This dynamic pastor has a few tips on how to welcome parishioners and rekindle the fire among the faithful.
Many priests can become bogged down with everything that needs to be done to keep a parish running. So when you’re also busy attending or presiding at national conferences or joining interfaith prayer services on the steps of the Capitol, it’s understandable to think that some parish priorities might fall by the wayside. That’s not the case for Msgr. Ray East, who was found answering the other end of the parish line himself when U.S. Catholic called to inquire about an interview.
East always thought that he would become a priest and serve as a missionary in Africa, as his father had been born while his grandparents served on a mission in South Africa. “We grew up knowing that, as a family, we were called to continue the mission,” East says. His vision lasted until a mentoring pastor pointed out he could do just as much positive work in the United States as he could in Africa. “I thought about that a lot,” East recalls. “I said, ‘OK.’ So that’s how I decided on diocesan priesthood.”
And the decision has paid off. As the pastor of Saint Teresa of Avila Catholic Church on the southeast side of Washington, East has used this calling to cultivate a vibrant parish life. The energy and enthusiasm East possesses for his ministry and his community are contagious.
“The skills that I would have needed as a missionary in Africa, I need every day just to do pastoral ministry right at home,” he says. “That’s been a great discovery.”
What do you see as the value of embracing other cultures in the setting of the liturgy?
Liturgy is really, as the Second Vatican Council said, the source and summit of the life of the church. Whenever we gather as Catholics, it should be the source and summit of what we do. I like to call it a kahal, which is the Hebrew word for church or assembly. It’s intentionally embracing or inclusive of all the peoples and cultures of the world.
Specifically, the work done in Catholic social ministry touches every continent, whether we’re talking domestically or internationally. We really do need worship that reflects the people who are present and the people we serve.
We talk a lot now about cultural competency. I think that cultural competency in prayer is so helpful. When it’s not a novelty or a gimmick, it weaves through for people to apply it to their lives.
What if you don’t have any people with differing cultural backgrounds in the parish? Should you still incorporate those traditions?
You know, I really feel strongly about doing that, because it reflects the church. When we do that, we, by stretching ourselves, are ready to be hospitable, to exercise the gift of hospitality so that when our friends who embrace other cultures come to Mass, we’re ready to set the table of welcome.
Welcoming the Stranger Among Us was a document put out by the bishops in 2000. They talk about three key principles, one being reconciliation. I think that learning the way that the human family prays and speaks is part of our reconciliation, part of that work.
But the goal would be communion. I think, again, when the table is set, and people look and recognize themselves and their songs, all feel welcome.
Do you have any examples of this happening?
I know someone who told a story of a woman who was from Vietnam. He was getting a haircut and she was doing nails over on the side. He started singing one of the songs that they were getting ready for his parish. As he was singing the melody, she burst into tears.
She said, “I came over from Vietnam in a boat. Many of my family members and relatives died on the journey. I survived. I haven’t heard that song sung since we were on the boat together. That was the last time I’d heard it sung. It was a hymn that we used to try and encourage each other.” I said, “Oh, my gosh.” It just touched her.
In our parish, we’ve also tried to do sign language, because in Washington, we’re the home of Gallaudet University for the deaf, and there’s a huge deaf population in the area as a result. We don’t have anybody in church right now who is fully deaf and a part of the deaf community. But we tried to integrate signing into dance ministry and into things that the whole congregation does and into other parts of choir ministry.
One time we were up there singing and praising the Lord, and this young man, who’s deaf, comes in. He started crying because he could understand a little bit of what was going on, because it was either interpreted, or the whole congregation was singing using signs. It just moved him so much. It’s like, “If you build it, they will come.” If you’re prepared and ready, then people come. We do it because that’s who we are as a family.
What value can music specifically bring to the life of a parish or the prayerfulness of the liturgy?
I would say that one of the great things is that, even when we’re in our mother’s womb, we learn music. The first part we hear is the rhythm of our mother’s heartbeat. Then we hear the songs of lullabies that are sung even before we’re born. In some cultures, like in the South Pacific and some Oceanic cultures, there are actually songs being sung as the child is coming forth from the womb. That is part of the atmosphere in so many different cultures.
