Modeling Change

Can extra-parochial groups help reshape parishes?
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St. Joseph’s Church in Amarillo, Texas (Photo by Bill McCullough)

Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.

 

It was about five minutes before six on a Tuesday evening, and members of the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership’s (CSPL) Immigration Committee were trickling into the conference room. Some were arriving straight from work, and helped themselves to plates of rice and beans and cups of cantaloupe juice before taking their seats. Others had been there all day, filling up whiteboards and firing off emails. They’d come from all over Chicago, some reaching the coalition’s suburban Maywood office from as far away as the South Side. After a short prayer in English and Spanish, they quickly got down to business.

There was a lot to cover in the fifty minutes allotted by the agenda. Most pressing was the upcoming pilgrimage to El Paso, Texas, where the group had helped plan a teach-in and was co-organizing a border action to help asylum seekers legally enter the United States. Just six weeks earlier Patrick Crusius, a young man inspired by white-nationalist ideology and armed with a semi-automatic rifle, had driven more than 650 miles from the Dallas area to a Walmart in El Paso in order to “kill Mexicans.” He’d murdered twenty-two people and injured twenty-four more. Galvanized by the massacre, the coalition had decided to take action, not only to publicly protest the racist immigration policies of the Trump administration, but also to show solidarity with Latinx communities in the borderlands. Among the dead, after all, were people just like them.

There was some concern over turnout, logistics, and safety, but meeting facilitator Sue Ross, a middle-aged former business manager with short curly hair and tortoise-shell glasses, kept things moving. After about ten minutes she tabled the pilgrimage discussion and switched to reporting on the progress of the census initiative. Maywood, with a 95 percent non-white population, had been systematically undercounted by more than 30 percent in the 2010 census, resulting in the loss of several million dollars in federal funding. Outreach to local parishes, soup kitchens, and shelters, along with a push to provide internet access to the elderly, would help residents register themselves and thus force the 2020 census-takers to include them.

Next came the community-benefits report. Anely Jaime, jostling her small child in her lap and speaking mostly in Spanish, explained that a local bank had agreed to partner with CSPL to develop a course in financial literacy. For many new immigrants, it would be their first opportunity to learn how to build credit and obtain small loans. “Es un granito de arena,” she explained: a grain of sand, not much, but nevertheless essential, since limited access to credit is one of the chief obstacles that keep her neighbors, especially the undocumented ones, from establishing stable lives.

The gathering concluded with announcements and a prayer, just as any parish-council meeting would. There was to be a workshop on Catholic Social Teaching, racism, and oppression in the U.S. prison and immigration-detention systems the next evening. The prayer, offered by Sumbul Siddiqui, a medical student at Loyola University Chicago and a DACA recipient, was in Arabic. She prayed for peace, the success of the upcoming pilgrimage, and humane immigration reform. Afterwards, a few hung around to chat and eat a second plate of food. But most headed straight home; they’d have to wake up early the next morning for work.

Even as the room emptied, though, the energy remained palpable. I felt as if I’d experienced the kind of vitality, the sense of shared purpose and community, that many Catholics say they yearn for in traditional parish life, but somehow can’t seem to find. These disaffected and disaffiliated, especially younger Catholics skeptical of the institutional church, are not necessarily unfaithful; they’re not just “insufficiently devout.” They may simply feel they’re not getting what they need to live authentic Christian lives, or at least more fulfilling ones. If a parish doesn’t provide a robust sense of community, or vital social-justice ministries, or meaningful spiritual formation—or, most importantly, real recognition and empowerment—is it surprising they may look for them outside traditional structures, including beyond the walls of a church building?

These are some of the needs that CSPL is meeting. It is not aiming to subvert or supplant the traditional parish; indeed, there are ministries—like religious education, liturgy, and the sacraments—that as a lay-led group it simply cannot perform. But in an era of intense social reorganization and geographic disruption, when U.S. Catholics are both more diverse and less rooted in a single place, the coalitional model adopted by CSPL and similar groups—emphasizing bottom-up leadership, demographic inclusivity, and a distinctly spiritual approach to political and community engagement—may suggest a kind of prototype for an evolving, post-parochial church.
 

Racism, xenophobia, income inequality, and other forms of oppression aren’t easily overcome. But there’s a method for it.

