The Challenge of Preaching in Bilingual Communities
Preaching to peers in a homiletics cohort opened Antonio Almonte’s eyes to the differences in how listeners perceive his preaching in English versus Spanish. As a result, he adjusted his English-language preaching style.
In this Strengthening Preaching blog series, preachers from a range of Christian traditions and denominations reflect on their growth as preachers through their involvement in the Strengthening Preaching initiative of Lilly Endowment Inc.,which is coordinated by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. At the heart of the initiative are preaching peer groups, sponsored by various seminaries, which engage preachers in reading, discussion, preaching, and feedback—all within a collegial circle of support. Antonio Almonte participated in a peer learning group sponsored by the University of Notre Dame.
Sundays around here are interesting. Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Church, in the Inwood neighborhood of New York City, is about 90 percent Latino. Most of our members are from the Dominican Republic. Others are from South and Central America, and the remaining few are African American or White.
I preach most of my homilies in Spanish. Spanish is a passionate language, and when I preach in Spanish I am passionate. I engage with the congregation. This preaching style fits the Latino culture, which is emotional and energetic—we have a party for almost any reason.
Working in this largely homogenous Latino community, I constantly ask myself, “How does my preaching style translate when I preach in English? How am I seen or understood?”
The answer astonished me when I was evaluated recently by my peers in a homiletics cohort from the University of Notre Dame. My friends in the cohort—non-Latino priests from the Archdiocese of New York and the Diocese of Kalamazoo—enjoyed my homily but said they were taken aback at how angry and negative I sounded. This bothered me tremendously.
At first reflecting on their response and reviewing the video of my homily, I saw what they saw: an angry priest who scolds. After further reflection, however, I changed my mind.
Yes, my tone was intense, but I didn’t see anger. I saw urgency and a passion for preaching the gospel. I saw a need for communicating God’s love for us. As I told my brother priests in the group, I saw a deep desire, which is clearly communicated in Spanish but which seems to be absent from English-language preaching.
I realized that the problem is rooted in culture.
In the Catholic church, I find that English-language preaching is subdued and often unengaging. I think this is because when they go to mass, English-speaking Catholics generally don’t like being told what to do or how to live. They don’t look to the church for moral guidance in the same way that their Latino peers do. American society promotes a sense that everything is OK, and that we can do whatever makes us happy. And, unfortunately, in the English-language mass the homily is generally not focused on the demands of the faith.
This is not the case in the Spanish-speaking world. Latinos expect their priests to be tough and demanding. They want the truth no matter how much it may hurt. Sugarcoating is not acceptable.
In Spanish-language preaching, there is no fear of offending people or making them feel guilty. The gospel truth is preached unapologetically. Spanish homilies are geared to evoke an emotional response and concretize it in action and lasting life changes. It’s OK to demand certain behaviors and attitudes which our faith commitment prescribes. Yes, the cross is painful, but we are called to embrace it.
In English, however, preaching this gospel truth may come across as harsh or offensive.
Preaching in a bilingual parish is difficult. Developing a solid and moving homily in English is challenging and exhausting for me. It means being open to people’s sensitivities without compromising the faith.
Preaching to peers in a homiletics cohort is also tough, since we want to impress our colleagues and do our best. But we aren’t supposed to impress. We are supposed to guide others to be better, to be holy. That is what I have seen on this peer preaching adventure. When my brother priests critique my homilies in a constructive and helpful way, I am only blessed.
These conversations have led me to see again the great love God has for me, the great sacrifice Christ made for me out of love—this pushes me to share that revelation with others and help others discover it as well.
This peer preaching experience has allowed me to see where I need growth. It has allowed me to be more sensitive to the needs of the people I am preaching to and adjust my personal style so I can better communicate the gospel message in English. For example, I have begun using more inclusive words like “we” and “us” instead of “you” to show that we are together on this path.
Preaching leads people to Christ and only Christ, and that is what I need to always keep in mind. Preaching to peers helps me to focus better on the message.
Read So Much Better: How Thousands of Pastors Help Each Other Thrive, an examination of the impact of pastor peer groups.
Listen to Sandra Maria Van Opstal’s Urbana 2015 presentation, “The Next Worship: Practicing Hospitality & Mutuality in Diverse Worship.”