Exploring issues of diversity - Catholic Courier

Exploring issues of diversity

Reaching beyond a church’s four walls and into the community is one of
the biggest challenges for Father Tony Mugavero, pastor of St.
Bridget’s Parish in Rochester. Last month, his parish held a tent
revival in an effort to appeal to those curious about the Catholic
faith but uncomfortable entering an unfamiliar church.

Father Mugavero is one of a growing number of people in the diocese
who feels there is a need for the local church to truly welcome and
embrace everyone, regardless of age, race, ethnicity or geographic

“To me it is so telling that we have such a small black Catholic
population in Rochester, and I travel street after street and there’s
only a black population, and many of those streets are unchurched,”
Father Mugavero said. “We have to be humble and admit we still have
feelings about color. We have to create an environment where people are
together to break that down.”

The need to break down barriers and build bridges between cultures
was among topics parish leaders delved into during last month’s
diocesan Leadership Days. Panel discussions and workshops focused on
the different kinds of diversity in the church of Rochester, from the
geographic diversity between urban, suburban and rural parishes to
their cultural and ethnic differences. The event also presented an
opportunity to discuss the gifts, challenges and needs of cultures and
parishes within the diocese.

“Our local church of Rochester is incredibly diverse and rich with
many gifts, and this diversity in the local church is really a gift to
all of us,” said Bernard Grizard, director of diocesan Parish Support
Ministries, which coordinated the event. “It’s what makes our richness,
and it’s really what the body of Christ is about; being different but
one. The more we learn about this gift the more we are enriched. It
will really build this church and give us a better idea of who God
really is.”

Gifts of parishes

Parish leaders agree that volunteerism is an important gift of
urban, suburban and rural parishes alike.

Father Bob Ring, pastor of Our Lady of the Lakes Catholic Community
in the Finger Lakes, said his parishioners derive a tremendous sense of
pride from volunteering to take care of themselves and the needs of
their rural church.

Father Alex Bradshaw, pastor of Our Mother of Sorrows Parish in
Greece, agreed, saying a strong volunteer base is also a gift of the
suburban church.

“There’s a core of people who are the solid base of a faith
community, an invariable point of contact for volunteers and have
consistently shown an involvement in the parish,” Father Bradshaw said.

Father Mugavero said that volunteers and a strong music program are
among strengths of his urban parish. But one of its biggest assets, he
noted, is its “incredible diversity.” Two-thirds of the parishioners
are African American and only one-third are “cradle Catholics,” he

“We have a real different dynamic at work, and that creates some
wonderful things,” he said. “In a lot of ways they have lived faith,
and that faith has been tested in life.”

Overcoming challenges

Father Mugavero said that the urban setting of his parish presents
unique challenges.

“Our challenge is to be able to create relationships that will grow
in such ways that eventually we start to change the culture of the
street, the economics of the street. We’re out there on the front lines
and we’re in daily conversation with prostitutes, drug dealers; it’s a
different kind of challenge,” he said.

Rob Layer, youth minister at Our Mother of Sorrows, said that
reaching out to Catholics of all ages and cultures is important.

“Our youth today don’t look at the church the same way that we do. I
think your youth look at the church as being Catholic, meaning
universal. I think the greatest need is to continue to reach out and
for us as staff not to get stuck within the four walls of the church,”
Layer said.

Father Norm Tanck, pastor of Christ the King Church in Irondequoit,
said some so-called suburban parishes, like his own, cannot really be
considered suburban. Parishes like these lay between urban and suburban
areas and have a mix of both influences, giving them something unique
to offer.

Many representatives from urban parishes said that it is important
to stop concentrating on numbers and start really looking at
parishioners to find out who they are and how to better minister to

“How can we as a church start listening to the people? I believe
that’s something we really haven’t done yet. I think we need to start
from a position of humility. Start by listening, not by jumping to
conclusions,” said Father Ray Fleming, pastor of Rochester’s Emmanuel
Church of the Deaf Parish.

“It is very important to know the culture. We need to build
relationships and be able to be a bridge between one another,” said
Sandra Rojas, pastoral administrator of Rochester’s Our Lady of
Perpetual Help Parish.

Veola Hawkes, a parishioner of the Roman Catholic Community of the
19th Ward in Rochester, said this change needs to start with the
leadership, who should try to be inclusive and reach out to those who
feel unwelcome. Hawkes stressed that she is comfortable in her parish
community but thinks the diocese as a whole needs to shift its
paradigm, using personal contact to let people know they are

“The church needs to do something about the invisibility of the
black culture in the Diocese of Rochester. If we are part of the body
of Christ, continue to celebrate us as such,” Hawkes said. “I believe
that the Catholic Church can be a leader in this community.”

Doug Mandelaro, diocesan spokesman, agreed that it is crucial that
all feel welcome in the church.

“We are working hard to achieve, through programs and other ways of
reaching out, a goal that no one feels invisible,” he said.

Reaching out

Project Unity is one way parishes in the diocese are attempting to
bridge cultural and geographic gaps. The project, which is coordinated
by diocesan Catholic Charities, is specifically designed to provide
bridge-building opportunities.

Project Unity provides guidance and support to parishes that want to
form a partnership with other parishes, and also offers three
opportunities for involvement. Parishes, planning groups or individuals
can choose to partner with the migrant community, an inner-city
Catholic school or first-time home owners, building personal
relationships through socializing, tutoring and mentoring. Emphasis is
placed on partners learning from and helping each other, as well as
making sure that there is an equal give and take, since each party has
its own gifts to share.

“We need to understand our interrelatedness and our need for one
another. We’re not isolated in ourselves, and we don’t possess
everything that we could as a community. We need each other,” said
Sister Janet Korn, RSM, social-justice awareness coordinator for
Catholic Charities.

At St. Andrew’s School in Rochester, about 25 people volunteer to be
tutors through Project Unity. Volunteers do anything from tutoring
children who need extra help to providing enrichment for advanced
children. Principal Tracy Nadler said the children often form close
relationships with their tutors, sometimes even becoming pen pals at
the end of the school year.

“It’s just beautiful to see the children respond to the adult men
and women, who are reciprocating. We do believe that it’s academically
useful,” she said, adding “You can just see the flash of excitement and
joy as the child understands the concept.”

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