If you walk through the classroom area of Murray-Herrick Campus Center on a Tuesday evening, you are likely to see two rooms full of Spanish-speaking students listening intently to their instructors and talking animatedly about theology. The students are between their mid-20s and late-50s. Most have families of their own. They come to campus from all over the Twin Cities and the surrounding rural areas. If you listen and observe carefully, you will discover that they or their parents came originally from a variety of countries in Central and South America, most notably Mexico and Ecuador.
These 45 or so men and women are members of our Catholic parishes that serve the Hispanic communities of this area, and they are enrolled in the undergraduate Lay Ministry certificate offered through St. Thomas’ Theology Department.
“SPHERES OF IMPACT”
Minnesota’s Hispanic communities have grown rapidly in recent years in much the same way as the Hispanic population has grown nationally. A study published by the Wilder Foundation’s Minnesota Compass in 2014 indicates that Minnesota’s Hispanic population grew from 54,000 in 1990 to 271,000 in 2013 – a 500 percent growth in only 23 years. A little closer to home, the Twin Cities area has approximately 180,000 Hispanic residents, and, of that total population, 140,000 are estimated to be Roman Catholic. They are served by 23 Catholic parishes in the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis that provide Sunday worship services in Spanish and other community-building resources, such as sacramental preparation classes and faith formation programs for children and adults. Some of these parishes have pastoral associates who help needy families connect with health, wellness and legal services. A few also have advocacy groups that focus on questions of common concern such as immigration, human rights and economic inequity.
In terms of geographic reach, many of these 23 parishes are in Minneapolis and St. Paul. However, Catholic parishes that provide Hispanic ministry stretch from Faribault, south of the Twin Cities, out to Monticello, northwest of the Twin Cities, to Shakopee and Shoreview. Historically, Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul was the first parish designated to serve the Hispanic community back in 1933. The churches that were most recently designated to serve Spanish-speaking Catholics are St. Alphonsus in Brooklyn Center, St. George in Long Lake, and St. Stephen’s in Anoka. These newest sites were added in 2005.
A growing challenge in parish communities in the Twin Cities, and throughout Minnesota, is recruiting theologically formed Hispanic leaders to collaborate with clergy in all areas of ministry. As a result, the Lay Ministry certificate students come to us with the goal of gaining theological knowledge and learning to think theologically about issues that arise in ministry within their faith communities. Some are employed full-time or part-time in parish ministry, but most volunteer their time as youth and adult catechists, youth group leaders, after-school program leaders, facilitators of support groups and sacramental preparation groups, and in other jobs that make their parishes a safe harbor for Hispanic immigrants and residents of the Twin Cities area.
“Working with these Latino students has been both a gift and a joy,” said Marta Pereira, a St. Thomas alumna (‘05, ‘09 MA) and a member of Campus Ministry at St. Catherine University who teaches in the program. “[It is] a gift to see so many vibrant and talented students who are bringing to class years of dedication and experience working with their parishes, both through ministry and social justice, and a joy to see St. Thomas expanding these kind of opportunities as part of the mission to advance the common good.”
DELIVERING CURRICULUM IN A NEW WAY
The Lay Ministry certificate that these students are pursuing is not new. In fact, it has been part of the Theology Department’s curriculum for more than a decade. What is new is that it is being taught entirely in Spanish using the cohort model of delivery. The certificate, which is available to English speakers as well, consists of six 4-credit undergraduate courses drawn from these major areas of Christian theology: the Bible; moral theology; ecclesiology (theology of the church); Christology (theology of the person and mission of Jesus); and sacramental theology. Our Spanish-speaking students start their studies in the same way that the rest of our undergraduates begin their core requirements in theology – albeit in Spanish – by taking Teologia 101 Tradición Teológica Cristiana.
The Lay Ministry certificate for Spanish-speakers at the University of St. Thomas is the only one of its kind in the upper Midwest and perhaps in the nation. But why is it important that this program be taught in Spanish? One reason is obvious. Although some participants in these cohorts can manage basic conversations in English and a few are more fully bilingual, others have very limited facility with the English language and would not have the precision of writing and depth of reading comprehension in English necessary for college-level theology. Offering the courses in Spanish makes it possible for the students to engage much more deeply and improves learning outcomes immeasurably.
But there is an even more important reason to give members of our local Hispanic communities the opportunity to study theology in their native language. For all human beings, experience and knowledge of God is closely tied to culture, and language is an intimate part of culture. Thus, in order for these recent immigrants to best grasp theology, it is optimal that the courses be taught in their language of faith – Spanish. Not only can their learning and growth take place within their cultural context, but the theological reflection of these students stands to enrich all of us. The presence of these two cohorts presents a huge opportunity for St. Thomas, and our local church, to be transformed and explore our faith in new ways while we work to equip a new generation for service in the church.
“What has impressed me most so far in my experience teaching these students is the deep connection that they make between gaining knowledge and competence through the theological studies in order to better serve their faith communities and families,” said Dr. Christine Luna Munger, faculty member and director of the Spiritual Direction certificate at St. Catherine, who also teaches in our Lay Ministry certificate for Spanish-speakers.
