February 20, 2015

Catholic Education Outreach / Erin Jeffries

Crossing the culture gap

“In the diversity of peoples who experience the gift of God, each in accordance with its own culture, the Church expresses her genuine catholicity and shows forth the beauty of her varied face” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” #116).

A few weeks ago I was attending Pastoral Week, a conference/retreat geared toward deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics and those who work in ministry with deaf and hard-of-hearing Catholics.

Though there were hearing speakers and participants, and Mass, prayer, talks and meetings were either interpreted or voiced, the majority of the communication took place in American Sign Language—something I know a little of, but definitely not proficient in.

This meant that to communicate with most of the people around me, it required patience, a little creativity, and/or asking for help. In short, I experienced being on the other end of a language barrier.

Yet, it provided a great opportunity to observe and listen and engage with a vibrant community and culture. I learned a lot—from remembering to look at the speaker rather than the interpreter, the importance of visibility, and what a silent Mass looks like! I also saw and heard many things: a group of people who love to laugh, dance and talk, and who are so happy to be together as a community of faith.

I also heard a good deal of sadness: communities whose parishes have been closed, or who have been moved to different parishes several times, something that was well intentioned, but often done without consultation.

People asked loving, but tough questions: Why aren’t more resources at least captioned? How do we participate in service, when so often liturgy, classes, meetings and trainings are not accessible to us? What is the deaf Catholic’s role in the new evangelization: who exactly are we to “go to?”

I left with many thoughts and ideas, new connections, and a deep admiration for this amazing community of people.

Just days after returning, I took part in a workshop, called “Building Intercultural Competence for Ministers.” The three day conference explored five guidelines laid out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) for intercultural competence in ministry.

Now, within the framework of racial and ethnic diversity, we were talking about the very same issues. We learned through documents, such as the one above, about the rich beauty of and the value in the Church’s diversity. We gained a greater understanding of what makes a culture distinct, and how it shapes people in visible and not so visible ways.

Culture affects the ways in which we communicate and work with each other, and to work with different groups implies knowing those parameters. Are they a more individualist or collectivist group? Is it a culture of hierarchy or equality? What is a culture’s tolerance for ambiguity? And what is their time orientation like?

We saw that to effectively reach out to other cultures, we have to first look reality in the face and acknowledge obstacles that would get in the way of effective relationships, looking first at ourselves, our own fears, ignorance and perhaps guilt. Then we are able to take steps toward an environment that is hospitable to others, and in which we can truly work together and learn from one another.

When we begin to engage and build a relationship with the different communities around us, whether Latino or African-American, persons with disabilities, or the deaf Catholic community, we are all enriched, and through the Holy Spirit can come to a “a multifaceted and inviting harmony” (“Evangelii Gaudium,” #117).

(Erin Jeffries works in the archdiocesan Office of Catholic Education (OCE) as Coordinator of Ministry to People with Special Needs. For more information on how OCE is raising awareness of disabilities, sharing inclusion techniques and resourcing specialized approaches such as SPRED, contact Erin at ejeffries@archindy.org.)

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