On any Sunday morning, Catholic catechists around Portland teach children about Jesus Christ and his church in a panoply of cultures.
In this metropolitan area of more than a million, religious education comes to children who are Chuukese, Nigerian, Rwandan, Indonesian, Korean, Polish, Mexican, Guatemalan and Vietnamese, among others.
There is even more diversity in larger west coast cities like Seattle, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Immigration from Africa, Latin America and the Pacific rim has sparked the Catholic cultural array, which may be unparalleled on the globe.
In west coast cities like Portland, faith formation for youths often gets linked to an education in culture. That is largely a happy arrangement, but conflict of identities can ensue. Parents want catechists to preserve the old ways and language while students attempt to build an identity out of Catholicism, their parents' tradition and U.S. values. Slowly, the old ways fade. The question is, what will emerge?
At an international fair at St. Anthony Church in working class East Portland, 42-year-old Judy Dungawin bows her head to pray over lunch. She insists that her 3-year-old son Jomar follow her example. He does so, without complaint.
"That is first for me," Judy says later. "I push my children to know God in their minds and hearts. Second is that they know their culture. Third is that they are respectful, love people and help people — the old and the poor."
Dungawin is a native of Chuuk, an island group in the South Pacific. Catholicism came to the islands in the early 1900s when German Capuchins founded a mission. About half the residents are Catholic.
Dungawin recalls being punished seriously by her grandparents for missing Mass or catechism class. A mother of four, she opts for steadfast persuasion instead.
Many Chuukese under 40 are Americanized, even bi-cultural. Fewer of their children than hoped for attend religious education at St. Anthony, but some of the Chuuk community meet at St. Anthony on Sunday afternoons for religious formation for all ages and lessons about island culture.
Born in the U.S., Judy Dungawin's 19-year-old daughter Jenial likes much of her heritage: respect for elders, unswerving integrity. Some things Jenial does not like, mainly the sexism. Though she will incorporate her modern convictions into her life, she is not afraid of losing her Chuuk ways or her faith.
A student at Portland State University, Jenial rebelled at age 16 but now is coming back to belief on her terms. While she doesn't wear Catholicism on her sleeve, she does cross herself before meals at the cafeteria. In class, she defends faith when it is attacked blithely by professors or peers. On weekends, she teaches catechism to Chuuk children.
"I don't want to lose my grasp on something as big as faith," Jenial says. "When I do settle down, I will make sure my kids know faith, too."
Claire Woodruff, coordinator of religious education for the Archdiocese of Portland, describes a pattern in immigrant churches. The original immigrants want to preserve the old culture but each succeeding generation becomes more Americanized. As a lifeboat during times of change, the Archdiocese of Portland offers support to parishes with regular workshops and lectures for catechists, plus an annual tri-lingual conference with English, Spanish and Vietnamese speakers.
Four years ago, Woodruff visited western Oregon parishes with large Spanish-speaking populations, helping them set up good faith formation programs, whether combined or separate.
"This is tricky because the kids are almost all bilingual and the parents are not," Woodruff says. "The parents want them to learn the prayers in Spanish so they can say the prayers at home. They want to maintain the traditions of their motherland." A few years ago, she visited the city's traditional Polish parish, which had before used curriculum from Poland. The next year, the parish director of religious education called and said that six of her catechists would like to attend the conference. The parish also adopted a U.S. curriculum. Woodruff expects the trend toward
Americanization to continue with newer immigrant groups, like those from Africa and the Pacific Islands.
"But there is no simple answer," she says. "Every parish has found its own way to do it."
Our Lady of Lavang Parish in Portland, located on the majestic grounds of a former Catholic academy for girls, counts 1,100 children in religious education. The Adorers of the Holy Cross, a community of women religious from Vietnam, lead the massive program, having come to Oregon near the end of the Vietnam war. The 19 sisters train dozens of lay catechists, but could use more because of the sheer number of students — an average of 50 in each class. Lessons are taught mostly in English, because that is the language the children prefer for learning. The sisters also offer courses on the Vietnamese language, a tongue the youths are slowly losing to the chagrin of parents.