As mentioned above, our Spanish-speaking Lay Ministry students pursue their studies as a cohort: Their course requirements are determined before they apply for the program and they will proceed through the program together from beginning to end. Although they do not have the option to choose electives in their program, the benefits far outweigh any potential limitations. The cohort members have bonded quickly and they have become a great source of support for their colleagues when someone gets discouraged or needs help.
Our first cohort began in spring 2014 with 22 students. Five semesters later they have not lost a single member. In the world of student recruiting, a retention rate of 100 percent is amazing. Although the second cohort is only in its second semester, we are seeing the same trend emerging within it as well. In sum, the cohort model works very well.
The idea for teaching the Lay Ministry certificate in Spanish and using the cohort model first came to us in fall 2012 when Father Hugo Montero and I
were walking down the first-floor corridor of the John R. Roach Center for the Liberal Arts. Father Montero, who was teaching in the Theology Department at the time and working in Campus Ministry, lamented, “I wish we could offer theological education for the people who minister in our Spanish-speaking parishes.” “Well, why not?” I said. After that first, casual conversation, we began our planning in earnest.
At first, we encountered some challenges, mostly from outside of the university, that made us think the project would have to be abandoned. However, in fall 2013, we were given permission and support from the administration to move forward. It was an exciting moment, but also a scary one because we had no models to rely on. Did we know enough about the possible pitfalls of a project like this to plan accordingly and build a
successful program? Remarkably, doors began to open.
In early November 2013, Father Montero and I were putting the finishing touches on materials for a Lay Ministry information session that was supposed to take place that evening. We had decided in advance that we would only accept 20 in this first cohort so that we could give them the attention they needed to be successful, and we had reserved a medium-sized classroom for the meeting.
The weather report was ominous, but he told me not to be discouraged if we had a small group that night. I think he feared I would judge a low turnout to mean that this was not a good idea. To our surprise, people poured in as the start time drew near. Before we knew it, the room was overflowing. When everyone was settled, I took a moment to count: 54 attendees! Needless to say, everyone involved was both ecstatic and admittedly a bit overwhelmed with the number of people who came to us that evening.
We had a great deal of work to do to get ready for the start of our first cohort in Spring 2014. There were applications to be developed and completed, interviews to be conducted, and a new student orientation to plan. But the energy and excitement of the faculty and prospective students kept us moving forward. Reflecting on her encounter with the students, Ms. Anne Attea, pastoral associate at Ascension Church in Minneapolis, and one of
the instructors for the Lay Ministry certificate, noted, “While they are thoughtful and dedicated to their learning for personal growth and scholarship, they have also demonstrated a definite desire to share what they are learning with others in the class, their parish ministries and beyond. Our local church is reaping, and will reap, benefits from this initiative now and for years to come.”
In addition to the people mentioned throughout this article, we would like to recognize several others who were instrumental in making this project a reality. Dr. Deborah Organ, a former faculty member of The Saint Paul Seminary School of Divinity (SPSSOD), a current associate coordinator of the M.A. in Theology program at St. Catherine, and a pastoral minister and professional mental health clinician at Holy Rosary Parish in Minneapolis, teaches in the program and helps with various forms of communication with the cohorts.
Father Juan Miguel Betancourt, a member of the faculty at SPSSOD and pastor of the Church of St. Francis de Sales in St. Paul, also teaches in the program. All of our Lay Ministry faculty are bilingual in Spanish and English, and without them this program would not exist.
Two more members of the St. Thomas community deserve special mention for believing in a project that must have seemed a little far-fetched at first, and lending various forms of support to make it a reality. One is Dr. Bernard Brady, chair of the Theology Department. He describes the value of this project for the local church in this way: “The spheres of impact are significant. The most important, of course, is the impact on the participants themselves. The courses have given them great insight into the biblical and theological traditions of their faith. They are wonderfully experiencing St. Anselm’s famous remark that theology is ‘faith seeking understanding.’ Yet there are broader spheres of impact here. Our students are all engaged in some sort of ministry in their parishes, so now the level of faith formation and sacramental formation is rising with their education. This will eventually have an impact on the Archdiocese and down the line, it will open up wonderful dialogue within the diverse makeup of our Church.”
Another person who deserves special mention for believing in this program and supporting it in concrete ways is Dr. Terry
Langan, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. He likes to tell a story about a meeting that we arranged between the two Lay Ministry cohorts and university administration last fall. It was intended to be a brief “meet and greet” at the beginning of their evening class session. A student from each of the two cohorts offered a welcome and made a few comments about their group by way of introduction. Dr. Julie Sullivan, president of St. Thomas, addressed the group in turn and invited questions and comments.
The students expressed gratitude for the opportunity to participate in the Lay Ministry program, and they spoke beautifully about how their studies have impacted their ministry in their faith communities and their families at home.
Near the end of the sharing, one woman spoke, nearly in tears, about doing her homework with her children around her, and hearing them say, “When I grow up, I’m going to go to college too.” Who would have thought that a project as small as this could change a generation!