Session participants examine how diocese welcomes the stranger

CHARLESTON — During a workshop designed to help come up with ideas on how to welcome newcomers and underserved ethnic communities in the Catholic Church, representatives from the Diocese of Charleston were inspired to keep their minds open.

Msgr. James A. Carter, vicar general; Kathleen Merritt, director of the Office of Ethnic Ministries; Dorothy Grillo, director of Catholic Charities; Margaret Adams, PhD., superintendent of schools; Father Filemon Juya, vicar for Hispanic Catholics; and Father Dac Tran, vicar for Vietnamese Catholics, attended the program Dec. 4-6 in Memphis, Tenn.

It was the fifth in a series of seven regional training sessions sponsored by the U.S. Migration and Refugee Services’ Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

“I got a deeper understanding of how it feels to be a stranger in a new Catholic community and the challenges they face,” Merritt said. “Some of those challenges include culture shock. Migrants have to adjust to living in the United States and the way we do things here. They have to adjust to different forms of worship and that’s central to their community.”

Delegates are appointed by their bishops and go back to their dioceses for consultation about what services are already available and what more is needed at the parish or diocesan level.

The event was created to achieve a better appreciation for ethnic and racial diversity and a greater capacity for welcoming immigrants and refugees into Catholic communities, according to Father Anthony McGuire, director of the U. S. Bishops Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees.

Father McGuire, who delivered the keynote address at the conference, urged the participants to help their dioceses and parishes implement the statement. To meet those needs, the Migration and Refugee Services’ Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees has approximately $700,000 available in grant money for projects. Grant proposals are due within four months after each regional training session, which began in November 2001 and end in June 2003.

The conferences and grants are a follow-up to the pastoral statement “Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity,” unanimously approved by the U.S. bishops in November 2000. The statement calls all members of the church — bishops, priests, deacons, religious, lay leaders and parishioners — to conversion, communion and solidarity, as Pope John Paul II requested in 1999 when he published his apostolic exhortation “Ecclesia in America.”

“Simple, grace-filled kindness and concern on the part of all parishioners to newcomers are the first steps,” said the statement’s summary.

At the Memphis meeting, delegates came from Arkansas, Louisiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina and Florida. They participated in plenary sessions, panel discussions and small workshops designed to share ideas for encouraging welcome atmospheres, best practices in dioceses and parishes, advocacy for immigrants and refugees, and building bridges between ethnic and national communities.

Some of the challenges the South Carolina group identified were language barriers, feelings of isolation, fear of rejection, strained relationships with other ethnic groups, competition for parish resources and the unfamiliarity of parish pastors, ministers and staff and parishioners with immigrants’ cultures.

Merritt said it is every Catholic’s responsibility to create a welcoming parish. In the training they assessed what is in place in the Diocese of Charleston to ‘welcome the stranger.’

“The Diocese of Charleston is leaving out different groups,” she said. “We are concentrating on Hispanics, Vietnamese and blacks, but we are leaving out people like Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, the Polish, Irish travelers, Africans, Lebanese, Haitians and Italians.

“By taking time out and coming together as a team, we were able to look at what are doing, and we discovered that our structure is set up well, and we can improve programs we have in place.”

The remaining regional sessions are scheduled for March 12-13 in Dallas and June 25-27 in Seattle.