While these personal encounters "have the opportunity to become significant and deep," the priest said, they take a significant amount of time and effort – a difficulty in a large parish with an already-established community and many sacramental needs.
This place would be a very different community if it wasn't for the churches. -Fr. Michael Kelley
One parish that has seen some degree of success at merging different communities is St. Dominic's in the Highland neighborhood of Denver, Colorado.
The old Victorian houses in the area had long been home to a large Vietnamese and Hispanic population, many of whom were parishioners at St. Dominic's. But as housing prices have risen with the influx of technology companies, startups and other incoming industries, some long-time residents have had to move to other neighborhoods while a new young adult population moves in.
"The families who have been pushed out – they come back," said Fr. Luke Barder O.P., parochial vicar for St. Dominic's. He told CNA that some parishioners will "drive 30-40 mins to come to Mass."
Since many of the longtime parishioners have remained engaged in the parish despite moving to new neighborhoods, St. Dominic's has refocused its efforts on integrating and welcoming new residents into its existing parish ministries.
To refocus on its changing role in community, the parish has updated its mission statement, Fr. Barder said, and started targeting some ministries to the young adults in the area, including an Octoberfest beer festival and the Frassati Society, a group for fellowship and prayer.
"Families and homes go together"
The limited availability of affordable housing is an issue that the U.S. bishops have aimed to address for decades, said Dr. Jonathan Reyes, executive director of the Department of Justice, Peace and Human Development for U.S. bishops' conference.
Reyes told CNA that within the Catholic Church, "for the last 10 years, housing has actually been one of the top three issues for community concerns and engagement, from the neighborhoods themselves."
"The way the Church has always framed it is that families have the right to decent housing," he continued. This drive to protect families – and to defend parishes as spaces in a community – has led the bishops' conference to be explicitly involved in affordable housing initiatives since 1975.
In the document "The Right to a Decent Home," the U.S. bishops lay out guidelines for Catholics on how to think about the need to ensure affordable housing. This concept was reinforced this past year in Pope Francis' letter, "Amoris Laetitia," in which the Pope asserted that "Families and homes go together," and warned that housing difficulties may lead couples to delay starting a family.
Reyes pointed to efforts by the U.S. bishops' conference to help ensure fair rents, promote the building of good housing and prevent homelessness.
In particular, he highlighted several initiatives by the Catholic Campaign for Human Development, an anti-poverty program of the bishops' conference which has set up land trusts enabling local communities to own and control land in their neighborhood to keep it affordable for future generations.
Helping people – old and new
In Washington, D.C., St. Martin's parish is still working hard to meet the needs of the predominantly African American community and its "very clear Black Catholic identity," while also reaching out to the influx of white young adults.
"Our philosophy is: everyone is welcome; all gifts are needed; everyone can help build up the Church," Fr. Kelley explained.
All parishioners are welcomed and encouraged to serve in all areas of parish life, from the gospel choir to the parish council. St. Martin's is also looking at expanding childcare services and other ministries to accommodate the increasing population of young families.
At the same time, the parish has been careful not to stall its current ministries, particularly its role as the D.C. meeting location for Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In addition to hosting the meetings, St. Martin's also subsidizes the cost of utilities and operations.
"Even though the neighborhood is changing, people are coming from all over to come to the meetings," Fr. Kelley said, emphasizing their importance both as a ministry and as a catalyst for change in Bloomingdale.
The influx of new residents has brought some benefits to the community. With the help of new parishioners, the parish been able to help secure housing protections for current residents against rapidly skyrocketing rental and property prices. In the 1990s, Fr. Kelley recalled, a row house in Bloomingdale could be bought for less than 10,000 dollars. Today, the same house could go for nearly 1 million dollars.
New residents in the neighborhood have also helped to attract attention to Bloomingdale's longstanding issue with sewage flooding during heavy rains.
"For a long time, no one responded to the problem and plight of poor black folks complaining that we're getting sewage in our basement when it rains," Fr. Kelley said. New residents, though, had the resources and know-how to place enough political pressure on the city to jump-start repairs on the aging sewer and waste system in the neighborhood.
Still, challenges do remain for the community, with some new residents failing to understand the history of the area, and some older residents feeling like they are not respected and do not have a voice in the neighborhood as it evolves.
In the midst of these continuing tensions, Fr. Kelley said the parish must resist the narrative of "us against them."
"I want us as a Church to continue to be involved, to share the Good News of Jesus, to continue to welcome everyone who comes and to try to meet people's needs as best we can with our resources," he said. "Our basic principles are hospitality, generosity, using God's abundance to make a difference in the neighborhood locally and in the larger community."
"It's not like I'm trying to keep anyone out," Fr. Kelley said of St. Martin's role among the neighborhood's many changes. "If anything, I'm trying to connect people more."
This article was originally published July 13, 2016.