Culture of Encounter in Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri has become a touchstone of contemporary discourse on race relations, usually juxtaposing African American and white populations. Yet, this Missouri town is also home to a Catholic parish that serves, among others, over a thousand Hispanic families—Our Lady of Guadalupe.

“Ferguson speak” generally disregards the Hispanic experience because the racial dynamics are different. But Hispanics are no strangers to prejudice. Linguistic barriers and xenophobia present societal challenges. Even among people of faith, discrimination arises from bias against Hispanic’s distinct customs, strong ethos, and energetic faith expressions. To be sure, overcoming prejudice and integrating cultures is hard work. Politicians, community leaders, and pastors everywhere struggle to articulate the ideal. Here is a suggestion: study faith communities with Hispanic ministry. Such multicultural parishes exemplify the worthy effort for unity. Among them, the diverse parish of Guadalupe strives to model what Pope Francis terms a “culture of encounter.”

In this regard, one of the greatest teaching tools of many in the Hispanic community is humility. This doesn’t mean poverty; it means honesty, openness, and simplicity. Humility allows people to embrace others naturally, and share with others readily, when they encounter them. Once during a homily in Spanish, I admitted, “Ya sé que no soy hispano…” (“I know I’m not Hispanic…”) and immediately I heard several voices shout back from the pews, “Si, Padre, lo es!” (“Yes, Father, you are!”). An applause of approval followed.

Asking the Right Question
The answer to some of our problems involving racism, exclusivity, and disunity, woefully visible in Ferguson, may lie in encouraging such a culture of encounter. But to get to that answer, we must first ask the right question.

The flawed question often underlying our thinking and actions is a possessive one: Whose is it? This attitude limits encounter and hinders unity.

Here is a local example. A recent civic affair commenced with a bilingual invocation. The gesture to use Spanish seemed to signal a multicultural and inclusive event, and yet representation among the many awardees lacked cultural variety. There were no Hispanics present. African Americans were observed to be among the crowd, but none of them was officially acknowledged. During the function, several people extolled the virtues of diversity in the community. But those virtues were not displayed. The specter of a possessive attitude loomed. It seemed as if the town belonged to a certain group of people. Whose town is it? That was the question.

This attitude can exist among all races and ethnicities. Local blacks, whites, and Hispanics have all recounted stories of feeling forced out of their residential communities, shunned or driven away by neighbors, because they didn’t fit in. An unspoken question shapes this behavior: Whose neighborhood is it?

Possessive tendencies also afflict faith communities. Guadalupe is no exception to this perennial struggle in parishes. Members of the community sometimes view buildings and resources as the personal property of a certain group, rather than as the parish’s common home. Here is a familiar chorus: “Father, the Hispanics used our room again and they left a mess. Please tell them to use their own space.”

The same territorial disposition also extends to liturgies. There are five Sunday Masses at Guadalupe; only two are in Spanish. Attendance at each Mass in English is dozens while attendance at each Mass in Spanish is hundreds. Yet decreasing the number of English Masses is a taboo subject. Suggesting it, one must prepare for a tight-fisted reaction: “But this one is my Mass.” Also, beware of the oversteer: “If the Hispanics want to be part of our parish, then they should worship in English.” The hidden question reveals itself: Whose parish is it?

What if, through the grace of God and guidance of the Spirit, that underlying query were to make a slight grammatical shift? If we let go of the possessive pronoun, the self-interested question “Whose is it?” changes to the expectant refrain that begins a dialogue with the person knocking on the other side of a door: “Who is it?” It’s a simple change but a radical difference. It indicates that among the invisible barriers surrounding our carefully guarded territories, there is a door to be found, and beyond that door there is someone we should encounter—“Who’s there? Who is it?”? In the light of this hopeful pursuit of encounter with the other, the dullness of self-preservation becomes apparent. The result: conversion from a paradigm of parochialism, defensiveness and isolation to a paradigm of participation, discovery and encounter. One imagines many barriers falling as the question is repeated: “Who is it that the Holy Spirit wants us to encounter?” This attitude of openness and wonder cannot but engender deep compassion for the marginalized, and courageous defense of victims of racism, and social injustice. It also means the difference between understanding the Church in corporate, institutional terms, and living the Church as a relational reality in which the contribution of each one counts. Drawing upon the Gospel, and building upon the inherent welcoming nature of the Hispanic culture, it is time for this Ferguson parish to re-propose that basic question.

A Catalyst for Encounter
Discussion about encounter and unity in a parish cannot prescind from the Eucharist as the most powerful agent of communion. Accordingly, it became obvious at Guadalupe that the single most effective catalyst for building unity through encounter would be bilingual liturgies. A couple of years ago, a bilingual trend emerged at the parish: weekday bilingual Masses, Spanish included in every major feast and gathering, and joint bilingual celebrations of the sacraments of initiation. Both English speakers and Spanish speakers alike petitioned against this trend. But the fruits soon became obvious.

A bilingual homily at an English Mass inaugurated the transition. After Mass, one lady expressed gratitude for the use of Spanish. She said, “Father, I know you saw me and figured I was Hispanic, and so you decided to speak some Spanish. I want to thank you! But I also have to let you know I’m not Hispanic; I’m African American.” To be clear, she wasn’t the reason for including Spanish, but her approval set the tone for the parish. This same parishioner has become a great ambassador for Hispanics in the parish, frequently communicating job opportunities that might help them.

