WAUWATOSA – How can Hispanics and other minority populations effectively assimilate into Catholic parishes and affiliated organizations, such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul?

That was a question posed when Vincentians from five Midwest states gathered at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, June 3 to 5, for the North Central regional meeting. Members discussed an array of topics at workshops, many revolving around the future of the organization that has been dedicated to meeting the needs of the poor for more than a century.

During the talk, “When Your Neighborhood Changes…,” several Vincentians shared how the assimilation process has been fruitful, yet challenging, at local parishes and Vincentian councils within the North Central region, which covers Illinois, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wisconsin and the upper peninsula of Michigan.

Much of the workshop revolved around shifting demographics within some parishes as new populations of Hispanics and other ethnicities come into communities. With an ever-increasing population and traditional Catholic heritage, much of the discussion revolved around meeting Hispanics’ needs.

In some cases, local Vincentian councils and districts have been unable to serve Hispanics, particularly immigrant groups, due to lack of resources, including inadequate translation materials. The discussion also shed light on fears toward minorities in some congregations, and proactive solutions toward combating the issue.

However, Vincentians helping Hispanics and other minorities assimilate said there are a number of hurdles to cross when reaching out toward people who are new to this country.

“They’re afraid, even though they’re looking for help,” said Lazaro Perez, a Vincentian who has been stepping up efforts to reach Hispanics.

While there are many challenges associated with bridging cultural gaps, Don Mueller suggested Vincentians look to Jesus as a role model and adopt a servant-filled heart.

Mueller, president of the Vincentians’ Fond du Lac district council and director of pastoral care at Holy Family Catholic Community, Fond du Lac, said his congregation has experienced a positive melding between the two cultures. More recently, Mueller said, Hispanic parishioners have become an active part of the church body, participating in such initiatives as potlucks.

“The gift of faith is strong; it’s very important,” Mueller said. “We have to always be looking for opportunities to serve. Christ’s eyes will be more open to us if we can do this.”

Mueller said the situation in the Fond du Lac council has been largely positive. He said the Catholic community as a whole needs to tackle, head on, the reality that racism exists within some congregations.

“We should never be talking about ‘those people,’” Mueller said. “This is about us, and what we can do. There’s a lot of diversity, and I think we need to appreciate that. I will just say it like it is: There are councils where people are intolerant and think Hispanics are out there. We have to address that. We know racism exists in our membership.”

Within the Fond du Lac council, Mueller said situations have arisen where some Vincentians and other parishioners have lent a hand to Hispanics and people of other ethnicities, offering services such as rides to and from Mass.

“We don’t have all the answers in Fond du Lac, but we are moving forward,” Mueller said.

Ron Mejia also has been involved with outreach efforts. He said his one-on-one meetings with Hispanics have been positive. Learning different cultures and having a more understanding heart, he said, will inevitably yield fruitful results.

“It’s an opportunity to meet the face of Jesus every day,” Mejia said. “You take responsibility for the people the Lord has sent to you by getting to know people and breaking down fears. The Lord provides. Look at how he multiplied the loaves and fishes.”

Vincentians attending the talk agreed to form an ad hoc committee to look further into meeting the needs of minority populations. Collaboration within the North Central and other Vincentian regions, as well as other areas within the Catholic Church, was viewed as one of the best means of continuing the work that has taken place.

“To be a leader, you have to gather with other leaders to be strong,” said Michael Harrington, who serves on the region’s diversity committee.

In addition to workshops, Vincentians were involved in several other events throughout the regional meeting, including prayer services and Masses, a golf outing and even a fundraiser including a fashion show where St. Vincent de Paul store fashions were featured. Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki celebrated Mass for the Vincentians June 4.