3 Preaching Between Worlds: Theology and Method

Deborah Organ

I’d like to tell you about a sunny Sunday morning a really long time ago. It’s better than 20 years now. I was very scared. I was a first-year theology student, and I was standing outside a 100-year old church building in Dorchester, Massachusetts – my first field education parish. I was afraid to go in. I didn’t know what I was going to find in there. I finally opened the very heavy door and walked inside.

I saw the people in the community start filing into the pews. It was later that I realized that Napoleon with his newly born twin girls and his little boy lived in Boston and had come from the Dominican Republic maybe five years ago. Ricardo still missed Nicaragua so much that he could taste it, but his two little girls had never known anything but Boston. Ramona was there with a number of her grandchildren and Yolanda was there with her mother who had been born and raised in Puerto Rico. Yolanda had lived her whole life in Boston and was just starting to figure out who she was.

That morning when I joined them in the pews, I didn’t yet have a sense that I was stepping into another world, actually other worlds. That Sunday, though, I took that first step and put a foot into a reality that I had not known. And I have to tell you that it changed me. I don’t know what I would have been like if I had not stepped into that church, 22 years ago now.

And I can’t imagine what it would have been like to step into subsequent churches in the U.S. and abroad, different communities that have been both a mirror, each of them, so that I could see myself, who I am and who I am becoming, and also a window, each of them, into a different way of life, different ways of thinking, ways of being, ways of hearing and proclaiming the Word, the scriptural Word, ways of being the signs of the Real Presence, the active, living and effective life of that Word in that community.

It is out of that experience that I am speaking with you tonight. It’s out of that experience, my years of academic study; it’s out of the pastoral life I am privileged to lead; it’s out of my family life. My spouse Jerry and I have five children. The oldest is 17, and he knows everything. The youngest will be 10 on Thursday. They speak to me from different worlds, too. And it is also out of that context that I speak with you tonight.

I’m going to speak about intercultural preaching and its larger context. Intercultural might be a less familiar word to you than, say, multicultural, but if I can just give you a little bit of a visual image. Multicultural looks like a pie that is cut into pieces. Multicultural might be a reality that includes people from different cultures, each one in what looks like a neatly cut piece. If you take or put in one of those pieces, it doesn’t make much difference to the pie.

In the diocesan Hispanic ministry team in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, we have adopted the option of the intercultural parish. Intercultural we take to mean the interaction of people who are different culturally, but who participate in a dynamic rather than a static reality of continuing to become, as people, as community. In other words, someone who is part of an intercultural community, rather than being a piece of the pie, is somebody who gets to be who they are, but does not remain unaffected by the people around them, by the dynamics of cultural interaction that happen around them, that happen in a parish.

We’ve adopted intercultural community as a vision for our pastoral work. We’ve got, I think now it’s 24 communities in our archdiocese, where a range of ministry opportunities are provided in Spanish as well as in English. We also have a number of parishes where a range of pastoral services are provided in Spanish, Vietnamese and English. In St. Paul, we have the largest Hmong community in the country right now.

So we’re looking toward a vision of intercultural parish: coming together, being who we are but engaging in dynamic relationships so we don’t emerge the same. That’s the foundation for what I’d like to share with you tonight. It’s the reality of particularity as well as the dynamism of identity. People don’t remain the same when they interact.

An image to set beside the pie that might not be the perfect one is the symphony. Different instruments, when they play together, sound different. It’s not a perfect image, but it provides a contrast. I’ve had the good fortune, as I mentioned at the beginning, to have lived and interacted with mostly Latino communities for now 22 years or better. As most of you probably know, even within, the Latino community isn’t monolithic either. In the archdiocese, we’ve got people from 20 different countries.

Most of the time when you go to one parish community, it will be largely people from one place. For example, people from Holy Rosary, where I am working right now, 90 percent of the parish is Latino. Of those, 65 percent are from Mexico, about 25 or 30 from Ecuador. Then we have people from Puerto Rico, Honduras, and lots of other places, too. Even within that community, there is lots of diversity, a lot of potential engagement.