In Washington, I remember, we had a march on one of the anniversaries of the end of the Vietnam War. We’re going along, with tens of thousands of veterans. They had no common song to unite them. There wasn’t the joy or the cohesion there could have been if there were songs that united.
Singing is our way of praying, and song accompanies us at all the moments of our life, from birth to death and everything in between. Singing is a sacrament of the presence of God. It’s one of the manifestations, the signs that God is present with us. It can elevate us so much. It’s the way we sing justice. It’s the way we sing our sorrow, our lamentations. It’s the way we express our joy. Do we get there? Do we hit the mark? A lot of times we fall short.
I’m reminded, in my parish, of the three things that attract people to church. Good hospitality, first; good preaching, second; and good music, third. If any one of those is missing, something really is lacking in people, and people aren’t drawn to come or they’re not going to stay.
How do you inspire people to sing?
Every once in a while, we have to take a little time-out. Recently there was a song that everybody knew, but the congregation wanted to go into audience mode, rather than congregation mode.
We just had to take a little time-out, and I said, “All right, the choir is great today. They’re really in full voice, but actually, they are assisting you in praising God. Let’s have the choir stop. We’re going to play the accompaniment and why don’t you guys sing? We just want to hear you guys sing.” It was a call and response song.
All of a sudden, they found their voices. Everybody just went into worship and praise. They weren’t self-conscious. When we brought the choir in, the Holy Ghost decided to make an appearance. It can make all the difference in the world. I’ve seen some of the most sorrowful funerals lifted up by music that expresses our hope for resurrection.
What strategies do you use to get your parishioners into ‘congregation mode’?
Outside, when we get out of church, we go into audience mode. There’s such a division between the secular and the sacred. Even from little kids that are in kindergarten, they can recite by memory verse after verse of rap songs that are on the radio—and often with the expletives not deleted! And yet they come into church and have a hard time singing, or don’t feel drawn to sing. So what happens? What is it about going through the church doors that makes this huge difference in our ability to sing outside and inside church?
I think when the community sets the standard of prayer and when the community comes together and says, “This is why we sing. We are praising God. We’re not doing this for ourselves. We’re not doing this for any form or fashion, as the old preachers used to say. We have come to praise the Lord. This is why we praise.” You pass that torch of praise down to the next generation. All of a sudden you can see the kids get it.
We had our children’s choir the other day at Mass. We tried to integrate them with the other choirs. The children’s choir came and sang two selections. The first one was very upbeat and had everybody just praise the Lord. The second one had everybody in tears, because it said, “I want to be, O God, your obedient child.” It was so beautiful. They did it with such intensity.
Then they started to do the gestures that went with the song. It was one of those moments where everybody gets it. Everybody’s drawn into that desire to serve God with gladness. It’s that connection. I think that’s what should separate—if it’s possible to talk about separation—the secular and sacred in song. That sense that it’s not entertainment anymore.
Besides music, what are some other good ways to bring young people into the life of the parish?
It’s such a great question. I’m in the Jack Jezreel fan club. He says it’s the social ministry of the church that can enliven and make life meaningful for young people, because so much outside doesn’t give them a cause for hope.
In the first sermon of Jesus, in Luke Chapter 4, when the whole church gets engaged in the mission of Christ, Jesus tells us specifically what we’re supposed to do: To be good news to the poor. To ransom captives. To lift up those who are sorry. To help those who can’t walk. To announce the year of God’s favor. When people see that translated into concrete deeds, their lives change.
We have young people who have to do confirmation service hours. They go into it begrudgingly until they get involved in the work. Then once they’re doing the work, they really go for it. So we try to weave the works of mercy, justice, and charity into every phase of the sacramental journey, of the journey of initiation.
We try to weave it into first communion and first reconciliation preparation. They do works of charity with the homeless. As they talk about the bread of life, they actually take bread and make sandwiches and take them up to our shelter. When you start early like that and do it as a family, it makes all the difference in the world, and the kids get hooked. They start asking and looking for those opportunities to serve.
