For Catholic immigrants new to the United States, church is the only place that feels like home for a while.
Jorge Tetzaguic knew little English when he arrived in Boston 26 years ago. He’d go to youth group on the hunt for friends or, at the very least, full conversations, relaxing into the Spanish he’d been raised speaking in Guatemala.
Raisa Carrasco-Velez sought music and memories. She missed her friends and family in the Dominican Republic and leaned on familiar rituals during worship to transport her back to them.
“Sometimes I just cry listening to the songs I used to listen to as a kid,” she said.
Like many other immigrants, Tetzaguic and Carrasco-Velez credit their Catholic community with sustaining them through the early, uncertain days of building a life in the U.S. The church offers language support, job advice, financial resources and fellowship, helping newcomers get their feet on the ground while staying connected to their faith.
“The meaning of the church in my life as an immigrant was so different than the role it played when I was growing up,” Carrasco-Velez said. “It was so important and significant in my transition.”
Outreach efforts aimed at new immigrants don’t only fulfill the church’s social justice mission. They also safeguard the Catholic community’s membership, influence and relevance, as the American-born contingent of believers ages and declines in size. In 2014, 27 percent of U.S. Catholics were born outside of the U.S., compared to 23 percent seven years earlier, according to Pew Research Center.
The Catholic Church in America, with its long history of transforming through immigration, serves as a microcosm of how immigration continues to change the religious landscape in the U.S. Foreign-born believers are a growing share of worshippers and leaders in many of America’s faith communities, which means the institutional health of many religions may be impacted by the Trump administration’s strict immigration enforcement policies.
Although immigrant Catholics praise their faith communities, they want to be seen as more than a source of growth or a group that needs to be protected. They’re increasingly accepting leadership positions and calling on their fellow Catholics to recognize the unique skills and insights they bring to the church.
A new study shows that there are now 4,000 nuns serving or training in the U.S. who were born outside of the U.S. Additionally, 3 in 10 priests ordained last year were foreign-born.
Immigrant Catholics are “expanding the imagination of Catholicism in the U.S.,” by drawing on their experiences with Catholicism in other countries, said Hosffman Ospino, an assistant professor of Hispanic ministry and religious education at Boston College. He’s hopeful that American-born Catholic leaders will continue to listen.
In search of community
As Tetzaguic and Carrasco-Velez noted, the U.S. Catholic Church has a variety of programs in place to serve new immigrants. But awkward moments, homesickness and confusion are still an inescapable part of the transition process, said Ospino, who moved to the U.S. in 1997 to study and then planted roots.
“There was a little bit of cultural shock” at first, he said, describing how his early worship experiences in the U.S. compared to growing up in Columbia.
“During the week, people don’t engage with their faith as much (in America.) You go on Sunday, do your thing, check that off your to-do list and move on,” Ospino added. “I came from an environment in which faith and life were intertwined — not only on Sundays, but on Saturdays, Wednesdays, at home and at school.”
In other countries, and especially in Latin America, the Catholic Church is so dominant in day-to-day life that religious practices become community activities.
For example, Tetzaguic remembers his entire neighborhood having work off during Holy Week, the week before Easter, and spending hours decorating their streets for a weekend of festivities.
“The whole neighborhood would get together and prepare for the (Easter) procession to go through,” said Tetzaguic, a 43-year-old CAD designer.
In the church he attended in Guatemala, the priest was more than just a religious leader. He was like a master of ceremonies, lawyer, psychologist and spiritual guide all rolled into one, charged with leading a messy, energetic family, Tetzaguic said.
“Here it’s more like the priest is the priest and there’s several other leaders to take care of the rest,” he noted.
Sometimes this division of responsibilities is necessitated by the size of congregations, but it becomes a problem when only some staff members overseeing a bilingual faith community speak both languages, said the Rev. Henry Petter, who leads St. Ann Catholic Parish in Coppell, Texas.
“When I came five and a half years ago, there was only one Spanish-language coordinator who answered all the questions from Hispanic families,” he said, noting that around 3,000 families only had one gateway through which to access or ask questions about the church’s resources.
These differences in community life and leadership between immigrants’ childhood churches and parishes in the U.S. are most problematic when they affect parents’ ability to pass their Catholic faith on to their children, said Carrasco-Velez, an educational administrator in Lawrence, Massachusetts.
Her life in the Dominican Republic was infused with reminders of the value of strong personal faith. Her grandmother, a key religious mentor, attended a church function nearly every night and counted family, friends and neighbors as allies in her efforts to keep Carrasco-Velez interested in the Catholic Church.
“I remember my neighbors walking down the street with me to go to Mass,” Carrasco-Velez said.
Now a mom of two kids, ages 16 and 24, she struggles to create the same kind of environment for them.
“I’m happy we have access to material things my family didn’t have before, but I don’t want to sacrifice the things that weren’t material,” Carrasco-Velez said.
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