Esther, a lector in one of the parishes in South Bend, Indiana, was recently accosted by a white woman who told her to stop reading at Mass. Not directly, though. She didn’t actually say, “Stop reading at Mass.” Rather, she said, “No one can understand you . . . because of your accent.”
Esther was demoralized. For the next two Sundays, she didn’t go to Mass. When she resumed going, it was at a different parish. It took the intervention of the parochial vicar for her to return to her original parish. Thanks to the consistent encouragement of this priest, she began reading again at the parish.
As someone who had only recently arrived in the United States to pursue graduate studies, Esther needed courage to stand before a congregation—mostly white—to read. Her motivation was a deep sense of being called to proclaim the Word of God at Mass.
As she explained, she has been a lector since she was eighteen—for more than ten years. She has always taken her ministry seriously, adequately preparing whenever she is assigned and reading passionately, paying due attention to the different genres, characters, and voices within each text.
Her routine preparation doubled when she became a lector in America. She now spends hours rehearsing every reading, learning the “American” pronunciation of keywords. Conscious of her Nigerian accent, she reads slowly, carefully pronouncing every word.
When the white woman approached her and complained about her accent, she felt accused, vilified, and even responsible for the congregation’s inability to hear the word of God. She expressed what she felt, borrowing insight from sociologist Elijah Anderson’s book Black in White Space: “I suddenly felt my black body out of place in a sacred white space.”
While Esther has started to read again in the parish, she no longer feels fully welcome in the American Catholic Church. She cannot help but wonder how many people listening to her are offended by her accent.
What is far worse, however, is that so many people like Esther—immigrants who either speak a language other than English or speak English with a non-American accent—have felt unwelcome in the American Catholic church and have left to find a different faith community.
More than two decades ago, the Catholic bishops of the United States rightly admitted that “immigrants have not always encountered welcome in the Church.” As a result, the bishops regretfully noted, “many have turned to other sources of community and religious fulfillment, but at the expense of abandoning the riches of their Catholic faith.” In the pastoral statement issued on November 15, 2020, Welcoming the Stanger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, the bishops called for greater pastoral attentiveness and sensitivity to immigrants. According to the statement, for immigrants to feel welcome, parishes must be filled with hospitality and solidarity.
Just as the bishops urged parishes to do everything possible to honor immigrants’ “legitimate desire to worship in their own language,” equal attention needs to be paid to immigrants who speak English fluently, albeit with a non-American accent. Sadly, the U.S. church, just like the larger society, is often unable to resist a hegemonic posturing. By this, I mean the tendency to assert one way of being as authentic and ideal, while excluding other ways—or at best, relegating them to an inferior status or position. One area where this is true is standard American English vis-à-vis numerous other ways of speaking English within the United States and the rest of the English-speaking world.
In his 2020 article, “Other People’s English Accents Matter,” Professor Pierre W. Orelus decried what he describes as the stigmatization of “linguistic minorities from diverse linguistic and ethnic backgrounds, including foreign-accented English speakers.” According to him, while “no scientific research has proven that certain accents or languages are better than or superior to others,” many people continue to experience “accent discrimination.” Generally, “Accents constructed as ‘heavy’ do not seem to be appreciated in American classrooms and society at large, even though such an accent is a linguistic asset that can and has contributed to linguistic diversity in American schools and society.”
One effect of “accent discrimination,” whether in the classroom or church, is that victims feel silenced. Akayla, one of the several individuals Professor Orelus interviewed for his research, reports seeing students who have experienced accent discrimination, who “sank into their seats and become withdrawn.” Many immigrants are reluctant to participate in liturgical ministries for fear of being discriminated against. I have even observed many immigrants who were careful not to sing out too loudly, lest they incur disapproving looks from people around them.
Since becoming pope, Pope Francis has consistently called for greater participation and co-responsibility of all the faithful in the life and mission of the church. In his welcome speech at the recently concluded World Youth Day in Lisbon, the Holy Father repeatedly insisted that “There is room for everyone in the church” because the church belongs to everyone by virtue of baptism. As usual, he expressed a desire for greater inclusivity in the church.
While accent discrimination and every other kind of discrimination continue to make it difficult for many people to feel truly at home in their church, the ongoing synod on synodality is an opportunity to work toward a truly inclusive church that is attentive to the plight of minorities. We can even argue that belonging to a parish willing to listen without judgment to their foreign accents contributes immensely to helping immigrants build the self-confidence they need to survive and thrive in the larger society.
Solidarity with immigrants, which the U.S. Catholic bishops urge in their 2000 pastoral statement, must include genuine respect for immigrants’ cultural and linguistic uniqueness and a willingness to listen to them with attention and patience. Being able to understand the word of God as it is proclaimed is a genuine concern, but appreciating the effort immigrants make to participate in the liturgy is equally crucial. As the bishops insist, when we walk in understanding and solidarity with immigrants while respecting their differences, we live out the church’s catholicity.
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