That’s one real way of engaging them—you turn the forced confirmation or high school service hours into great opportunities to love and reach out. We have a big nursing home right in the parish. We need a lot of help. It takes more than half an hour to just wheel people in, since most of the people aren’t ambulatory, for the Saturday Mass. The kids are great at doing wheelchairs. They of course have to pass by all the halls where they see people hooked up to equipment and people in great pain. They pass a lot of people who have lost their mental faculties. They just get to see it all as they’re bringing people to Mass. Then they stay for Mass and they take everybody back to their rooms.
Going to the women’s shelter or helping serve people at the soup kitchen—those kinds of activities really do change their lives. The way we engage them is not just to make it a temporary thing, but to try to weave it into their Christian lifestyle. The more times we can do those things as families, the better it works, the better it helps.
What steps do you take to create a welcoming, community-focused parish?
The whole idea of welcome—it’s not just for Sunday Mass. It has to be an everyday thing. It starts when, as people are in the neighborhood, you welcome them. Or all throughout the week, you say, “Come to our church. Why don’t you come to Mass? We’re doing this. We’re doing that.” It continues when you make a real neighborhood connection and you invite people to come, no matter what their situation is.
We have a lot of folks that are shelter folks. We have some folks that are almost on the streets, folks that are dealing with drug dependency. When you make the neighborhood feel welcome, the word goes out that they are welcome and nobody will be looking at them if they weren’t able to take a bath for the last couple of days, or if their clothes are disheveled or whatever.
When they see that they can be accepted, that word goes out. That’s a big part of welcome. On our marquee and in everything we do, we try to say, “All are welcome.”
Does your parish use a specific hospitality ministry to help welcome people in?
The institutionalized part of welcome is our ministers of hospitality. We don’t call them ushers. We call them ministers of hospitality, because that’s such an important part in the black church. We joined a mostly Protestant group called the Interdenominational Church Ushers Association (ICUA). That’s where we learned the art or the ministry of ushering, by gathering together with other churches. They taught us several things.
First, there’s no such thing as ushers going out and having a smoke during the sermon. You just don’t do that. You are a part of the household of God. Your job is to welcome people in and help them stay welcome all during the Mass and after.
Then the ICUA says the ministry has to be open, institutionally, to two other groups that usually aren’t there. Not just adults, but you have to have young adults. We start with children who are first communion age. The minute they are in first or second grade, they are welcomed into the ministry of ushering. They have their own ushers unit, with advisors that help them out. Then we have the teenagers in their own unit. They have uniforms. If we’re doing African culture day then everybody has African attire to wear for the ushering.
The other thing is for the whole parish to learn outreach and hospitality. That’s the more comprehensive kind of work. It takes a little bit longer to have that attitude of welcome. But it’s based on the idea that in God’s house, nobody’s a stranger and nobody should be made to feel like they’re a stranger.
In God’s house, all are welcome. Because we were welcomed once. We were strangers. We were lost and we found our way. Therefore we need to be looking out for those who are on their way, who are trying to come into church as a place of safety, of refuge, of life.
Once you welcome people, how do you get them to stay?
We do stay in church for a little while. [Laughs.] Another part of the black church is that—and it really applies to all situations—once you get inside those doors, you’re on God’s time. It’s not watch time or clock time anymore. You’re on God’s time.
How long does church take? Until God finishes with us and sends us out. Kind of like the Shaker or Quaker traditions. They wait in silence until the Holy Spirit moves somebody to speak, and it’s over when it’s over. That sense of God’s time is part of black spirituality, and we have taken it in as a part of black Catholic spirituality. A real sense that liturgy leads to life, that we are on God’s time, that we need to worship.
Not only because God requires it of us. But because in this we’re fed, so we can feed others. That’s an overarching sense of what we do and why we worship.
We’re taking a new approach, in terms of the new evangelization, from Cardinal Donald Wuerl. He has five indicators of vitality. How alive is your parish? The first indicator is worship. The second is community. The third is Christian formation and education. The fourth is our service: to community, to the parish itself, and to the world.
Then the fifth indicator is our stewardship. We try to balance what used to be a more lopsided focus on worship with asking, how are we doing with formation? What happens during the week, between Sundays?
So the big thing is the balance. Cardinal Wuerl says that you’ve got to keep these five elements not only in creative contention, but we have to integrate and balance all of these elements.
