Last week, Dominican University held “El Futuro is Here,” a conference that focused on Hispanics, the ethnic cohort in the U.S. which accounted for 54 percent of the country’s population growth and the challenges and opportunities the Roman Catholic Church in this country is facing in its attempt to minister to this demographic.

University President Donna Carroll noted that 40 percent of Dominican’s freshman class this year identifies as Hispanic and expressed what she believes to be the importance and urgency of the El Futuro conference.

“This is a stunning moment for the church, for Catholic higher education and for Dominican University,” Carroll said.

Esther Urostegui, a recent graduate of Dominican University, whose life was transformed by campus ministry there, delivered the homily during the opening prayer service on Tuesday.

“I came to the U.S. when I was 14 years old, and I can remember so many moments feeling alone, hopeless and afraid,” Urostegui said. “When I started high school, I became an introvert because of my inability to communicate with others in English. I was terrified I was going to be made fun of.

“Every time I come back to Dominican I feel like I am coming to my home. My professors not only cared about my academics, they cared about my life.”

In her talk on July 31, Dr. Carmen Nanko-Fernandez’s spoke about thinking about faith and doing campus ministry “from the ground up,” that is by starting ministry from the “social location” of Hispanic people instead of from the top down with theology and doctrine. 

Nanko-Fernandez followed up on Urostegui’s story by explaining that when you ask Hispanic people living in the U.S. about their identity, they’ll often respond by saying they feel like they are “in two places with no place to stand.” She called it “hybridity” or “dancing with hyphens.” 

Are you Mexican or American? You speak Spanish with your parents but English the rest of the time. A sign of this hybridity is that speakers in the conference often used Spanish and English in the same sentence.

Yasmin Vasquez-Moreno, who graduated from Dominican in May, fought back tears as she told her story about the impact of campus ministry at Dominican had on her. She shared what it was like to be in a campus ministry group where theological reflection began with the telling of each person’s story and how those kinds of experiences motivated her to now be doing graduate work in religion with the intention of returning to her South Side neighborhood to do ministry.

Many of the speakers talked about accompaniment, about doing ministry en cojunto, i.e. with students instead of to them.

Dr. John DeCostanza, the director of university ministry at Dominican, tried to flesh out the meaning of en cojunto by telling how he worked with the Muslim students on campus to create two spaces where they could practice salat, the prayers they say five times a day. 

He said that Muslim students not only helped identify the spaces but also took the responsibility of providing their own prayer mats.

He acknowledged that this way of doing ministry is a radical break from the patriarchal, top-down ways of the past. 

If theological reflection is to be bottom up, the conference speakers added, it must be cotidiano, or based on everyday experience. A program in its fourth year at Dominican which is gaining national attention is called Ministry en lo Cotidiano (MLC), a program in which the 15 students currently involved work in internships with faith-based nonprofits like Catholic Charities or Arise Chicago. 

“All of these placements,” the MLC website explains, “seek to develop leadership and ministry capacity in Dominican University’s undergraduate population by providing an opportunity to experience service … In doing so, participants inevitably encounter their own shifting cultural identity and reinterpret that in the light of faith.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...

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