Catholic religious congregations these days find themselves in uncharted waters as they increasingly move toward internationalizing their communities. For a variety of reasons, women’s and men’s orders find a multiplicity of nationalities represented in their local houses. Once again these sisters and brothers serve as models and mentors of what could be in the wider society.
Our country once prided itself on the half-truth that we were a “melting pot,” a homogenized, standardized people formed out of the variety of ethnic groups arriving on our shores. We believed that every group got an equal shot at that euphemism “the American Dream.” Only recently have we begun to listen as the minorities in our midst show us the fallacy of America as the successful melting pot. They have told us to look at the record and see how for decades the “pot” contained a whole people that could be bought and sold as property; how each generation of immigrants suffered mightily at the hands of the majority here; and how people of color continue to suffer the effects of America’s original sin— racism.
More recently we’ve heard multiculturalism held up as a better goal for America. Not a bad way to express it. Americans do after all represent and to some extent celebrate the distinctive gifts each group brings to the commonweal. We generally see ethnic diversity as a strength, despite examples like Proposition 187 which would deny our country the continuation of that invigorating otherness.
But multiculturalism by itself runs the risk of dividing us further, or polarizing the various races and nationalities among us. It could lead us into ghetto-like mentalities—each culture living by itself, without interference from any other. Multiculturalism, I submit, needs a further ingredient that religious congregations model today—the lived-out ideal of the international community.
ONE CAN hardly exaggerate the challenges and pitfalls inherent in that ideal. Differences around language, thought patterns, diet, cleanliness, prayer styles, modes of expression—all call into serious question the possibility of an authentic international community. And yet they do exist. For reasons of practicality, reduced numbers, a shrinking world, and transcultural ministries, many orders and congregations now place members from several countries in their local communities.
These remarkable experiments do not go unnoticed. The ethnically similar people in Brazil look in amazement at missionaries from all over the world who live and work together. Nor are such international communities unchallenged. In our own country, mentors of religious communities insist that they truly be made up of members with varied ethnic backgrounds living as equals.
Could we begin to imitate these remarkable experiments in the wider society? Could the people of faith in this country consciously make ourselves a part of international groupings? Could we decide humbly to ask entry into the ethnic worship communities around us? Sojourners has begun such an incorporation, petitioning partnership with an essentially African-American congregation in Washington, D.C.
The onrushing 21st century will see more internationalism on all fronts. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if a hundred years hence history were to report that American people of faith prepared well for this new reality—that instead of placing barriers around us, we got out ahead of a world without borders and formed inclusive, multiracial, multiethnic intentional communities? It may well be that the very soul of our church and that of our country depends on our response to this historical challenge.
JOE NANGLE, O.F.M., is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.