What Shopping Malls Can Tell Us about the Future of Hispanic Ministry

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In a recent TIME Magazine article, “Mercado of America,” a successful Mexican-American businessman has turned run-down and depleted shopping malls into commercial and cultural centers of activity in the South and Southwest by targeting the local Hispanic population. Beyond stocking his malls with stores catering to that demographic, José de Jesús Legaspi has also targeted culture. Shopping becomes a distinctly familial event, as young and old alike venture to “La Gran Plaza” for the day. In each mall, a Mercado: “[a] three-story bazaar packed with small storefronts selling everything from piñatas to PlayStations.” While parents and children shop and haggle in their native language (often Spanish), older generations will find places in the mall to sit, talk, read, and sleep. And since this place is designed to be a one-stop family shop, a wide variety of needs can be met, which means storefronts containing anything from grocery stores to DMV’s.

Legaspi’s model seems to have successfully resonated with Hispanics in America. However, there are already signs that this cultural reality is changing and morphing into something ever more in-line with mainstream American culture. This change, not surprisingly, is being spearheaded by the youth. TIME notes that “most growth in the Hispanic population in the U.S. is now being driven by children born here rather than by migrants.” This means that young Hispanics are more likely to speak, eat, act, and shop like mainstream American culture. For Legaspi and his business, this means that what is working today in his malls, will not work one day. And that “one day” may be sooner than we realize.

So, why is a white Polish-American twenty-something talking about shopping malls that cater to Hispanics on a Catholic blog? The Church in America has been wrestling with (or in some cases ignoring) the challenge of ministering to a Hispanic Catholic population that is becoming an ever greater percentage of Catholics in this country. From my limited exposure to parishes in Boston, I see that Hispanic Ministry efforts in local churches are often a patch-work, hard to understand, even harder to execute, and often poorly implemented effort to minister to a community whose Catholic faith is deeply imbedded in the culture they know, and is often foreign to the traditional culture of the parish. In recent years, great strides in this ministry have been made, and more progress continues.

However, even if we build the “La Gran Plaza” of Hispanic Ministry programs tomorrow, are we already behind the changing reality? With young Hispanic Catholics associating more with American culture than the traditions of their parents and grandparents, the spiritual and cultural values of Hispanic Catholic communities will be just as foreign to them as they are to the 70 year old Irish pastor trying to minister to them. The next problem is already upon us! How do we minister to cultural Americans that come from Hispanic Catholic families? How do these young people, who must engage to two very different traditions, relate to prayer, faith, and Jesus Christ? This question was posed to the American Church with many other ethnic communities: the Poles, Italians, Irish, and others. Looking at the state of the faithful today, it does not look like we found an adequate answer. Today we have another chance. How will the ministers of the Church respond?

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