Thursday, May 12, 2011

End-of-the-Year Reflections on Confirmation Catechesis with Hispanic Kids

It was with mixed feelings of regret and relief that I finished up my final class yesterday with 21 confirmandi from my parish. They have been great kids - and I wish them well.  The next time I see them will be at the celebration of Confrmation in a couple of weeks, when they join 60 other parish teens to receive the anointing that will complete their initiation into the Church.  I live in hope that for at least some of them, I made a difference this year. I like to think I saw some glimmers of understanding and engagement, however.  I also hope they know how much I care about each one of them.

While teaching has normally been a bit "like falling off a log" for me, I have to admit this was a hugely challenging year.  These children of immigrants, who live in the cusp between the Hispanic culture and the mainstream American one, were largely a closed book. They were reluctant to participate in class, though I used story, was often personally revelatory in an effort to model how faith sharing is done,  asked questions that related to their lives, some one-on-one sharing activities, and more. I even used that ice-breaker "beach-ball" with the questions on it that students are supposed to answer when they catch the ball. Sadly, the only time they seemed to be fully engaged all year was during the final two classes - and the engagement was not around the lesson, but was about the pressure they felt as they were being asked to complete the recitation of their required memorized prayers. Not exactly my highest catechetical priority, frankly - but individual accountability apparently hit them where they live.

I have to admit I had some sense of relief a few Saturdays ago when an experienced retreat leader, my friend John Donahue-Grosssman, admitted to me during a break in the Confirmation retreat that he had trashed his plan for the day and was re-tooling his approach - because the kids were not responding to the usual ice-breaker activities. We had arrived at nearly the end of the morning and the kids were still stiffly sitting there giving each other very minimal answers to the faith-sharing questions.  It was not just me, apparently. These kids ARE hard nuts to crack.

I shared with John the wisdom I had received at the beginning of the year from the diocesan leader for Hispanic youth ministry - that the greatest issue for these kids is self-esteem.  I mentioned that the parish catechists, in their mid-year meeting, had expressed a concern that they did not understand these students - and wanted help in learning who they are.  That, for John, affirmed his sense that he needed to do some values-clarification and affirmation exercises with them.  His afternoon with them was more successful, but he admitted this was hard work.

Why were these Hispanic teens (from a recent immigrant population) difficult to catechize?  First, obviously, is that self-esteem issue. Most were reluctant to share personal thoughts or feelings on any topic, even when I worked overtime to help them feel "safe" in our group. It wasn't even peer pressure in the normal sense - since these kids went to a variety of different day schools, and were at several different grade levels and only a few knew each other outside of class.  A few of them were less reluctant to participate, but even their example was not enough to galvanize the rest of them into participation.

They have one foot in each culture - and each child has a different mixture of elements. Some were familiar with traditional Hispanic devotional activities because their families still practice them. Some regularly attended Spanish Mass. For most of the others, however, this was not true. Activities in catechetical texts often assume the students have full familiarity with elements of American culture. That, frankly, was not true for my group.  Also, as a musician, I like to use music in the faith formation classroom - but I never knew which church music to use to illustrate a point with these kids, because they attend Spanish Mass when they do go - and  I only know some of the bilingual music - which was not familiar to them.  Liturgical catechesis - on the symbols of water, oil etc. worked a little better than some other things - but largely throughout the year, the only signs of  understanding were pretty much non-verbal: the widening of the eyes and leaning forward, the sudden abandonment of the typical bored-teen facial expression and body language.

Did I reach them? Did I make a difference?  I hope so. I know I planted a lot of seeds. I hope they know know that God made each of them a unique, valuable person and loves them unconditionally, that Jesus came to save them and to be their friend, support and nourishment, and that their parents had them baptized (and confirmed) because they care.  I hope they understand the importance of the sacramental life and that these initiation sacraments call them to participate in the celebration of the Mass and in active engagement with the Body of Christ - the faith community.  I hope they know that the community of St. John the Baptist - and indeed the Catholic Church - cares about them and can serve as support and a home-base that will be there for them in their deepest hour of need. I hope they know that I care about who they are and who they will become - and about their faith life, present and future.

I will be praying for them between now and Confirmation and beyond.


  1. Joyce
    I am passing this article on to my wife Nan for her own ideas. She taught two confirmation classes which were mixed, with Hispanics, Anglos, and a few Filipinos.
    My whole program (English) is at least 60% Hispanic (children of immigrants). I need to get a handle on reaching all of these kids.
    Frank Koob

  2. It sure is a challenge, Frank. The textbooks, suggested activities and resources are created for the mainstream American culture... so even when they are bilingual, they are not enculturated. I found it distressing that while none of my kids normally attend English Mass, the Sadlier teacher's guide for the bilingual Confirmation prep text suggested using Marty Haugen / David Haas music at several points... and did not give any common Spanish songs that might be equivalent. So, it comes down to the person of the catechist and his or her ability to be culturally sensitive. I am waiting in hope for the USCCB cultural competencies for ministry training project which Fr. Allen Deck indicated will be available in 2012.