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Today’s missionaries: beyond multicultural to intercultural

Divine Word College trains missionaries for global church


By Rob Kundert

Special to The Witness

EPWORTH – The world comes to Epworth at Divine Word College (DWC)—aka that “building with all the flags” along Highway 20 west of Dubuque. With an enrollment of 103 students, it is arguably the smallest college in Iowa, yet year in and year out it welcomes students from more than 20 countries. They come from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America and South America. In many ways, it reflects the culturally diverse makeup of the global Catholic Church and offers fertile ground to educate future missionaries.

“DWC is a good cross section of the church today and will likely continue to be so for some time to come,” said Father Tim Lenchak, SVD, who graduated from DWC in 1971, when the college was primarily made up of Caucasian Americans with some African Americans. Forty years later, he became the eighth president of a much more diversified institution.

An Old Testament scholar educated in Rome, Father Lenchak has served in the highest levels of the Society of the Divine Word (SVD), one of the world’s largest Catholic missionary orders, which owns and operates Divine Word College. During his career, Father Lenchak has traveled to more than 30 countries, providing him with invaluable experience to lead an educational institution with such wide diversity.

DWC’s diversity creates a unique environment for the missionary education it provides to not only young men discerning religious life as Divine Word Missionary priests or brothers, but to priests from other orders and dioceses, religious sisters and brothers, and lay students. The college goes beyond simply being multicultural; it seeks to be “intercultural” as well.

“To be multicultural is really only an initial stage, where people from different cultures live, work and pray together—they learn to tolerate each other,” Father Tim said. “To be intercultural, people actively get to know other cultures, develop respect for them and then enrich their own life with what they have learned.”

Creating an intercultural environment is a constant effort. Students not only eat, study and live together—males in separate buildings from the female students—they interact through formation groups, ministry outreach and college organizations as well as sports and other activities. This constant interaction regularly reveals cultural differences. People from different cultures don’t always like the same foods or find the same things funny, and may have different mannerisms and etiquette. For instance, in some cultures, giving a person a hug is perfectly acceptable; in other cultures a hug may not be viewed as appropriate or welcome.

Understanding and accepting cultural differences has value for anyone in today’s more globalized world, but it is especially valuable for missionary students. Understanding how to appreciate and co-exist in another culture is a critical skill for those who go to do God’s work in a country or culture that is different from their own.

“All students have to take some intercultural courses, where they learn about other countries and cultures,” Father Lenchak said. “They learn what it means to be in another culture and develop attitudes and skills so as not to be a stranger, but someone who can adapt and express themselves comfortably.”

This intercultural atmosphere is taken to another level during four annual events at the college.

In October, World Mission Sunday is a big celebration for the SVD, which has six thousand missionaries in 78 countries around the world. The liturgy is highlighted by traditional instruments and songs and readings in different languages. It is followed by an international food fest where students, staff, SVDs and other friends of the college prepare a wide array of foods from around the world for the public to enjoy.

In December, the DWC chapter of the Association of Hispanic Americans (AHA) organizes a festive celebration for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The liturgy reflects Hispanic heritage and retells the story of the Blessed Virgin’s appearance to Saint Juan Diego, near modern-day Mexico City, in 1531.

In early February, members of the DWC African-Caribbean Student Association share their cultural heritage with the community by celebrating the feast day of Saint Josephine Bakhita. Born in Sudan around 1869, she was enslaved and later taken to Italy where she eventually entered a convent and became revered by all who knew her.

Asian culture is celebrated by the largest and longest-running cultural festival at DWC—Lunar New Year, which occurs anywhere from late January to early to mid-February. Lunar New Year has been celebrated at DWC since 1976, with brilliant decorations, a festive liturgy, a banquet of traditional Vietnamese and Chinese food and entertainment.

All of the events promote and support the intercultural atmosphere at DWC.

“It’s always a mix of cultures. Everyone is invited to join in them to some degree,” Father Lenchak said. “It’s not only the culture being celebrated, but students from other cultures are welcome to take part.”

Divine Word reflects the global church in other ways. For instance, the church is growing in Third World countries. Though the Catholics in these countries may be small in number, they are devout. Because of that, they have seen strong growth in vocations.

With a large population of Asian students, especially Vietnamese, and growing numbers of students from Africa and other countries, the college mirrors those trends.

“It is interesting and notable that the United States’ contribution to mission today is almost insignificant compared to that of many Third World countries,” Father Lenchak said. “Many vocations come from Asia. Africa is doing well, as is the Philippines. These are countries which have an abundance of vocations.”

But comparatively speaking, DWC remains a primary source of missionary vocations in the U.S.

“We’re a small school but the 10 novices in our novitiate in Chicago graduated from here,” Father Lenchak said. “Divine Word Missionaries is still the most significant missionary religious congregation of men in the United States and the number of those who pass through here and go on to the missions is among the highest, if it isn’t the highest, number of any Catholic missionary organization in the United States.”