PITTSFORD — Father Peter Abas passed out colorful, flat drums during an Oct. 15 workshop at the diocesan multicultural convocation, asking participants to experiment with making different sounds. He then asked them to follow a beat as he played a melody on a wooden flute.
“We could get paid a lot of money for this,” he joked, explaining how the group’s efforts showed that strangers can work together to produce harmonious song.
Father Abas’s workshop, titled “Challenges and Opportunities: Ministering to Asian American Catholics,” was one of several offered during the first-ever multicultural convocation, which the Diocese of Rochester presented Oct. 14-16 at Nazareth College. Nearly 500 people attended events during the three-day convocation, such as multicultural Masses, music, dance and a full day of workshops in which participants explored ways to better serve the 12-county diocese’s diverse populations. Programs focused on urban and migrant Hispanic communities, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, the deaf community, Islam, and racism and its effects on ministry.
Minority populations continue to grow within the diocese. U.S. Census Bureau statistics released earlier this year show that the number of Asians and Hispanics has risen by as much as 30 percent since 2000.
Bernard Grizard, director of diocesan Parish Support Ministries, said he hoped the convocation would be the first of many such gatherings.
“Life without cultural diversity is not an option,” said Grizard, whose office coordinated the convocation. “It’s a must. ‚Ä¶ It forms the fabric of our churches and is the heart and soul of the Gospel we preach and live every day.”
Sue Howard, a liturgy coordinator from St. Andrew’s and Church of the Annunciation in Rochester, said minority populations too often take a passive role in parish planning. She hopes that gatherings like the convocation help change that pattern.
“We need to encourage their active participation,” said Howard, who attended the event with two members of her liturgy committee and hopes future workshops would address the developmentally disabled community. “We’re looking for ways to lift up our different populations and give them our attention, to appreciate the blessings they have to offer us.”
During his keynote address, Jesuit Father Eduardo Fernandez quoted the editor of Horizon magazine, Carol Schuck Scheiber, who noted that people often are attracted to the superficial elements of diversity such as food or travel, but cringe at the complexities involved with delving below the surface.
“These are the times when diversity isn’t pretty or exotic or simply about tolerance,” said Father Fernandez, an associate professor of pastoral theology and ministry at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley. “I’m convinced true diversity is about conversion, whether mine or that of others. ‚Ä¶ Conversion entails an ongoing attitude of openness, sincerity and humility.”
At times, diversity is not welcome, Father Abas observed during his workshop, which featured a discussion of how harmony is an ideal shared by Christianity and Asian religions. Highlighting a quote from a statement by the bishops of Asia, he said harmony — which Father Abas represents with a Taoist yin-yang symbol — is central to the lives and cultures of Asian and Pacific communities and its true test “lies in acceptance of diversity and richness.”
“Some priests say, ‘You are too cutting edge’” for using the yin-yang symbol, Father Abas said. But he asserted that using such familiar symbols in his efforts to relate to the church’s growing Asian populations — including many Filipino and Korean families at St. Anne Church where he ministers — is not cutting edge, but a necessity.
“Harmony is like the balance of two conflicting forces,” he explained, again asking participants to drum a rhythmic sound. “That’s harmony. How did you make that harmony happen? Where did it come from? We want to be the heart and soul of the Gospel, but if we use too much of our intellect, it causes disharmony.”
Father Abas, a native of Borneo, Malaysia, added that the more knowledge the church gathers about cultures in its midst, the more mutual respect will flow and the better the church can serve.
He cited the Asian values of strong family ethic, respect for elders and spirituality based on Eastern philosophy as areas about which the church can learn.
Chong H. Park, a Maryknoll lay missionary from Flushing, Long Island, helped Father Abas explain this practice to workshop participants. Park had come to the convocation out of curiosity and left very impressed. He belongs to a parish with a Korean population of 7,000 people.
“Being the universal church, isolation is painful and not what’s intended, ” Park said.