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Good – or Godly – relations 

An Arkansas priest describes what the new bishop will encounter

click to enlarge MSGR. FRIEND: Knows the challenges facing Arkansas Catholics.
  • MSGR. FRIEND: Knows the challenges facing Arkansas Catholics.

The career of Msgr. Scott Friend, the director of vocations for the Little Rock Diocese, has, in many respects, paralleled that of the bishop who will soon be his boss. In the 1980s, when Friend was ordained, bishops were already predicting that by 2000, 50 percent of the Catholics in the U.S. would be Hispanic.

Like Father Anthony Taylor, the newly appointed bishop, Friend, who grew up in Little Rock, began to study Spanish in the seminary. “The newest prediction,” he says, “is that by 2025, 85 percent of the nation's Catholics will be Hispanic.”

Friend's priesthood was also influenced by men “like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Cesar Chavez,” as well as by Father Joe Biltz, an Arkansas priest known for his work on behalf of social justice. Working with Biltz in the 1980s, Friend visited towns where Hispanic laborers were pouring in to fill jobs that the local work force did not want.

“I saw places where the tractor was kept in a nicer place than the people were,” he recalls. “But I also saw the joy of the people, and that's what motivated me. Those chicken plants, picking tomatoes, planting pine forests — that's hard work. But I saw people who were grateful to have it, and who performed it with dignity — and joy.”

In DeQueen, Friend began knocking on doors and soon had people “hanging out of the doors” at masses in St. Barbara's parish, as Hispanic immigrants became the majority of the parish. When a larger church was needed, Friend says, “they raised about $50,000 in two years, selling tacos and sno-cones after mass.”

Something similar happened at St. Raphael's parish in Springdale. There, Friend says, “we literally grew from about 5,500 people to 11,000 in four years. The infrastructure was not built to absorb that many people that fast.

“Good Lord have mercy! It was a lot to deal with.”

Friend, who for a time headed the Hispanic Ministry of the diocese, recognized three big areas that had to be addressed.

One was that, “In Arkansas, we don't, for the most part, have a lot of experience with different cultures. We tend to hang out with people like ourselves. So it's a process of conversion from an ethnocentric world view to one of relative comfort with a different ethnic or racial group. And that's not just for the Anglos. The Hispanics also have to learn that.”

In churches that were well established, power-sharing was also an issue. That, he says, could usually be addressed when Anglos and Hispanics got together and learned, “Wow! We may have differences, but we're dealing with the same issues as people. We all want the same things for our families.”

The third big issue surrounds the stresses that come from crowding, “like when a new kid comes into the family and the other kids find they have to share bedrooms and toys and time with the folks.”

In Northwest Arkansas, that crowding is visible “in the Wal-Marts, on the roads, in parking lots. There's constant construction, and there's a lot of stresses on people because of that. So it takes time to learn how we're all going to get along together.”

Invisible to many Anglos, Friend believes, is the “woundedness” that many Hispanic people carry, some as a result of having left homes and extended families behind due to poverty, others, particularly those from El Salvador, after having witnessed the atrocities of civil war.

Friend sees Arkansas, as a state, facing many of the same challenges that his church has had to face — and the same learning curve. “We've got some really good people in state government,” he says, particularly in the Department of Health and the school systems. “They're trying to do the best they can, but they're overwhelmed.”

He says the new bishop will have the opportunity to “set the vision” for how the Catholic Church in Arkansas works through its challenges, and that state agencies perhaps, “could learn from our mistakes.”

Together, the Catholic Church and the State of Arkansas both “have the opportunity to provide leadership for the country,” the monsignor says, “to show how different people can come together and be a community without punitive legislation. It's all about building good relations.”

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