Can a parish priest make everyone happy in a multicultural parish?

A wet knot on a pair of sneakers is hard to untie – even harder when they’re on your feet.

As the pastor of a multigenerational, multicultural, and multilingual (Spanish, Vietnamese, and English) parish, I at times feel responsible for untying a lot of wet knots.

Farm workers from Central Mexico founded the parish where I serve, La Purisima Church in Orange, California, in 1923.

They gathered under a pepper tree for Mass until they saved enough money for a wooden mission church.

The parish built a new church in 1958 and another in 2005.

Normally new construction signals a healthy community coming together.

However, the Hispanic community came to believe that the parish was discriminating against their community and started picketing on the sidewalk before the new church opened in 2005.

Protests continued through 2014.

I did not serve at the parish during most of its history and can comment only on the repercussions.

However, I don’t believe enough people considered the effect the new large worship space, driven by donations from mostly white parishioners, could have on others.

For example, a large new sanctuary meant fewer Sunday liturgies. But who gets the favoured morning or best vigil times?

Neglect leads to public protest

The new Mass schedule offered 10 liturgies in English, one in Vietnamese, and one in Spanish.

This created a sense of loss and alienation for the Latino community, who founded the church and yet felt they were not welcome.

The new church, they felt, neglected to value them as agents of their own pastoral needs or religious practices.

The energy of the parish focused on the new building and not on the pastoral life of the Latino community.

Eventually, their alienation and disempowerment found expression in picketing, which began before construction was completed and lasted for almost a decade.

Over the next nine years, the parish went through three different diocesan pastors until, in early December 2014, Bishop Kevin Vann asked me to pastor La Purisima.

I accepted the assignment with the mutual understanding that the manifest unhappiness of the Hispanic community had not arisen overnight and could not be cured instantaneously.

It would take some time to untie this knot.

Armed guards

My first pastoral decision was to unemploy the armed guard hired to “keep the peace.”

I also began the typical task of putting names to faces and meeting my staff, who shared in the task of ministering to this diverse community of 4,000 parishioners.

My next decision was to declare a pastoral amnesty and a new beginning for everyone in the parish.

The war was over between the different language groups and everyone had won.

There would no longer be any in groups or out groups or welcomed or unwelcomed people.

Anyone seeking the Lord would be welcome.

Access to parish facilities and involvement in Masses was open to all.

Meanwhile, I refused to assign blame for the conflicts, instead focusing on parishioners’ experiences.

Three weeks later, just as I thought things were settling down, 30 families picketing in front of the church surprised me.

Armed with a thermos of coffee, some paper cups, and a trembling heart, I headed out to the sidewalk. Surprised and startled, they eventually took me up on the coffee, but hesitated on my offer to speak with them in my office regarding their concerns. Continue reading



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