Intercultural preaching! It’s something that we actually do all the time. How many of you have siblings? Most people, right? Are you ever amazed at the fact that some siblings can come from the same parents? As a parent myself, I am amazed at that. When my first son was born, the kid slept through the night at six weeks of age. Seventeen months later, his brother came along; the kid still doesn’t sleep through the night.

When we are communicating, we are always doing it between worlds. We communicate through filters and we hear, listen and respond through filters, too. That’s just true all of the time when you engage in relationship; and the higher the stakes, the more important that becomes. The closer the relationship, the more that it matters that communication is possible. The more we learn about the particularity of the person we love, the more we learn about how they hear, how they live, what things mean, what’s their cultural reality, what’s their framework for seeing, for action. What’s their vision?

That’s true in a more obvious way when you are dealing with a community, a parish community where you’ve got people from different cultural groups, ethnic heritage, race. Some differences and particularities are more obvious than others. Some we assume but not make allowances for them in preaching; age and generation, for example. Most Sunday homilies that you hear don’t speak very directly to a 15-year-old boy, for example.

Believe me, I hear about it. I asked one of my sons the other day – we were talking about the values of our family – he said one of them was going to church, but he said it like, “Going to church ….” Why do you think we have you do that? And he said, “So that we will be bored.” I said, “That’s it! You’ve got it!” He doesn’t feel that most of the preaching connects with him.

So age is another way that communities can be diverse. So when we are preaching, we are preaching across worlds all the time, not only when we are engaging worlds that are more obvious, that we may name in various ways like “multicultural,” “intercultural.” The foundation of this is that we are always preaching across worlds.

There’s a diocese in Minnesota called St. Cloud, which is doing a clustering process right now. One of the students at St. Paul Seminary, where I formerly taught, was all set to go. They made him a pastor, after his second year after being ordained, of three different places that were coming together into a cluster.

The people in those three different congregations looked pretty much the same, kind of a Scandinavian look, you know, northern Minnesota. But he was finding that they weren’t the same at all. There were three different worlds, three different traditions, three different parish cultures. They were coming together, or not, in a lot of key ways in this clustering process.

How do we do this? How do we account for difference and particularity in a way that allows communities to celebrate, worship and see God’s Word present and active together? We need to assume, number one, that preaching is reciprocal communication. Anyone who has done it knows that, especially if you do it with eye contact. For example, I am looking at you and I am getting feedback from you. None of you are sleeping yet; I figure that is not a bad sign.

You are hearing me, but I don’t know what you are hearing and understanding. I am getting an impression from you. Preaching is conversation – homilia – table conversation. Conversation, not unidirectional. Of course, contemporary communications theory is essentially dialog; it’s transactional. It’s not one-way. It’s reciprocal.

What we want from preaching is that the words spoken resonate, resonate with an experience, for there to be connection. After 22 years in a Latino community, one thing I have figured out is that I am always going to be a gringa. It doesn’t matter how long I serve the Latino community. I hope it will be for the rest of my life, but I am always going to be who I am. I am going to be a gringa.

That doesn’t mean I cannot be in meaningful relationship and connection with the people in the parish communities I serve. In practical terms for preaching, one of the things that has meant is really sitting down and reflecting with people on the meaning of the Word before preaching, before getting up there. How does this Word speak to you? What does it mean? Listening to that, hearing that, dialoging about that. That is a piece of that. And then after that – and this is the hardest part for some preachers – asking, “What did you hear?”

Standing at the door as people are filing out, if you are a priest, “Nice homily, Father.” You’re a deacon, “Nice homily, Deacon.” For a lot of people, that’s all they get. If you want more, a lot of times you have to ask for it. “What did you hear?” “What didn’t you hear?” “What did you hope you would hear?” “What would you have said?”

I have to confess to you that, once in a while, I find myself in church listening to the homily and I am thinking, “What would I like to say instead?” I don’t think I am the only one who does that? Find out what that impact might be.

