Parishes work to build intercultural bridges

South Carolina is rapidly becoming a more diverse place to live, and nowhere is that more evident than at the parish level.

Statewide, the Hispanic population has been growing for more than 20 years. Recently, many churches have also seen an increase in other populations including Vietnamese, Koreans, Filipinos and immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean.

Reaching out to such diverse groups can be challenging for those involved in parish ministry.

As a result, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church has established guidelines for building intercultural competence. They aren’t hard and fast rules, but rather things to consider when trying to reach out to different groups of people.

Here is a look at the guidelines and how some people involved in ministry and religious education apply them in their daily work.

Relate issues of diversity theologically in terms of the church’s identity and mission to evangelize.

St. Louis Church in Dillon is relatively small at about 70 households, but very diverse, with Hispanics, Filipinos and immigrants from Africa, including several families from Burundi.

Catherine Hunt, director of religious education, said she tries to get newcomers involved in every facet of church life and, most importantly, to share the message of God’s love at all times.

“Don’t separate groups — involve everyone in everything you’re doing,” Hunt said. “The key is to encourage people and love them.”

Cultural understanding can also come about through something as simple as celebrating special occasions or life events, she said. Members of a family from Burundi recently gained their U.S. citizenship, and parishioners in Dillon planned an event to celebrate.

“You need to try to be there for the people who come into your parish, to celebrate with them when something good happens,” she said. “They not only need their family at the celebration, but they need to know their church family is with them as well.”

Seek an understanding of culture and how it works.

Barbara Hollis, who leads religious education and youth ministry at St. Gregory the Great Church in Bluffton, said it is important to learn something about the culture and customs of new groups of people who come into a parish.

“You have to have an open mind and understand there are people coming from their own way of life into a different environment,” Hollis said. “We do that here in the U.S. If you move from the northeast to the south you have to make some adjustments, and that’s the way it is in all cultures. Everybody has to be willing to listen to each other.”

Develop intercultural communication skills in pastoral settings and expand knowledge of obstacles that impede intercultural relations.

Thomas McHugh, director of religious education at Our Lady of Lourdes in Greenwood, said language differences are the biggest obstacle to effective intercultural ministry. His parish has a very large Hispanic community where most of the children speak English but many parents have no or very limited grasp of the language, he said.

“The best way to improve relations is to find parishioners who are bilingual and will step forward to be communicators between the two communities,” McHugh said.

Volunteers in Greenwood assist Hispanic families with everything from basic religious education to learning how to prepare their children for the sacraments. A priest is available to provide bilingual aid on Sunday, but the volunteers are important for those seeking help on other days of the week.

In Bluffton, Hollis said every attempt is made to provide bilingual materials for classes and other events so both children and parents can understand what is going on.

“Do what you can to make things comfortable for people,” Hollis said. “Translate everything you can so that they feel welcome when they attend liturgies or events.”

Foster integration rather than assimilation in Church settings.

“Integration is the key,” said Rhina Medina, coordinator of Hispanic youth ministry for the Diocese of Charleston. “Integration means that people share together what is going on in the church. You want to respect the value of what each group brings to the table, rather than trying to make one group assimilate and lose their culture altogether.”

And sometimes, in reaching across cultural barriers, the most effective language doesn’t involve words at all.

“Always wear a smile,” Hollis said. “Because there might be a language barrier, but a smile makes anybody feel wonderful.”


Photo from The U.S. bishops’ committee on Cultural Diversity in the Church established guidelines for building intercultural competence. The book is available at