Just under three years old, CSPL combines the methods of traditional grassroots community organizing—pioneered by Christian Base Communities in Latin America and Saul Alinksy’s Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago—with the beliefs and principles of Catholic social teaching, theology, and spirituality. Structured as an independent nonprofit organization and funded by a combination of dues-paying members and donations, it’s an emerging alliance that links a range of partners—parishes, schools, hospitals, universities, unions, cooperatives, and other community and faith-based associations—across the entire Chicagoland area.

CSPL’s mission is to overcome “systemic racial, social, economic, and environmental injustice by building power that is rooted in the vision of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” In concrete terms, that means identifying individuals—especially women and people of color—with the capacity for leadership, and then training them to enter strategically into political and public life.

Appropriately, CSPL itself evolved out of a parish in Maywood, St. Eulalia’s. Founded in 1927, the parish and its parochial school originally served affluent white Catholics who had left Chicago for the elegant new suburbs west of the city. Starting in the 1940s, though, and continuing into the ’60s, Maywood’s demographics shifted drastically.

By 1967 the town had become majority African American, and the tensions of the civil-rights era had spread from the city to the suburbs. But under the charismatic leadership of a new pastor, Fr. William Quinn, St. Eulalia’s welcomed Maywood’s black population, integrating and becoming known not just in Chicago but around the country as a social-justice hub. Quinn, an expert on the Latin American church, had attended two sessions of the Second Vatican Council, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and advised Cesar Chavez. Fr. Andrew Greeley, a well-known liberal Catholic commentator (and frequent Commonweal contributor), considered him a mentor. 

[The Church today looks very different from how it was in 1970. See the data here.]

Quinn died in 2004, but inspired by his legacy, St. Eulalia’s built a community center in his name. It opened in the former parochial school building in 2011, consolidating and expanding the parish’s various social-justice ministries: a soup kitchen and food pantry, youth tutoring and mentoring programs, outreach to the elderly, a computer lab and classrooms for job training, and English and Spanish language lessons for new immigrants, especially Maywood’s rapidly growing Mexican-American population.

It was there, in 2017, that CSPL’s founding members first met and got to talking. They’d all been involved in organizing and justice work, but wanted to bring their commitments to spiritual and public life to push for social change. The key, they realized, would be to ground their activism in prayer and theology. This approach would have the potential not only to galvanize and transcend the divisiveness often found in activist circles; it could also energize and transform a stalled, divided Catholic Church that seemed more focused on parsing doctrine and preserving institutional power than in building community.

Over a home-cooked meal of tamales and flautas, I talked with CSPL training committee chair and board secretary Joanna Arellano and her husband, CSPL executive director Michael Okińczyc-Cruz. The couple live in a modest apartment in Pilsen, a traditionally working-class but now rapidly gentrifying Chicago neighborhood just southwest of the Loop. We were joined by three other members of the CSPL board: John DeCostanza, a campus minister at nearby Dominican University; Kathleen Maas-Weigert, a professor of sociology at Loyola University Chicago; and Gabriel Lara, CSPL’s full-time economic justice organizer.

We talked about how CSPL’s work brings Catholic spirituality, and the church’s mission to care for the poor and marginalized, more forcefully into public life. Lara, originally from Guanajuato, Mexico, explained that he’d once studied for the priesthood but then discerned a call to lay life, afterwards working as a lay minister in a parish in the United States. He valued his time in the seminary, which also left him with a call to service and helped lead him to cofound CSPL.

Arellano had a similar experience. “I wanted to find a way of exercising my power that was also grounded in my faith,” she said. “Growing up as a first-generation Latina in Chicago, I experienced racism and sexism all too frequently. But my mom—a member of UNITE-HERE Local 1 and one of the baddest lunch ladies in Chicago—taught me how to overcome it, not just through organizing, but also through prayer and contemplation.” Arellano explained that as a child she’d witnessed her mother participate in marches and demonstrations for the rights of workers and immigrants. “Her Catholic faith was central to who she was: a contemplative activist, and a prophetic mystic. Injustice is like a broken tapestry—our task is to stitch the People of God back together.”