Youth group members go out on service projects and attend retreats. Not surprisingly, it's among teens that the cultural struggle is most virulent.
"Kids want freedom here in the U.S.," says Sr. Mary Trinh Thi Nguyen, superior of the Adorers of the Holy Cross. "In Vietnam, parents have more power. In Vietnam, children have to obey. Parents are looking to us to help keep the culture."
Sister Mary says that the sisters often ask the parents to lighten up on the children, explaining U.S. customs.
Each July, the Catholic Vietnamese community of Portland welcomes peers from all over the west for a Mass celebrating freedom. It is then that traditional culture has its day, even among youths. Girls don Vietnamese clothes and perform elaborate sacred dance from the old country, taught by the sisters.
On Portland's working class east side, dubbed "Felony Flats" by wags, a small church hums with Korean culture every weekend. Some worshipers wear traditional silk garb for Mass while others put on business suits. Some catechists at Korean Martyrs Parish teach in Korean while others teach in English, depending on the language that feels most comfortable. There are 75 students in the K-12 program.
Young children take bible quizzes and organize a carnival. Older students attend summer camp, visit senior citizens (respect for elders is a primary cultural value) and fast in solidarity with the world's poor, especially those in North Korea.
Teens have taken a special interest this year in lessons on Theology of the Body. Maria Park, the youth minister, was surprised, given that Koreans normally do not speak of sexuality in public.
Some students at the church have hit an identity crisis. They ask, "Am I Korean or American?" Park, in her 30s, knows the course. Her parents were born in Korea and she was born in the U.S. "Parents want their kids to learn English but also want them to maintain their heritage and speak Korean," she says. "Kids feel they don't want to be part of the old culture; they want to be American."
Some parents urge catechists to increase the Korean in classes, but the teachers tell them that the children simply will not understand the material. There is a Saturday school for the Korean language to help fulfill the parents' desire, but fewer children are coming.
Nadia Redmond, catechist at St. Sharbel Maronite Catholic Church in Portland, tries to counter what she sees as a typically American phenomenon: seeing religion as just another club. "In the Middle East, it's very different," says Redmond, who was born in Lebanon. "Your faith is a part of you. You live your faith. You live the culture. It's embedded. I can't even call it a religion. It's who I am."
It's proving difficult to relay the mindset to children at St. Sharbel. They are second or third generation Americans and the further they get from traditional ways, the harder it is to get them to attend catechism.
The parish of 50 active families prepares six to 12 children for first Communion each year. A small group of older children, in a group called "Angel Scouts," work on becoming disciples and evangelizing. There is also a modest-sized youth group. Redmond calls and emails parish families regularly to urge them to send their children.
The curriculum comes from the Maronite tradition, an ancient rite of Christianity handed down 16 centuries ago. But Redmond augments lessons with pieces of the Baltimore catechism and contemporary material from Ignatius Press.
As eastern rite Catholics in a Latin rite world, Maronite children must be assured that theirs is not a different faith, but a distinct tradition in the rich family of the Catholic Church. Some Melkite rite children come to catechism at St. Sharbel, since there is no Melkite parish in Oregon. Many St. Sharbel children attend Roman rite Masses on some weekends or go to Catholic schools which have weekly Mass. They feel caught between rites.
At St. Sharbel, the ancient liturgy is called "the Holy Mysteries" and includes Arabic and Aramaic, the language Jesus spoke. Communion is received on the tongue.
"I am trying to teach kids reverence," Redmond says, afraid the Maronite "other-worldly" observance will fade.
Two hours south of Portland, in Springfield near the University of Oregon, a Ukrainian Catholic parish has thrown in the towel on religious education classes.
"Kids don't want to put in the time. It's a constant struggle," says Father Richard Janowicz, pastor of Nativity of the Blessed Mother of God Church. "There are so many other things to do."
