in my class in high school. We were frequently discriminated against, and all my confidence and feeling of self-worth just went out the window. We were never good enough for anything, and those messages were always there.

This continued when I entered the Sisters of Mercy as a novice, and some of the other sisters made fun of my accent and considered me to be "on the slow side." All that kept compounding my low self-image, and I struggled with that.

I realized that either I could become better or bitter. And I chose to become better. I didn't know what I was choosing, but I knew that I wanted to be a good Sister of Mercy, and that meant being a truly alive sister.

That struggle was hard, but I had to do it. Because in a situation of oppression or injustice—or in any situation you need to change—you cannot wait for the other person or group to convert, as if you had nothing to do with the problem, or as if you were the healthy one. We both have to change.

We cannot afford to be martyrs for the rest of our lives. If I am willing to tell my story of pain, I have to be willing to let go of it. Sometimes we use our pain—the pain of minority groups who have been wronged in so many ways—as a club to hit people over the head with. That's bitterness. And that is not going to lead us anywhere. And so, when we make the choice to be better, we make the choice to let go.

You like to say that being church means being a eucharistic people. What do you mean by that?
I mean that the Eucharist is the focal point of our communities. We gather around the table as a family—as brothers and sisters of Jesus and of each other—to celebrate our hope in God and in each other; to break open the Word of God for our everyday lives; to be nourished so that we might be faithful to the Word in our everyday living. Eucharist is about family around the table.

The Eucharist, however, cannot be contained in the hour of Sunday Mass. I cannot be a brother or a sister on Sunday morning unless I am a brother or a sister all week long. Is Eucharist a countersign to the normal divisions of the society around us? Tolerance of those who are different in ethnicity or cultural background for one hour on Sunday morning is not Eucharist. Peaceful coexistence among different cultural or ethnic groups for one hour is not the family of Jesus gathering around the table.

To be a eucharistic people on Sunday morning demands that we be involved in the process of becoming a eucharistic people all week long. Eucharist is being and acting in community with all peoples.

To be a eucharistic people means to understand that it is Jesus and his abba who are holding the banquet. The table belongs to them, and we are all invited guests.

To be eucharistic is to be thankful with our whole being that we have received an invitation. To accept the invitation is to accept sharing the eucharistic banquet with all other invited guests of Jesus, regardless of their cultural or ethnic backgrounds. We do not control who receives the invitation. We can only control our choice: to sit at the table with all others or to skip the banquet.

Where would you start to get people into a process of conversion so that all can become truly eucharistic people?
By listening to all the stories, where people come from, what they are saying and what they are not saying.

Listen, listen, listen, and invite. People cannot disagree with each other's stories, but they can learn a great deal about others by listening.

Then I would invite people to look at their passion: What would they be willing to die for? From there, we could write our mission statement, the strategies for what kind of community we want to be.

That might lead us to perhaps celebrate multicultural liturgies or to have a particular group be in charge of one particular day or Mass and invite the rest of the community to join in. It might lead a whole community to celebrate one Easter in the Vietnamese style and then Our Lady of Guadalupe with the Mexicans and then Saint Patrick with the Irish.

What is most important, however, is that everyone be involved in the planning. Otherwise it cannot be owned by all the others. Everyone has a right to the same opportunity for leadership development and to have representation on the planning and steering committees.

In this process, we'll also need to name and confront the racism and cultural stereotyping that exists in our parishes and dioceses. It's hard, but only by naming can we acknowledge, only in acknowledging can we face the truth. Only in facing the truth can we forgive and ask forgiveness. And in the process of conversion we will change and our parishes will change.

Sounds like it'll take a long time.
And that's what we have: time. We have been fighting with each other for 2,000 years; it's time for us to stop.

When I talk about culture, I always use the image of an iceberg. The external cultural expressions are just the tip of the iceberg. We have to go deeper to understand the deep values and the common faith of the people.

But doesn't the church call us to be "countercultural," to set ourselves aside from the culture?
No. The church wants us to be countercultural to the "no-God culture." However, all our expressions, actions, and attitudes come from our cultural heritage and values, and most of them are grounded in faith.

Take something like Saint Patrick's Day. It might seem very secular, but it has religious roots. Or the curanderismo—the popular healing and folk-medicine rituals—that many Mexicans practice; it has very spiritual roots. The point is to discover the underlying values, to understand their meaning, and to purify them.

But I also think that, as we listen to and understand each other's cultures and become a truly eucharistic church, we become paradoxically both deeply counter-cultural and cultural at the same time.

There is no faith expression outside of culture. There is no way to authentically and deeply express our faith without bringing to that expression who we are—what we value, how we think about God, each other, and the stranger—without our cultural heritage. Without our cultural heritage, without ourselves in our very faith expression, we have nothing more than empty words and meaningless gestures.

It is in doing this, in being deeply faithful to our culture, that we become "countercultural" in the face of a culture that denies God.

Embracing our own and others' cultural heritages, deeply respecting and loving all those differences, is the only way in which we can be church. And that is really what being Catholic means.

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