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Conference examines ministry

Matthew Smedberg | Wednesday, November 5, 2003

In what was at times a highly emotional atmosphere in McKenna Hall, pastors and religious ministers from around the country met to discuss the issues which face them in their ministry. About 40 participants listened to addresses by both active pastors and university researchers, often punctuating their thoughts with the occasional “Amen!” or “God bless you, brother.”

The conference was organized in conjunction with research being done by professors David Sikkink of Notre Dame and Michael Emerson of Rice University under the sponsorship of the Lilly Foundation.

The purpose of the conference was to bring those involved in ordained ministry together to discover what issues they found most pressing in their ministry. Four speakers addressed the conference, and three additional conference sessions were devoted to group discussion and open forum.

Speaking Tuesday afternoon, Jackson Carroll, professor emeritus of Divinity at Duke University, addressed many of the changes which are going on in the world outside the church building which affect how ministry functions.

“The Church has always been called to be transformative, not conformative,” he said. Carroll spoke of the “commodification of religion”, which he related to the “culture of options” which modern America presents. He spoke with sadness of a “market-shaped Church, [in which] everything is optional.”

Speaking after Carroll, Hycel Taylor spoke of his experiences with ministry in African-American Baptist churches. Taylor is an associate of activist Jesse Jackson, and he spoke about his efforts to empower the African-Americans to whom he ministers. So much of the marginalization and racism which surrounds us, he said, is due to divisive mistrust and prejudice within the black community.

“Some say that it is us versus them,” he said. “It isn’t us versus them – it is all too often us against us.”

In the conference’s concluding address, Father Virgil Elizondo left many conference participants amazed with his description of the work he did to revitalize the ministry of the San Fernando Cathedral in San Antonio. The cathedral became a spiritual rallying place for the Hispanic and Chicano population of San Antonio. Its parishioners would brave the Texas heat to attend Mass in the centuries-old church and built a vibrant community around its focus. After his retirement from diocesan work, Elizondo came to Notre Dame, where he holds a visiting professorship in theology.