Elements in the preaching moment – important ones. I’ve got three that I want to name. One of them is awareness of the preacher’s self. I have to know basically who I am and what I believe if I am going to be able to engage difference, or else I just can’t do it. That’s a becoming. I am not the same as I was last year and, God willing, I’ll be different next year, too. I have to be aware of who I am and what my theological perspective is.

They say that every preacher has essentially one core message that they proclaim through the Word in different ways. I have really come to see that that is true for me and for other preachers I know well also. What is it for you? Because in order to get beyond it, I have to know what it is.

I need to know the context I am in.

You can know the context in a couple of different ways. One, I can know the big context. There are certain things people tend to have in common. Everybody is born. Everybody dies. Most people love. Many experience grief. The big human context. People don’t experience those things in the same way, but they experience them. Having an idea, just knowing them, being in touch with some of those realities in my life helps me go into another context.

If, for example, I am a guest – like tonight, for example – I don’t know most of you, I am going to try to connect with you because of certain things I know about you. I know you have some involvement in formation, theological formation. I have chatted with a few of you for a little bit. I have some idea from teaching in another formation setting for seven years in the homiletics program there. I know what some of your concerns might be because of the concerns there.

But I don’t know for sure. As an itinerant preacher, sometimes I have to go with what I know about big context and then whoever I can shake hands with. But if I am living with a community, then I get to know you in a completely different way. When you are in a parish, pretty soon you realize that in row eight, the person sitting there lost their spouse three months ago. You will remember that person in row 15; you were in the hospital with her and with a sick child last week. The people who are in the back because their toddler does not quite make it through the whole Mass.

You start to realize who those people are. You have an ear for their questions. You have an ear for what they cry out, when they are in anguish. You have an ear for what they might celebrate. You start to know what some of their hopes are. You know who is having trouble with their marriage.

You start to know what the anatomy of some of their pain is and then you can preach out of that. That’s one of the elements. It is knowing one’s self, but it is knowing, in large context and in immediate context, the way that I am with people, that I am in dialog with, preaching with, that I am preaching with in that homiletic moment.

Then there is the awareness of what our tradition says preaching is. That is the second element. The issue right now is that we have been in a crisis of identity in terms of what we as Church name as what homiletic preaching is. We have the homiletic document Fulfilled in Your Hearing from the bishops, published in 1982, that really points to the importance of scriptural preaching, homiletic preaching as essentially scriptural.

A perusal of the Roman documents indicates that that is in there; you can find the roots of Fulfilled in Your Hearing in the Roman documents. But you can find a doctrinal focus that is in there as well. Sometimes there is some tension around that. It is no secret to any of you that there is tension around theological perspective in our tradition and in the American Church.

The ecclesial scene has changed a lot since 1982, don’t you think? Some of you were actually pretty young then. There have been a lot of changes. We are in a moment right now where we are exploring homiletics, among other things. We’re trying to define, to look at, we’re reflecting on our ecclesiology, our self-understanding. We’re seeing what fits, and we are not all the same. It’s another piece of the diversity of our life as Church. We’re not all the same, and yet a big piece of theological education is learning: what are the different strains that do fit? What’s inside? How do we talk about that?

There is one thing, though, if we look through all the Church documents about homiletic preaching – there are references in lots of different places – we find again and again reflected the importance of taking into account the situation of the community. That’s a fairly common thread. In this identity, place is a real opportunity. It can be painful, too, even in parish communities, continuing to look at what we, as Catholics, say preaching is.

We have come a long way in a few decades from before the time the lectionary came out when the homily was seen as optional and not as part of the liturgy itself. We’ve moved a long way toward the homily being an essential part of the liturgy itself. Now we are in the next step. Again, what does that mean?

As a theological community, it behooves us to continue that reflection and to continue it in a way that is rooted in the faith communities that we serve. Because to most people sitting out in the pew – some of whom are waiting for a word to pull them back from the edge of disaster, some people just want the Mass to be over – intellectual arguments don’t matter that much. What matters is that the theological community gets to the heart of it.