But how? Again and again, our conversation turned to the necessity (and difficulty) of building power at the margins of society. Racism, xenophobia, income inequality, and other forms of oppression aren’t easily overcome. But there’s a method for it, and for CSPL, it starts with listening to people on the ground. You can’t accurately gauge the needs and aspirations of members of marginalized groups and communities just by hosting big town-hall-style meetings or rallies. What about those who don’t speak up? And social media can be useful in getting the word out, but it can’t substitute for actual dialogue. That’s why intimate person-to-person meetings called “one-on-ones” are so essential. These “sacred conversations” don’t just permit greater honesty, and trust; they allow the Spirit, not the ego, to set the agenda.

And then there’s always the temptation to “do something,” to “take action.” That’s necessary to bring about change, but the impulse needs to be resisted, at least at first; reflection is more important. It’s another way CSPL infuses traditional methods of community organizing—which often begins with political and power analysis—with Catholic spirituality. Instead of a purely secular “clarification of thought,” CSPL engages in spiritual discernment, a process (pioneered by St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuits) of prayerfully and communally pondering the path forward in the light of God.

Discernment, the group explained, isn’t so much about obtaining pragmatic consensus as it is a way of incarnating the church as the members of CSPL want it to be, moving it into more direct engagement in the public square. It’s a way of proceeding that’s not hierarchical or authoritarian, but horizontal and relational. Pope Francis might call CSPL’s approach synodal—by walking together, members create new synergies and open new spaces, freeing people’s latent energies and talents to emerge and bear fruit.

“And that’s precisely where many of our parishes are falling short,” Okińczyc-Cruz said. He meant that while parishes may well provide community, sacramental nourishment, and a spiritual home, they’re also failing to empower their parishioners to advocate more forcefully for their political and economic interests. Parishes might be ministering to people on the margins, but they’re not letting them lead.

“As Catholics we hear terms like ‘power’ and ‘self-interest,’ and it makes us nervous,” Okińczyc-Cruz said. “But we’re followers of Jesus of Nazareth, who preached a message of justice and radical mercy, who boldly challenged unjust systems of oppression.” He stressed that Christ Himself—whom he characterizes as one of the most successful community organizers in history—encourages us to enter directly into politics not naively, but compassionately. “We can’t understand the depth and meaning of God’s love if we’re not willing to hear and respond to God’s cry for justice.”  

Just before dinner, Okińczyc-Cruz had driven me around Maywood. He explained that many of its suburban residents lacked access to the economic opportunities available in the city. “All of the construction, all of the capital is being pumped into the old working-class neighborhoods of Chicago, colonizing those neighborhoods and pushing people out here. Due to rising rents, poorly funded schools, and violence, Maywood’s one of the few places families can afford to live.”

Which is what makes Maywood such an important community to organize with. Parking outside the Quinn Center at St. Eulalia’s, Okińczyc-Cruz talked me through CSPL’s successes thus far. One early victory was bringing together parents, school administrators, and police to create the “Smart Routes” program. Modeled on “Safe Routes,” developed in Chicago’s South Side, it’s a violence-prevention initiative that, besides guaranteeing a safe passage to school for young children, enables Maywood parents to take a more active role in communicating their needs to local government officials.

That experience of organizing and being heard had a ripple effect, leading CSPL to take action on a number of other issues. First was the lack of access to a decent supermarket. Maywood is a food desert, and residents have to travel to shop for groceries a few miles away. But the store is near an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office, which discourages undocumented residents from making the trip. So CSPL began working with local grassroots leaders, parishes, and universities to form worker-owned cooperatives (cooperativas) to help provide healthy food alternatives to the Maywood community. Then, besides the census initiative currently underway, CSPL also wanted to confront the acute mental-health crisis and suicide epidemic in the Latinx and African-American communities, which tend to stigmatize mental illness and depression. So it started training community leaders, and advocated for training for local police officers, to administer person-to-person mental health first-aid. Even with events like the El Paso pilgrimage drawing closer, Okińczyc-Cruz stressed the importance of the local. “The trip will come and go. Our work—training leaders, building our institutional partnerships, engaging in grassroots community organizing—has to happen here.”

 

How should the coalition address racism and sexism in the church? How can it attract and include young people?

In her book Cuéntame: Narrative in the Ecclesial Present, theologian Natalia Imperatori-Lee argues that for the Catholic Church to succeed in the present cultural moment, it should stop thinking strictly in terms of geographic parishes and instead look to “lay-led groups, DIY religion, and even the possibility of personal parishes” for new models. Such groups have a few obvious advantages over traditional territorial parishes: their flexible, responsive leadership and dynamic spiritualities can speak to disaffected Catholics seeking a more relational, participatory church. And by abandoning old geographic boundaries, they can harness new energy and new ideas, especially from young people, who are both less likely to be settled in any particular place and more likely to travel greater distances.

