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Latest study asks church to remodel Hispanic youth ministries

By Agostino Bono
Catholic News Service

The church must remodel its youth and young adult ministries to meet the diverse needs of a rapidly expanding Hispanic population, said a study by a California-based Hispanic ministry research center.

If not, the church will have limited influence on a major segment of its future adult population, it said.

"Hispanics now make up 41 percent of all Catholics under age 30, and 44 percent of all Catholics under age 10." This leads researchers to say: "The future life of the Catholic Church in the United States will be shaped to a large extent by the faith and the leadership of today's young Hispanic Catholics."

The study was done earlier this year by Instituto Fe y Vida (Faith and Life Institute) of Stockton, Calif., and released to Catholic News Service in mid-June. The study was coordinated by Ken Johnson-Mondragon, director of the institute's research center.

The study uses the 2000 U.S. Census and several independent surveys of Hispanics to form the statistical basis of its findings.

Hispanics will soon form the majority of the overall young Catholic population. This is because the Hispanic immigration wave is not expected to slow down and because Hispanic families have more children than non-Hispanic white families.

Traditional programs based on outreach to teens and high school students do not fit the diversity in the Hispanic youth population. This diversity includes gang members, non-English speakers and U.S.-born youths well-adapted to mainstream U.S. culture.

Hispanic youth ministry must serve a group of 16-to 30-year-olds. This is the critical period when Hispanics make the key decisions, such as marriage and careers, which determine the rest of their lives.

"It is also the time to make decisions about how they will incarnate the Gospel in their lives."

The study said more people need to be trained at the parish and diocesan levels to develop and run programs geared to the different Hispanic groups in the 16-30 age group.

It divided Hispanics in this age group into four categories:

1. Gang Members

2. Identity Seekers

3. Immigrant worker

4. Mainstream movers

Gang members are the smallest group but present the biggest challenges. Gang members are estimated to make up 10 to 15 percent of the age group, mostly U.S.-born children of first generation immigrants who are not in school and lack jobs, said the study.

"Without marketable skills, and believing that discrimination will end their chances for a job before they get an interview, many turn to selling drugs or stealing cars as a way to make money."

They are influenced by religiosity, but have little understanding of Catholicism.

"Their gang symbols are often imbued with religious art, such as Our Lady of Guadalupe and the rosary." "They may ask for God's or the Virgin's protection while they go out on a drive-by shooting."

Their pastoral needs include "recovery from addictions, psychosexual development, skills for communication and intimacy, basic parenting skills, education, job training, healing of traumatic wounds from childhood and gang life, religious and moral education, anger management, and forgiveness."

The study estimated that between 25 percent to 45 percent of the age group are Spanish-speaking immigrant workers with little formal education. Their faith is tied to Latin American popular religiosity and they look to the church for support.

"They feel most free to express their faith in Spanish; if the Catholic Church does not reach out to them in Spanish, they might be vulnerable to proselytization" by other churches.

This group needs faith to face life's main challenges and needs help to avoid the pitfalls of vices and addictions.

Identity-seekers are U.S. born but feel uncomfortable in their foreign-born parent's world and in their U.S. surroundings, said the study.

"They and their loved ones have felt the sting of social and religious discrimination, poor education, and dehumanizing public policy."

They are usually bilingual, speaking Spanish at home and English with their peers.

Some are actively searching for their identity; others feel stalled because their development into adulthood is not progressing as rapidly as mainstream Americans; and others feel defeated, believing that "success and happiness are beyond their reach."

The study estimated that 25 percent to 45 percent are in this category.

Identity-seekers need faith to develop a sense of hope, need support to finish high school and require assistance to develop self-esteem.

About 15 percent to 25 percent are identified as mainstream-movers who are second- and third-generation Americans mostly from middle- and upper middle-class families.

"They are educated, or are being educated, and they understand how to take advantage of the socioeconomic system in the U.S. for their personal advancement."

Their needs are much the same as those of mainstream U.S. Catholics.