The lived preaching, the presence of God in the Word and alive in the community: how is it that we express that? How do we do that? That’s the task in theology that brings together everything else we are and do. Just think about it. You who are in theological formation, all the study you do in systematics, all the study you do in liturgy, all the other formation you are involved with, the development of your own spiritual life and spiritual formation, the pastoral formation, your human formation. All four pillars really come together in preaching, in the immediate and in the wider context of preaching. So what the homily is to us as a faith community is the second element.

The third element is that one of the things that has happened since 1982, when Fulfilled in Your Hearing came out, is that there have been a lot of methodological helps developed to work with preaching and preaching in diverse contexts. For example, Andrew Carl Wisdom, who is a Dominican, wrote a book on preaching to the multi-generational assembly.

He says that one way to do that preaching – when you have that 15-year-old boy there, you’ve got the adults, you’ve got the kids – is to divide the assembly into generational groups in terms of what has happened in the Church: pre-Vatican II, Vatican II and post-Vatican II, by age and Church history.

He borrows from theologian Joseph Webb the concept of hub symbol as related to faith. There are certain things that are symbols for all the generations, but they may experience those symbols in different ways. He uses the Eucharist as an example in his book. The Eucharist is central, but there might be different understandings.

He suggests that in preaching itself you integrate examples and illustrations that would be pitched to the different generational groups, but in the same homily. Offer different ways of looking at the same thing so that different people could pick up on it and hear it. That is one example of the different methodologies that have been developed for preaching itself.

Recently, I did a literature review of methodologies for a project I am working on. I did notice one thing: most of them have been written by white men, dominant culture white men from the United States. I am hopeful that that area of literature will continue to expand so that we have voices of immigrants, from people who have been here a long time, from different heritages. We have voices of women writing about this.

The intellectual dialog will become even richer for preaching in diverse situations when we have more literature written by people from different perspectives. Then there is possibility for interaction. What we have now is good, but there is room. Maybe some of you will contribute to that in the coming years, so that formation communities can continue to dialog.

So, in the preaching moment itself, we have the self-knowledge, knowing the community. We’ve got the Catholic understanding of preaching, and we’ve got methodology. But the fact of the matter is that in order for preaching, intercultural preaching in intercultural communities, to really take root and flourish, pastoral leaders will need to be attentive to a larger context.

It’s not just about what happens in the liturgy. In fact, if people are going to engage difference in a way that is mutually fruitful, there has to be a larger context for that to happen in the parish itself. The parish itself offers an opportunity for that to happen that is values based; that is not offered in most other contexts. We really have an opportunity there. I want to say more about that.

The reality that’s out there, that I have seen in my years in ministry, is that a lot of places have parallel communities going on. You’ve got one community that is more numerous; they call the shots. They may offer space to another community; they might offer some other resources; but many times the newcomers feel like second-class citizens, like they are renting. Some places even charge for the space. There is certainly not a sense that there is one parish community. It happens a lot, and sometimes people don’t know how to get out of that. It’s like being in a rut; they’re stuck.

Maybe you’ll find that at the annual parish festival; the newcomer will have a booth. That’s about as far as it goes. That’s a part of the reality. The parish where I work now, Holy Rosary, took a while for some people from the Mexican community to move over and make room for the Ecuadorians.

It was just three weeks ago that they ritualized something that was new ground for them. La Virgin del Cisñe, in southern Ecuador in particular, is a major devotion. The Ecuadorians had long wanted to place an image of La Virgin del Cisñe in the church beside that of Our Lady of Guadalupe that had been up there for at least 10 years. They asked, “Could we do this?” The community said, “Yes.” They were surprised.

I had lunch with some of them after the ceremony. They said they couldn’t believe they were able to do this. They were euphoric. They had a procession. They brought her up and put her in a niche in the church with flowers and with the Ecuadorian flag as a backdrop. They felt like they had come home. That was the language that they used. You could look around the church – it was standing room only.

