Should Catholic youth groups be ethnically segregated?

My father, a first generation Mexican-American, is fond of saying, “America doesn’t just have an immigration problem – it has an assimilation problem.”  As a public school teachers, my mom and dad worked with many undocumented students and saw up close how curricula steeped in multiculturalism and political correctness rob so many students of even the most basic knowledge of our founding fathers and the principles and values that have made our nation unique and great.


Two Americans attend World Youth Day in 2011. Photo: CNA.

Not being bound together by a common history is problematic enough, but at least we have the universal Church to bring us together.

Or do we?

A current trend in Catholic youth ministry is the division of youth groups by ethnicity.  It’s not uncommon in parishes with large Hispanic populations, for example, to have a separate youth group for Hispanic teens.  It’s a troubling trend I hope parishes will reconsider because it flies in the face of the whole notion of the universality of the Church.  Segregation doesn’t bring us together or promote diversity and understanding.  But coming together to pray and celebrate our shared love of Christ and His Church can.

I had a first hand experience with this when I was 25 years old and spent a summer living in Kerala, India.  For those who don’t know, Kerala is a predominately Catholic state located in southwestern India.  Evangelized first by the apostle Saint Thomas and later St. Francis Xavier, the people of Kerala are devout, practicing Catholics. My experience living with an Indian family was unmistakably transformed by the simple fact that we shared a common faith.  The cultural chasm between us shriveled next to the overpowering strength of our shared history – a lineage we could trace back through the centuries to St. Peter and to Jesus himself.

I vividly remember the first time I went to Mass in India.  When I arrived I saw a sea of shoes at the church entrance.   “When in Rome (or India)”, I thought as I removed my shoes and walked into a church devoid of pews with worshipers sitting on the floor.  The women sat on one side of the church while the men sat together on the other.  And though the Mass was said in their native language, Malayalam, I could easily follow the order of the Mass, the prayers at consecration and feel every bit a part of the celebration.

There was absolutely no doubt in my mind that the instantaneous acceptance I received from my Indian “family” and the inexplicable sense of connectedness I felt toward them was the sole result of our shared faith.  Here I was, the product of centuries of Spanish and Mexican ancestry, a second generation American steeped in Western pop culture and yet, our Catholicism transcended everything.

Why wouldn’t this work in an American Catholic youth group where teens have far more shared cultural experiences?

Besides, are we really doing Hispanic teens a favor by not encouraging them to be part of the larger community?  Isn’t there something patronizing and ultimately unhelpful about balkanizing minority groups when we all know that their success greatly depends on how well they can navigate the world beyond their ethnic enclave? Aren’t we also robbing non-Hispanic teens of potential friendships and learning experiences they might not otherwise have?

Our country has never been more divided. If we as a church cannot encourage our young people to find common ground in faith, what hope does this nation have?


Rachel Campos-Duffy is an author, pundit, and mother of six. She works with The LIBRE Initiative, an organization that promotes economic empowerment and opportunity for Hispanics.



Categories:Feature Immigration

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  • Youth Minister

    In our parish it is the parents that keep the hispanic youth separate. They want to make sure they keep them immmersed in their culture. A few of the teens have expressed to me that they would like to join our youth group since it is for everyone but their parents will not allow it. I think it is a mistake to do this to your kids, they should be allowed to socialize with all of their peers within the parish. You don’t have to lose your cultural identity to assimilate it can coexist. I am very attuned to my Italian roots but my ance
    stors assimilated while still passing on the traditions to each generation.

  • Joannie

    Personally I don’t think that there should not be any “Youth Ministry” in any Christian Church. Why not? Because there is no Biblical basis for separating one group of people from another and to me this smacks of Age Discrimination. People of all ages have their place in the Catholic Church IMHO.

  • Ryan Haber

    I totally understand your points, and basically grant them all. I would like to point out however that for the most part, Latinos have emphatically not received the warm welcome you received, either in this country, or, God forgive us, in our local parish churches. That makes a difference.

    • James Roberts

      Latinos have received a very warm welcome in the Atlanta arch-diocese. In fact they have been treated as an elite group at the direction of the arch-bishop. I had a friend in seminary who found out that all the men had to learn Spanish, but the Hispanic men who did not know English did not have to learn it. In my parish, of which Hispanics make up 10% or less, we had two youth groups, one for Hispanics and one for everyone else. They met on different nights, did not mix, but had the same youth leader, a Latina woman. She was fired last year when it was found out that she had been using almost all the funds for the Hispanic group, and had driven down the attendance of the regular youth group by 90% +.

  • Kristy

    At my parish, there were two youth groups (Hispanic and non-Hispanic). Despite the fact that all the Hispanic high school students spoke English, it was their PARENTS who remained against combining the youth groups. When our new pastor ultimately made this decision, all of those kids left. The parish really tried.

  • Pili

    indeed, Susanna, Viva Cristo Rey.



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