“If Latinos do not feel welcome in the parish, they will never make it to the school,” said Fr. Joe Corpora from the University of Notre Dame, the day’s main presenter. “This effort to reach out to Latinos is going to be the future—and quite frankly, in many places, it already is.”
Fr. Corpora has given similar presentations in 25 dioceses across the country.
“Here’s where we are in many dioceses: Latinos are still renters—and renters never invest. When they become owners, they invest,” he explained.
The bilingual University of Notre Dame administrator fielded a lot of questions from the audience during what was a frank discussion. One man inquired about his statement that 17 percent of the Latino population living in the U.S. is made up of undocumented immigrants—and whether that would be a hurdle to enrolling them in Catholic schools.
The short answer was no, unless that particular school required a birth certificate. Trust and familiarity with school and parish personnel may be a bigger hurdle, he explained.
“No one should be scared or afraid of this,” said Fr. Corpora. “Goodness, the United States only will be enriched by this diversity.”
“We need to address this with reality and right away,” said Deacon José García, director of Hispanic ministries with the Toledo Catholic Diocese. “We are probably behind.”
The Notre Dame priest told the audience that Catholic congregations will have to come to terms with their inherent ethnic and racial bias or prejudice. He called it a byproduct of many people’s upbringing—something that should have changed with life experience but has not for too many.
He said a little tolerance and acceptance of the differences in culture can go a long way toward Mexican and other families embracing and joining a parish first, then sending their children to a Catholic school.
“Let’s just face it: we’re all bigots. Get over it and then deal with it,” said Fr. Corpora. “The person who tells you they’re not racist is lying. But you can work through it.”
“The problem is how we approach it. In my home country of Mexico, we don’t have Catholic schools, only private schools,” said Garcia. “So when we come here, we don’t know. We’re only coming to work and to survive in this country.”
The priest soon will be leaving his post at the University of Notre Dame for a new assignment in Mexico. But he challenged the group to raise their cultural competence to a new level in order to better understand and begin to develop relationships with Latino families, who may be a bit mistrusting at first.
“Let’s begin with cultural incompetency, because that’s where we all are,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that. Those reflect the values you were taught when you were raised.”
Fr. Corpora related a story of how Catholic families reacted in the Portland, Oregon area reacted when five Mexican children began attending the parish’s parochial school. Many feared test scores would go down. The priest met those concerns head-on with humor.
“Yeah, but you’ll start winning more soccer games,” he joked, causing many to realize how ridiculous their initial fears would turn out to be. “It’s been my experience that parents begin to buy in at two levels: when they realize their school might close without this infusion of other kids, and when the kids begin to play together. But it’s not easy.”
Fr. Corpora stated the pastor would have to be a steadfast leader to get parishioners to understand and accept a more diverse student body. He sprinkled humor throughout what was a very frank discussion.
“It’s an issue that has to be addressed—and it has to be addressed head-on,” he advised.
Fr. Corpora stated that each Catholic diocese and all the parishes within need to adopt the same attitude about diversity that corporate US-America already has embraced, explaining that companies such as Bank of America, Delta Airlines, Intel, and Johnson and Johnson actively recruit Latino students on the Notre Dame campus. He said those companies realize the economic power that a growing U.S. Latino population controls and want to increase their market share and profits.
“Companies realize they’re not going to make it if they don’t get Carlos Rodríguez in,” he said. “NPR reported about a year ago that for every three white people who retire from the workforce, only one will take their place. The rest will be people of color.”
Fr. Corpora challenged the Catholic schools crowd to rethink their typical notions of cultural competence by relaying some glaring examples of how Mexican children are raised that could lead educators to make wrong assumptions about their behavior.
One example he gave is the way people shake hands. He told the crowd he was taught to “shake hands like a man” with a firm, hearty grasp “where you’d have to struggle for oxygen after you let go.” But Mexican children, on the other hand, are taught not to give a firm handshake “until there is a level of trust there.”
US-American children are taught to look their parents in the eye when they’re talking, he said. Otherwise, they’re perceived to be lying. Mexican children, on the other hand, are taught not to look other people in the eye. He explained that authority figures may take that mistakenly to mean the child is misbehaving or not telling the truth.
“I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong. Culture is at work all the time,” he said. “So we have to be constantly aware of how culture works in our lives.”
That cultural divide even extends to the differences in how US-American and Latin American parishioners view the behavior of Catholic priests.
“In the United States, the one unforgivable sin against a priest is to break the vow of celibacy,” he said. “If you live in Latin America, the one unforgivable sin against a priest is anything against poverty. So if a priest there lives above the people, drives a car they can’t drive, goes on vacations they can’t afford, goes places they can only see from the outside—to them, it’s unforgivable.”
“I believe if we reach the kids in the parishes, it’s the right thing to do in the future,” said Garcia. “The kids will have a more open mind and can teach the parents.”
The effort comes at a critical time, as Ohio’s governor has proposed increased funding for an expansion of the state's Ed Choice school voucher program. Starting next year, kindergarteners from families who earn up to 200 percent of poverty level would be eligible for vouchers to attend charter or private schools.
That would go a long way toward making a Catholic school education more affordable for Latino families, as well as assist parochial schools to fill empty slots. But there is a catch for participating schools—they would receive $4,250 from the state for each eligible student who enrolls. But they would not be allowed to charge additional tuition.
“I think it’s about doing what’s right, not about the survival of the Catholic schools,” said García. “I think it’s the right thing to do, to open the doors to every nationality for the schools. We are one family and we are one faith.”