There were lots of Ecuadorians; not all of them members of Holy Rosary. They were so excited to see that La Virgin del Cisñe was getting a place. Many were members of the parish. The Mexicans were there supporting them and being with them. It was really lovely to see. That was a new bridge. The Ecuadorians had felt marginalized, a parallel community. Now they are saying, “I wonder if we could work together on a St. Joseph celebration for the spring.” That is a new project they have in mind.

Sometimes when engaging difference, we have to deal with fear and resistance. That’s not news to you. If we pretend that it is not there, we are not going to be able to advance. If we don’t give space to naming it without shaming people for feeling it, then we’re not going to be able to move to the next step. Often times the fear that is behind resistance is the fear of losing something.

Holy Rosary Parish again. Day before yesterday was the annual festival. I’m the new kid on the block, so I said, “Wow! I bet there’s lots of music and mariachi, different kinds of food.” Pastor said, “Well, we have a chicken dinner.” “Chicken dinner? How come we have a chicken dinner?” He said, “It’s because Lorene has been in charge for the last 20 years and there ain’t no way anything but a chicken dinner is getting past Lorene.” I said, “Is that good?” He said, “Well, we’re working on it.”

It’s a process. Lorene is very hesitant to let in something that is not the chicken dinner. The chicken dinner means more than a chicken dinner to her. The chicken dinner means that Holy Rosary is the parish that she has been a part of. The feeling I get is that if she lets go of the chicken dinner, then suddenly she’s let go of the parish. It’s spinning out of control and it’s not here anymore. She’s going to lose something.

So we have the chicken dinner and a couple of other staff members had a Mexican food booth, too. We were selling tickets in Spanish. And the people with the chicken dinner were selling tickets like they had done for many years, in English, right next to us. It comes slowly. There is a lot of fear and resistance. We have to deal with that, but it’s hard.

I would say leadership in Catholic churches, including clergy, can occasionally be conflict averse. Have you ever had that experience? It is tough to engage conflict. At least in the seminary I taught in, we did not do too much to prepare people to deal with conflict. Yet conflict comes up an awful lot in parishes. It’s easier sometimes, at least immediately, to say, “That’s not that big of a problem; maybe it will just go away.” Then it doesn’t, and there’s an explosion and we have to deal with it. And the cycle begins again.

I name diversity as a positive reality. And in communities dealing with diversity as a positive reality means dealing with fear and resistance. That all goes into making a commitment, a pastoral commitment, to form community outside the liturgy so that we can form community within the liturgy also. They are related. Parishes really do have a chance to bring people together in dialog.

Within the last year or two, I came across a resource that really clarified issues around fear resistance and diversity in conflict. The Harvard Negotiation Project wrote a book called Difficult Conversations. Difficult Conversations says many conflicts and conversations are battles of messages. Have you ever talked with someone about something that is really important? You could see, as you were talking, their eyes roll into the back of their head because you know they are thinking about what they are going to say next? They are not focused on what you are saying.

Battles of messages. Battles of messages basically assume that there is going to be a winner and a loser. We go in, because the stakes are high, believing that if I concede anything, I am going to lose. Therefore, I am not a person of integrity, and therefore I have not been able to maintain my position. So, I have to win. If I am going to win, that means I have to present my position as forcefully, passionately, and sometimes as loudly as I possibly can. We end up as two people doing that.

The Harvard Negotiation folks said that when we have a battle of messages, the higher the stakes are, the more of a battle it is. Where are we seeing that right now? The debates! This is an election year. We are seeing it in spades. We have two sides, and they both want to win. They are using everything at their disposal to do so.

We see it in our parish communities, too. We see it in our church. This [Harvard] team looked at this and asked if there was a way to reframe these conversations that are difficult and asked if they are always going to be difficult. They decided to call them “learning conversations.” Can we make a battle of messages into a learning conversation? They suggest that you can do that, because when you go into a conversation thinking that I don’t know everything, this person may have something for me that I do not have.

You do not have to give up what you are bringing to the conversation. Some people might change their mind about something after one of these conversations, though that isn’t the goal. You don’t have to know that going in, that you are going to give up something. You can go in asking: what can this person teach me that I don’t know?

