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.