Gospel to the Hispanic: Unrecognized Ministry by Dominga Zapata, from 'Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View', National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972

Gospel to the Hispanic: Unrecognized Ministry

by Dominga Zapata,

from Women in Ministry: A Sisters' View, National Assembly of Women Religious, Chicago, 1972, pp. 123-133.

ZAPATA, S. Dominga SH. MA cand. In Religious Studies, Mundelein College, 1972. Staff member of Chicago’s Center for Adult Learning; national Asesora, Movimiento Familiar Cristiano; member-midwestern division, USCC Committee to the Spanish Speaking.

There are an estimated ten million Spanish-speaking Americans in the United States, constituting the nation’s second largest minority. They can be found living in nearly every state of the union.

More than six million are Mexican Americans, the majority of whom are scattered in the southwestern states of Texas, California, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, or in sizable communities in Chicago and Kansas City. New York City is the hub of one million and a half Puerto Ricans: at least 50 percent of New York’s population today is Spanish speaking. The third largest segment of the Spanish speaking in this country is comprised of more than half a million Cubans, who are concentrated in the New York-New Jersey area and in Florida. Besides these three dominant segments, there are about 1.5 million Latin Americans.

Although they come from various origins, the Spanish-speaking Americans are welded together by a common language and common traditions. Pressure from the outside Intensifies these bonds. For the Hispanic peoples find themselves OUTSIDE the American way of life—that life of progress and opportunity—precisely because of the strong ethnocentric orientation which binds them to their culture.

What is the situation of these ten million in a land of plenty? In a society where education is an indispensable tool the median of completed years in school is 8.3 years. The dropout rate of 60 percent of our youth does not promise a very different future. Only 6 percent of the national college enrollment belongs to this portion of American citizenry.

When you look at the economic picture of the Hispanic peoples, you understand the above figures. The median income for a Spanish-speaking family (which is certainly not limited to two!) is $4,164. This is one basic reason why so many Hispanic men volunteer for service in the armed forces. Military service provides a family with regular income and the promise of an education if the young man returns from war. The reality, however, is that 21 percent of the Vietnam casualities are Spanish-speaking.

As ministers of God and servants of his people, there is a deeper question I ask myself: “Where are these ten million Christians in relationship to the Catholic Church?” The Hispanic people comprise 26 percent of the total Catholic population of the U. S. One-quarter of the rich Catholic Church of the United States is composed of the poor, the oppressed, the rejected, the unwanted ones. The Hispanic “church” has one Mexican-American bishop and one Hispanic-American bishop out of some 275 bishops who have membership in the National Catholic Conference of Bishops. There are fewer than 200 native Hispanic priests among the 20,000 priests who serve the Church of the United States. Religious women comprise less than 5 percent of the total number of 157,000 sisters in this country. The main thrust of the U.S. Church, i.e. its Catholic schools, serves only 4 percent of our children. This, then, is the reality of our unrecognized ministry.

Yet to be a servant of one’s brothers and sisters is the call every Christian receives. I learned this sense of ministry in my own family, as youngest of twelve children. Eighteen years ago I found myself in Jersey City in the midst of the reality described above, i.e. a large Hispanic family trying to “make it as Christians” in a foreign country, in a Church where everything was unfamiliar. I shared in the diverse practical reasons my family had in emigrating from Puerto Rico to Jersey City. Very soon, however, we all discovered that those reasons were not enough for a Christian family.

Through Baptism each of us had received a mission to be fulfilled wherever he or she found himself/herself. Each one of us had to discover a specific ministry within the Church and the world around us. I was helped by each member of my family to realize that ministry is not limited to hierarchical ministry.

Aware of the need to bring to others the knowledge and the love of God, I found my ministry after some years of painful groping, within religious life, in the Society of Helpers. The experience of transcending a given reality through faith, e.g. of finding God on broiling, noisy streets in the love my people showed for one another, was the motive behind giving my life to do the same for and with others. I was afraid that my people would cease to believe because life was being crushed out of them by their struggles to provide material necessities for their families. The task which presented itself to me, as member of the Church, was to see that a people which was Catholic in name was also Catholic in deed.

Ministry as Process of Identification

Ministry as I experience it is a process of identification with my own people. It is the articulation in words and deeds of their experience of life, opening on to the Absolute Mystery of 1ife present right where I find myself. To preach the Gospel to the Hispanic people demands more than being of Hispanic descent or the ability to speak Spanish. These attributes, helpful in my ministry, are only part of identifying as a minister. The ministry which the Church needs to offer my people through me demands that I identify with their burdens and their challenges as my burdens and my challenges. And isn’t this the concept of Church which St. Paul offered to us when Jesus Christ was a living memory?