But Imperatori-Lee cautions against facile idealism. Throughout church history, paradigms and practices have come and gone. To be successful in the long run, new movements can’t just root themselves in the church’s ancient spiritual traditions, or merely aspire to activism in the face of injustice. They also need to guard against corruption, homogeneity, and exclusivity.

Perhaps the most basic challenge faced by CSPL is its long-run financial independence. Much of the initial seed money, Kathleen Maas-Weigert told me, came from a community of women religious. Since then, CSPL has gained the support of other private foundations. But grant money doesn’t last forever, and CSPL’s board would like to see the coalition become even more capable of sustaining itself through annual membership dues, from both individuals and institutional partners. This is particularly challenging because CSPL aims to organize and serve communities without much disposable income. (Dues are currently paid according to a sliding scale, and contributions from members are in fact growing.) And unlike a parish, which receives support from the larger diocese and whose donors can more easily see their tithing at work (improvements in the physical plant, community events, ministries, etc.), CSPL’s budget is both less certain and less visible—there’s the rent for the office space and expenses for actions, which can vary, but there’s also the rising cost of health insurance for the staff.

A second challenge is that as a broad-based coalition, CSPL’s diverse membership necessarily represents a plurality of interests. A few weeks after my dinner with some of the CSPL board in Chicago, Maas-Weigert reminded me that while much of CSPL’s recent work has been centered on advocating for justice for immigrants, that’s hardly the group’s sole focus. Its mission instead has three interrelated elements: immigration, violence prevention, and economic justice—with the latter undergirding the first two. True, a large portion of its current membership is Latinx, and that’s a reflection of demographic realities in the U.S. church. But CSPL has also worked to build broader solidarity with other marginalized communities, including African Americans and Asian Americans. “People tend to forget that there are African-American Catholics, too,” confirmed Byron Diggs and Anthony Williams, both local restaurant owners and CSPL board members. “The church needs to hear from us.”

CSPL wants its model to be replicable elsewhere, but there are questions it hasn’t yet answered definitively, even as it builds partnerships with groups and institutions outside of Maywood and the Chicagoland area. For instance, how should the coalition address racism and sexism in the church? How can it attract and include young people, especially college students, many of whom are indifferent about the fate of Catholic parishes? (It’s had some marked success here, particularly with students at nearby Dominican University, Loyola Chicago, and Notre Dame.) Finally, how should CSPL navigate its relationship with both the Archdiocese of Chicago and the wider institutional church? “We don’t want to alienate the people we’re trying to work with,” Okińczyc-Cruz told me. “We want to be respectful of the church we all love. But we still have to challenge injustice.”

That’s the most difficult aspect of sustaining any extra-parochial movement, since, at least for the time being, parishes remain the primary site where Catholics celebrate liturgy, receive the sacraments, and nourish and pass on their faith. CSPL is no different; its members currently worship across a range of parishes throughout Chicago and its suburbs. There’s the core St. Eulalia’s contingent, with parishioners mostly supportive of CSPL’s agenda. But then there are also some who attend Mass at parishes where CSPL’s work encounters some resistance: “Sometimes well-off Catholics are comfortable funding food pantries and soup kitchens, but they don’t want to hear about addressing structural injustices,” Sue Ross explained. “They think people should just lift themselves up by their bootstraps.” I asked whether she ever felt uneasy worshiping there. “Not really,” she said calmly. “We’re all sinners. I’ve got nothing but love for them; I hope my presence at Mass helps convert them.”

 

A synodal church is not born from shared geography or ethnic ties, but that springs into being from the spirit of closeness and fellowship that emerges on the way to someplace else.

It was a warm Wednesday evening in October, and the El Paso pilgrimage was about to begin. About seventy-five people were gathered inside Chicago’s Holy Name Cathedral, their bags stacked in the aisles as a pair of buses waited outside. The pilgrims ranged widely in background and age: many belonged to a group of Latinx college students from the University of Notre Dame and Dominican University, but there were also graduate students from Loyola Chicago, employees of the Archdiocese of Chicago, middle-aged activists, and older African-American veterans of the civil-rights movement. All, by virtue of their participation in the pilgrimage, were members of CSPL.