The youths are several generations removed from Ukraine and their links to tradition have been supplanted, even though many are home schooled and get religious formation from parents. But the local culture is strong. Even Catholic institutions, for example, have scheduled sports events on Sundays.
Father Janowicz, though discouraged, does find hope in the way families have retained religious customs at certain times of year. For example, families of Ukrainian heritage come from all over Oregon for the annual blessing of Easter baskets.
"Faith does have to be integrated into the rest of a person's life. It can't just be Sunday," the priest says. "That includes customs and traditions."
Over the past 50 years, Oregon's agriculture industry attracted many Spanish-speakers. They and their descendants make up by far the largest immigrant population in the state. At St. Alexander in Cornelius, 25 miles west of Portland, 95 percent of parishioners are native Spanish speakers. Most are from Mexico, but others come from Guatemala, Peru and a handful of other countries.
St. Alexander's catechists are proud that everything gets taught in Spanish and English. Parents like Spanish and children like English. Each of the more than 300 students receives a bilingual book and in each class, one hears both languages. English becomes the language of learning, Spanish the language of prayer.
Some parents push to have all religious education in Spanish.
"I talk to families to help them know we are not trying to take away their culture," says Neela Kale, the director of religious education at St. Alexander. "The truth is, some kids learn better in English."
Children do not seem conflicted about being in two cultures, says Kale. "They are comfortable with who they are."
Kale does see a struggle with catechists who taught in Mexico for years and now volunteer at St. Alexander. In Mexico, teachers focus more on memorization, which Kale says does not work well here. But Mexican catechesis also takes advantage of rich devotions like Our Lady of Guadalupe and Las Posadas, a Christmas memorial.
"These devotions can create a faith experience for kids," Kale says. "I am trying to integrate the best of Mexican tradition with the best of U.S. culture." Youths in the U.S. expect to be asked their opinion, which Kale likes. Young people need to learn to think about faith on their feet, she says.
In Portland at Ascension Parish, catechists have just ended their all-Spanish first Communion classes. Next year, formation will be bilingual, Spanish and English. The change that has been relatively smooth.
Camerina Galvan, coordinator of youth ministry at Ascension, says teens inquire about their identity, moving between the culture of their parents and the ways of their Anglo peers. The youths are culturally agile and open to new experiences.
"We focus on culture and how culture influences them," Galvan says. "We examine pop culture and heritage and how it all impacts them and their faith." Lessons often include examples from multi-cultural households.
In Portland's old Polish neighborhood, just north of downtown, immigrants from the 1990s are struggling to keep their faith, culture and language alive. In addition to Masses in Polish and Croatian, St. Stanislaus Parish is home to a weekend Polish school.
The rites celebrated at St. Stanislaus are familiar to Catholics of an earlier era: A flower-festooned Corpus Christi procession around the neighborhood in June and an outdoor Way of the Cross march during Lent. Children from the religious education program take part in both.
After dwindling for decades, the Polish population in Portland surged after the fall of the Soviet Union. About 60 children filled the catechism classes at St. Stanislaus. They learned Polish on Saturdays and trained in traditional dances for the annual fall festival. Grace Golonka, catechist for 19 years at St. Stanislaus, even used curriculum from Poland. But in the past few years, as the children have become more and more products of local culture, she switched to a U.S. program. She wishes it focused more on fundamentals, so tailors it as much as she can. Meanwhile, classes have shrunk.
"Now is a time of change," says Golonka, who faces some pressure from old-timers to push Polish language. But others realize that the catechesis is more important than the language.
"We have to open up," Golonka says. "The point is to teach them the faith."
A concern everyone shares is the materialism that is part of U.S. life — needing the right clothes, the right shoes, the right phone. Even the Polish-American parents seem to be giving in to unchurched Oregon, letting their homes become less and less religious.
"They feel that once they send kids to catechism they don't need to do more," Golonka says. "But there is never too much religion at home. From morning to night they should be talking about religion and praying. Problems at home should be discussed in a way relating to their religion. It's much easier to raise children when you raise them on a solid religious foundation."