As minister I must feel as they do... think as they do...rejoice with the events of their life, i.e. to doubt, decide, suffer and conquer the same things. I must speak and act for those who are not yet able to do it for themselves, as I labor to bring about this life-power within them. My ministry should be molded after Jesus the Liberator, who took upon Himself our burdens and called each of His followers to do the same for all men and women. Our ministry has to look more to the Master who taught us to serve and less to institutional interpretations of past forms of ministry.

Ministry as process of identification is a life freely shared with the anguished youth, the unwed mother, the unemployed father, the dissatisfied ministers of the barrio Church and the happy family. Models of ministry are to be found within their own design of living, their own spirit and tradition. A close identification is the rod that strikes the rock, allowing fresh water to gush forth; it evokes accurate and meaningful words to articulate what silent men and women feel about the “human” condition which may prevent them from being or becoming human. It is precisely at this time that my ministry assumes its deepest relevancy: I can offer the Living Word of God to interpret the meaning of their human 1ife.

There is a special joy to be derived from working with minorities; were not God’s chosen people, the People of Israel, a minority? Ministry must always take reality into consideration, interpreting life in the light of the Gospel, while pastoral orientation must be scrutinized in the light of reality as experienced. Religion for our ten million Hispanic Catholics is not a recent acquisition; the Christian religion is an essential part of our culture. The individual and communal commitment to Christ in the Catholic Church has been part of the cultural cement which has formed and held our people together. Ministry must recognize and reflect this fact.

Ministers to the Hispanic Church must assume that the Hispanic are capable of living out the message of love given by Christ in a different but nevertheless not inferior way. Christ’s message is not limited but enriched by diverse cultural translations; and the message goes beyond any boundaries. Culture is communicated by language. Hispanic people need their own language to communicate that part of their culture which is religion. Consideration of cultural traditions and language, so important to ministry, has been almost totally lacking in the ministry to our people in the past and also today.

This explains why, in determining to let myself be missioned to my people, I found myself setting out on a journey with no clear route ahead and few directions. Only faith and intuition made me “press on with hope in my heart for a vision never fought for in vain.” My first impulse was to ignore the larger society which seemed too hostile and unwelcoming to my people. Why waste time in college, that “American value?” Fortunately, there were around me visionary women who helped me to see the need of preparation in terms of greater service for the Church and my people.

My encounters with institutions threatened to turn me back, again and again. It seems so impossible to effect any change or to open a door by oneself, at least when institutions themselves have ceased to examine their own sense of existing. Fortunately Mundelein College, where I resumed by studies ten years after I had graduated from high school, was itself in a period of search. So I could share my frustration at studying the social problems of Latin America while the problems of my own people in the U.S. were not even being mentioned. I could rebel at figures and theories and speculations of what was happening beyond reach and enlist scholarship for the “at hand.” Eventually I could come to the conclusion that frustration is part of any new reality which is worth searching in order to discover a new future. Besides, the experience drove me toward precision and greater involvement in the community I hoped to serve as I moved from sociological studies to theology.

Good News to the Hispanic People

S. Carol Frances Jegen, chairman of the graduate program in Religious Studies at Mundelein, knew that the path of religious education for the Spanish-speaking had to be opened. I knew that my ministry lay among my people and wondered how best to prepare for it. Together we worked out a curriculum that satisfied my interests and the prerequisites for pastoral work. I got the feeling that I was helping Mundelein College to minister to God’s people as much as it was helping me to minister to the Hispanic. I learned how new paths can be opened by those who dare to walk on unpaved roads and invite others to come along. Ministers of the Word must be daring!

With a partial scholarship from Mundelein and working part-time at Chicago’s archdiocesan CCD office, I continued in the Religious Studies graduate program. More than ever, as I met lack of comprehension among so many priests and religious of good will, I was convinced that solid preparation and extended reflection were necessary for ministry to minority peoples. My theological studies have been adapted to the pastoral work that lies ahead for me and for others who will follow after.

Involvement with the Movimiento Familiar Cristlano has helped me to develop a family ministry. With a group of Spanish-speaking couples, priests and sisters, I’ve been able to write a program to be used by Spanish families throughout the country and in Puerto Rico. I consider this one of the greatest contributions made by my people to my people in the field of religious formation. For the Hispanic, the family remains the center of all our values. A religion learned within the context of the family is, therefore, more vital than that learned in the classroom.