What would you tell other priests who are looking to add a little bit of that vitality?
One of the things that gives me a little pause is that in the church right now, it seems as though we are drawing lines and putting up walls, rather than tearing them down and building bridges. We feel like we’re upholding the true truth and everybody else is wrong.
I think, when you look at the gospels, you look at the Acts of the Apostles and you look at the way the church spread, you see how those different chasms can and should come together.
We really need to always be firmly rooted in our tradition and yet open to the world. Because that’s the gift that we give to the world. That’s the way the church, operating under the influence of the Holy Spirit, changes the culture or evangelizes, inseminates the culture with the Good News of Jesus Christ.
I think all of that comes to a head when we gather for worship. It’s so important for presiders to cultivate those gifts. And not only presiders, but all who take part in liturgical celebrations. To look at those gifts and to really work on them, to improve. And to realize how we come across. Sometimes we look and, oh my goodness, we’re coming across as the frozen chosen!
Unfortunately, that’s increasing the tendency for a somberness that’s equated with spirituality and true worship. I just think that we don’t have to go in that way to worship God and spirit and truth. I’m not talking about solemnity. I’m not talking about spiritual depth and everything. I’m not talking about abandoning tradition at all.
I’m talking about expressing tradition in the many ways that our church has always done, with different liturgical rites, throughout the centuries. And being able to meet any situation and pray well in the most difficult and most oppressive, terrible situations. The martyrs often went to their deaths singing.
I think it’s that real sense of being open to the world in which Jesus has put us, into which God has put us, into which we’re being thrust, with the gospel. That kind of openness can find its home in our worship, in our education, in our service—especially to the poor—in our building of community and then in our accountability for our time, treasure, and talent. It’s that balance.
How can lay Catholics make a difference in their communities? What can people do if they feel called to be open to the world?
I love that. “U.S.” Catholics or “us” Catholics. We’ve recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council and the 25th anniversary of the catechism. In those documents, in those really seminal documents, is contained the blueprint for everything that we need to do today in order to be fully engaged in our faith.
First is the universal call to holiness, which was embraced in the council’s document on the laity, and then in the other post-conciliar documents. And then there are all the documents that open the way for us to do social communications, to do the church in dialogue with other faiths that are not Christian, with the peoples of the world; all of the calls to solidarity.
That spirit of lay participation breathes through all of the documents. As we look at those documents, I say, “Look, face it, y’all. Y’all are called.” It’s not an option, if you’re called; serving and loving and being engaged to the world is not an option. Primero Dios— God first in our lives. Everything else falls into place if we put God first.
And then there’s the impetus that we are called to do some really specific and important things, to do the works of mercy and justice. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy. We’re called to be a transformative force in the world. We’re called to evangelize. That’s something all of us can do from all ages. We can see so many opportunities to serve and to be the church.
What about for people who might have left the church?
This message is so important to get out to our Catholics. A lot of people say, “I was raised Catholic.” Or, “I used to be Catholic.” I say, “Once you’re Catholic, you’re always Catholic.” You can’t get it out of your DNA. I’m sorry. You can go to no church, you can switch churches, you can become a member of other religious systems. You can be agnostic. You’re still Catholic. It’s in your DNA.
Or maybe you were touched by Catholicism—you weren’t raised Catholic, but maybe you went to Catholic school, like so many people in the African American community. They weren’t Catholic when they went to Catholic school. Or they left Catholic school. They still have a deep appreciation of what the Catholic faith is.
I say there’s a call for all of us to just grow in that. To realize what a gift even being touched by Catholicism brings. This faith is traditionally the oldest of the Christian faiths. The root of Christianity, which unfortunately has been divided by schism and division.
As Catholics we realize that we’re part of this worldwide body of Christians, of people of faith, of people who are connected with Jewish roots and with all peoples of the Abrahamic faith.
That’s part of the encouragement, to see that when we become Catholic it’s not like being put in a prison cell where we’re bound by rules and regulations. But instead we’re in a family that has open doors. Where we are actually pushed out of those doors to encounter the world that God has made.
This article appeared in the March 2014 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 79, No. 3, pages 18-22).
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Image: Michael Hoyt, Catholic Standard, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Washington