Being a part of the formation faculty at the seminary for seven years has been one of the most wonderful things I have ever done, because many of my colleagues on theological faculty came from diverse theological perspectives. I learned so much from them. One of the first things I learned was that someone who thinks differently than I do is not necessarily a monolith. In other words, they are not uni-dimensional.

One of the people I taught with would seem to be as far from me as one could possibly be. Then I listened to him preach one day. I went into the sacristy and gave him a high-five right after Mass. The next week he said something I didn’t agree with at all, but that’s okay. It’s something different; I need to hear it. It’s helping me to have a fuller perspective on Church, on myself.

I am a watercolor artist. He paints as well. My first thought was, “He’s a painter?” But he is. He builds model planes, too. I learned from being on that theological faculty so much more about people and about perspectives that I had no idea about. I thought I knew, but I didn’t, because I had not listened. When you are on a theological faculty, you have to listen.

The [Harvard] Project shifts or moves and reframes to a learning conversation where everybody comes out better. What are the possibilities for that in parishes? We have the values base to introduce that kind of content and to form a community that way. It is not going to be an overnight kind of activity, but to gradually form people toward that.

I know a parish in St. Paul. Their church has a capacity of maybe 250, and they fill it on Sunday. But they get 80 people for their adult education forum. The come together and pick a focus. A lot of times it is one of the hot button issues of the Church. They will give a presentation on something. It helps that the pastor is a trained theologian.

Then he’ll say, “And your response?” They get responses from all sorts of different people. They have ground rules for these conversations. No interrupting. No screaming. And everybody has to listen. They try to form the community to listen, not just to hear but to listen deeply. Why is this person saying that? What might it mean to them? What does this person have to offer to me, even if they are diametrically opposed to what I believe?

They have come a long way in this. It’s showing in their community. I’ve spoken to that assembly. You get the feeling that these people have started to relate to each other. It is not that they are perfect, but they have started down that road. They are coming to a new place. You can feel that in the Sunday assembly.

If you work outside of Mass, if you work through the infrastructure of the parish and the opportunities that can provide – it’s not easy – but I have seen it done. I’ve seen it begun. It takes time, but the fruits of it begin showing up in the liturgy. If you have enough people – not every single person needs to be a part of setting that mood – but if you have enough people, it becomes the predominant mood. We’re here to celebrate together and we’re going to help each other do that.

I have a story about an ESL program. The people who participate in the ESL program are mostly from Somalia. Most of them are not literate in their language of origin, so they are learning to write for the first time. There are other people in the group who come from different cultural perspectives, completely different realities.

The way that the engagement works is that they help each other to write their name on the first day of class. For the first times in their lives, they are writing and reading their own names. They can only do it because they help each other. The teachers and the students working together. To see themselves come up with something completely new in that engagement is really beautiful. It’s a metaphor for what can happen in our communities, because all of this really comes down to love. This is where we get down to the doctrinal part of this, which is what I want to conclude with.

For these last comments, I want to attribute them to an Eastern Orthodox theologian, John Zizioulas; he writes about the Trinity, and a systematic theologian at St. John’s University, Collegeville, Miguel Diaz. Both of them, in different ways in their work, talk about how without difference and particularity, God would not be God. Diversity is not an add-on for God. It is the very essence of God’s life. That is our doctrine of Trinity.

What it behooves us, as this generation of the leadership of our Church, is to get into the grace, the messiness of the struggle of living out that triune relationship in the midst of our local communities. They are not going to get less diverse; they are going to get more diverse. We work our best when we have begun to be in relationship.

Some parishes make the mistake of trying to do a bilingual liturgy first thing. They do that as a first step. Bilingual liturgy requires sacrifice on everybody’s part. When you love somebody, you are willing to sacrifice. You’re not going to sacrifice for a complete stranger the way you’ll sacrifice for someone you care about. It is no different in parishes. If we can create the infrastructure, develop caring relationships that reveal love, then we can sacrifice; then we can struggle; then we can all be part of creating something new.