The writing of such material is far more demanding than one might imagine. Time is desperately needed to write meaningfully, especially when immersed in another man’s culture. Money is desperately needed to print anything worth reading, and the Hispanic have limited resources themselves even for material essentials. Deep understanding and respect is necessary, if “educators” are to resist the temptation to dole out preconceived answers to questions people are not asking. I believe that the fullest expression of reality can be given only by those living that reality, and this is what makes this family program so valuable. Couples who a few years ago could not help themselves are now sharing with others their struggles and their faith. To assist others to minister to each other is an essential part of my ministry.

The same situation is found in the field of religious education strictly speaking. I was terrified at the thought of sharing the responsibility of religious education for half a million Spanish speaking in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The CCD office was aware of its responsibility to the Spanish speaking, but no one seemed to know how or who should take the first step. There are no materials in Spanish in this country to guide religious educators and insufficient trained personnel to minister to my people. It was in this context that I realized the responsibility I had as a woman religious.

We women of the Church have contributed much to religious education throughout the centuries. Now we are called to make this specific contribution to a people who have remained faithful to their call under very difficult circumstances. The simple fact is that 26 percent of American Catholics have no religious education materials and woefully few trained ministers to help them search toward commitment to the Lord because they speak Spanish.

The difficulties and frustrations have been lessened for me during this past year, thanks to the creation of LAS HERMANAS, a national organization of Spanish sisters which counts among its members more than 1,000 of the 5,000 Spanish sisters of the U.S. I am aware that ministry to the Hispanic is shared with others, women religious like myself. LAS HERMANAS is trying, however, to share pastoral concerns among LaRaza. Common reflection on the type of ministry needed has brought about concrete actions. Several members are in Quito, Ecuador, studying at the Pastoral Institute of Latin America, in search of a wholistic pastoral approach. While the situation of the Spanish speaking in this country differs radically from the life experience of any Latin American country, the cultural orientation and language make Quito valuable in terms of pastoral adaptation to the Hispanic people. Until quality programs are initiated here, Quito will attract the Hermanas who believe that La Raza Church depends upon what Church we introduce our people to and how their faith is kept alive and growing.

Yet the difficulties faced in an “unrecognized ministry” like ours can never excuse us from ministering to those who hunger and thirst for the Word. Realizing that individual sacrifice and efforts to preach to ten million people would never suffice brought together groups like Las Hermanas so as to minister to our people as Church and not as individuals. Like everyone else we need proper training, materials, financial support: to serve our people in the 1970’s we must search for the charismas and sciences of our times. We cannot remain silent through ministerial attempts which perpetuate the oppression of our people—liturgies celebrated in basements with poor lighting, bad translations, devoid of celebration of the Son of God; crisis responses to social and economic evils, geared to specific problems without analyzing their causes; pietistic programs oriented to “appeal to the masses.” Our ministry must have always in view man fully alive!

I began by calling my ministry an “unrecognized one.” It is important to me to clarify “unrecognized by whom.” I recognize my ministry as genuine and essential enough to the life of the Church to call from me a lifetime commitment. My people recognize my ministry to them as I recognize theirs to me. Our people discern God by their experience of His presence in the minister as she or he brings hope to them in their life situation. A family may have heard the Good News of the Samaritan preached to them many times, but until the day when convent doors opened to shelter a mother and her seven children, driven form their home by fear, their ears were not yet open.

The ministry to the Hispanic remains unrecognized in its urgency and dimensions only by the institutional Church. It remains our responsibility to help the entire Church to recognize its own ministries. We need to set up Pastoral Committees to reflect and propose pastoral plans to minister to our people. These committees should represent the entire Church—the laity, bishops, clergy and religious. The present situation can only be changed by individuals like you and me who recognize our ministry, dare to open all kinds of possibilities for ourselves and others like us who are searching with anguish into the meaning of their ministry.

The recognition of such ministry is essential to the life of the Church. The reality given to me at Baptism cannot be measured by institutional goals. As a Christian woman and a religious, as part of the oppressed people of God, I cannot ignore the call to bring to others the knowledge and love of God as the most liberating element of their lives. Recognized or not, ministry to my people must continue in men and women called by the Spirit. The Gospel to the Hispanic carried by women like ourselves must become a recognized ministry that the Lord may be present among his people.

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