After the first bilingual Mass, one of the English-speaking parishioners came forward with tears in her eyes, overwhelmed and astonished by her experience: “Father, one of the Hispanics actually crossed the aisle during the sign of peace and embraced me!”

Encouraged by these fruits, the next step was to offer English and Spanish language classes to all parishioners. A remarkable number of English speakers declared themselves eager to learn Spanish, many of them octogenarians. One elder among the English-speaking parishioners has been reading the archbishop’s column every week—the Spanish translation alongside the English—just to pick up a few Spanish words. A Nigerian family, drawn to the beauty and energy of the Masses in Spanish, have joined the language classes to participate more fully and actively in those liturgies. During the Sunday Masses in Spanish, increasing numbers of non-Spanish speakers are now found scattered among the densely packed church, lifting their hearts, and raising their voices in prayer with their brothers and sisters.

In the wake of this trend, the parish council returned to the question of decreasing the Masses in English. This time, no one reacted defensively. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had an English Mass that was full and vibrant like the Spanish Masses?” someone remarked. Many others expressed agreement with this sentiment.

A challenging proposal followed: “What if one of our Sunday Masses in English became a bilingual Mass—would people come?” For a brief moment, one could sense a collective sigh, as if the whole room were thinking simultaneously “not this again!” Encounter is never easy work. “Hispanics don’t really like bilingual liturgies” a representative blatantly reacted. “Another Spanish Mass…?” another whispered cynically. Then, a daring Latina voice disarmingly revealed an insight. “This is not just about other people accepting Hispanics; this is about all of us embracing other kinds of people. The Hispanic community has a responsibility to engage the different cultures that surround us. Keeping alive our own traditions is very important. But let’s also interact more with the English speakers of our parish. We can learn from one another.” This bit of wisdom stunned the room. For a moment, all fell silent. Was this a breakthrough? Then, someone finally spoke the suggestion that seemed on the tip of everyone’s tongue: “What about a multicultural Sunday liturgy…?” It was a breakthrough.

That was the beginning, not the end, of the discussion. Parishioners continue to debate—sometimes enthusiastically and sometimes skeptically—how to bring together members of our Hispanic community with our English speakers, and how to combine elements of African American culture, Hispanic culture, the meaningful expressions of other ethnicities and backgrounds, and the vibrancy of our youth culture to enrich faith experience. The momentum is palpable. Unity has become something of an obsession; everyone wants to talk about it.

Encouragement now reverberates throughout the parish with a sense of urgency. “It’s about time we do something different! Are we going to be one community or not? Who are our brothers and sisters in need?” There comes a point where one can taste the reward without yet fully reaching the goal. That’s called hope; it makes the burden light. Yes, much work and sacrifice lie ahead, but a hopeful tenor fills the community. The following observation from an English-speaking parishioner epitomizes it: “You can make any adjustments necessary when you love the people you worship with!” All the meetings and conferences in the world cannot affect this kind of conversion. It begins by encountering one another in the Eucharist. Call it a Eucharistic miracle.

Unity through the Beauty of Encounter
Encounter is truly a journey. How this journey will unfold only God knows. One prominent outcome in the parish has been an intense focus on the social justice issues affecting many brothers and sisters in the community who have come to be known and loved. But the specifics are not the point. The point is where our focus lies: not on what we are eliminating through change, but on what we are building through unity.

Most importantly, as Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson embraces a culture of encounter, the underlying question begins to shift. Openness to one another in this unique portion of the Church yields a discovery of beauty. Dostoevsky coined the phrase “beauty will save the world.” And beauty is not faceless. One can experience its visage when taking an opportunity to humbly encounter others in their diversity of cultures, expressions, and backgrounds. Witnessing this beauty leads to embracing it. That is communion in diversity. It means following the Gospel. And beauty shouldn’t be kept hidden or isolated, for it holds the key to unity. We need to encounter it.

Rev. John O'Brien About Rev. John O'Brien

Rev. John O'Brien was ordained in 2007. He earned a doctorate in Dogmatic Theology from the Gregorian University in Rome. He wrote his dissertation on Trinitarian Ecclesiology as a model of the Church. He currently serves as pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in Ferguson, MO, a predominantly Hispanic immigrant parish in the Archdiocese of St. Louis.


  1. Father, given the height of racial tensions in our country today, I can only think the Holy Spirit is teaching us a way of overcoming them through such wisdom as is at work in your parish. “Who is it?” It is the Lord!!!

    Another thought persists: if we were to return to Mass in Latin as the Universal norm, wouldn’t that bring a collective worldwide unity again among all Catholics? Homilies could be in the native tongue or bi-lingual depending on the make-up of the parish.

  2. Avatar Ramon Esteban says:

    I commend you and your parishioners for this continuing growth and discovery. I appreciate you, Fr. John, being very open to the workings of the Holy Spirit, a characteristic not many pastors possess. Open to the initial chaos that will morph into peace and tranquility. Praying (with envy) for all of you at Our lady of Guadalupe.

  3. Avatar Mary Conces says:

    Perhaps a Mass in the Extraordinary Form could be substituted for one of the English Masses. It’s formal, God-centered beauty might appeal to many from various groups. And it could be followed by a monthly or weekly potluck so everyone could get to know one another. The attendees could be consulted about the language(s) in which the Gospel would be read and the sermon given. Catechesis (preferably bi-lingual) could be offered for everyone, and surely anyone would benefit from studying the Mass.