As the send-off Mass got underway, Chicago Cardinal Blase Cupich channeled Pope Francis and gave a moving homily about accompanying people on the margins. After the Mass ended, he called everyone to the altar for a blessing and even attempted some light humor: “So, you’re all going to El Paso by bus? Who organized this?” They looked around, a little embarrassed, then gave a collective response: “We did!”

After some prayer and song, and interviews with local television crews, the trip got underway. The bus ride itself was mostly uneventful, featuring the kind of ordinary mishaps and frustrations you might expect on any long road trip: crankiness from lack of sleep, soreness from the tight space, flashes of real anger from the driver when one of the toilets broke down (and nobody told him).

As the buses crossed the plains of Oklahoma and entered New Mexico near Santa Fe, we began tracing an old pilgrim-and-trade route known by Spanish colonists as El Camino Real, the royal way. With monumental rock formations gliding by outside, a few pilgrims made speeches, gave workshops, and offered prayers, transforming the buses into impromptu stages, classrooms, and chapels. (After it grew dark they also became makeshift karaoke bars.)

The closer we came to the southern border, the more people opened up. A few Notre Dame students spoke about their desire to better understand the sacrifices their parents had made by crossing from Mexico. Karina DeAvila, a Latina activist from outside Chicago and one of the key organizers of the gathering in El Paso, explained her plans to run for local political office. Josh Long, a documentary filmmaker, admitted feeling conflicted about his former admiration for his uncle, who had worked as a border-patrol agent years ago. After some Norbertine brothers came on board and joined us in prayer, I realized what I was seeing: true synodality, a church that’s not born from shared geography or neighborhood boundaries or ethnic ties, but one that springs into being from the spirit of closeness and fellowship that only emerges on the way to someplace else.

As the teach-in unfolded over the weekend in El Paso, many pilgrims told me that whatever they’d experienced—which they couldn’t quite articulate—was life-changing. It wasn’t just the rousing plenary speeches, workshops on nonviolence and anti-racism, or seminars on border theology and Catholic social teaching. Nor was it simply crossing the Paso del Norte bridge into Ciudad Juárez and seeing thousands of migrants and asylum seekers camping by the roadside in squalor (though that had indeed been important, as some had participated in helping fifteen Mexican asylum-seekers legally cross the border). It was the fact of being together—something their monthslong efforts had achieved—and seeing that they weren’t alone. Hundreds of others, just like them, had come from New York, Los Angeles, and elsewhere. They’d filled local churches and streets; they’d shown themselves, and the country, and each other, who they were. 

 

A few months after the pilgrimage, I caught up with Okińczyc-Cruz over the phone. To be sure, he said, the El Paso trip had built momentum among CSPL’s membership. But there was more work to be done closer to home: the census campaign, which was kicking into high gear, and the mental-health workshops, which had become quite popular. There was also a move to a bigger office, requiring new furniture. Overall, though, he seemed calm and confident about the future: “Now it’s time for us to see where the Spirit leads.”

Whether extra-parochial groups like CSPL may help reshape parishes in the future is of course uncertain. After all, under canon law, parishes are not autonomous. There are currently 17,000 parishes in the United States, serving some 75 million Catholics. All exist and operate at the intersection of community and geography, and each is run under diocesan authority by a bishop who in turn connects them to the universal church. If Catholic parishes are “particular” communities, with all the local variance that implies, they’re also juridical territories, uniformly constituted from above as branches of a global, hierarchical institution.

This tension is built into the way the church has understood its local communities since the late Middle Ages, when the Latin terms parochia and diocesis were both used to denote local churches led by a bishop. But they had very different connotations. Early Christian writers used the Greek paroikos to mean “sojourner,” and paroikia, the word for parish, implies a community of believers on a pilgrimage, journeying through the world toward their heavenly home. Diocesis, on the other hand, is rooted in notions of power and authority: the Greek dioikein means “to control, govern, administer, or manage a house.” Parishes, then, are paradoxical: they’re specific territories with fixed earthly ties, but also simultaneously on their way to someplace else. Ultimately, couldn’t this be a useful way to think about the future of the parish—and the place of extra-parochial groups like CSPL in reimagining it?

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Griffin Oleynick is an assistant editor at Commonweal.

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