Monday, October 17, 2011

Possible institutions of rural integration: Catholic church and the medical field

The authors of the 2007 study "National estimates of racial segregation in rural and small-town America," found that towns with colleges or nearby army bases are less segregated than the average community. For rural counties without such pillars of society (and facilitators of integration), I would venture that two other institutions could lead to greater integration in the future: the Catholic church and the medical profession.

America has a shortage of doctors and priests. About a quarter of all medical doctors in the United States are foreign-born, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. The percentage is even greater in rural areas. And a blogger estimates that one in six Catholic priests in the United States comes from abroad, with about 300 new priests arriving every year.

In Mason City, Iowa, population 27,740, the Mercy Medical Center offers classes like "Topics for Small Talk with Iowans" and "An Intro to Working Effectively With White Europeans" to doctors from Egypt, the Philippines and India. One of the instructors, Michele Devlin, tells these doctors to attend traditional celebrations and eat tater-tot casseroles.
"You have to promise me you'll go to the State Fair," Ms. Devlin told the doctors, something she deemed essential "for you to understand the state."
In making an effort to understand their patients, these doctors also have an opportunity to teach Iowans. The article notes that 91.3 percent of Iowans are of European descent. While a single doctor won't be able to make much of an impact in terms of census integration figures, she can dispel misconceptions about what foreigners are like.

I imagine that many Iowans associate foreigners with the migrant farm workers coming up from Mexico. They might see them at work, but they probably don't socialize with them afterward. There also may be a language barrier. The relationship is much different with a doctor, who can be intimately involved with a family, whether it's delivering a child or nursing one's husband back to health.

The relationship is also different with priests. At least 800 Indian priests are working in the United States. Three of them serve communities on Oregon's south coast. This has been quite a change for these communities, whose foreign priests until now have generally been from Ireland, not the Indian subcontinent.

I witnessed two priest rotations in my time in Coos Bay, Oregon. The first produced a rather gruff white guy from Wyoming, who nonetheless was readily accepted. When the congregation learned its next priest would hail from India, the reaction was much different. Uncertainty reigned.

Coos County has next to no South Asians and hasn't been terribly accepting of those in the area. A Methodist minister adopted a boy from India and shortly thereafter left for Denver. The church's spokeswoman said the minister was concerned his son was being made fun of in school. While school children have a tendency to be nasty to students who look or behave different, members of the community at large might become more accepting when an Indian priest presides over their wedding or prepares their children for first communion.

The reason these demographic developments might not lead to greater integration is the ease with which such professionals can move from posting to posting. The Catholic church generally has priests move at least once every six years (if not more often). One of the principal subjects of the Journal article spent a year in Iowa, then moved to California. And a New York Times article about priests coming from Indian interviewed Rev. Jolly Vadakke, who spent time in both Italy and Atlanta before returning home to the sub-continent.
In the other world [outside India], we are official priests. We are satisfied just doing the Mass and sacraments, everything on time, everything perfect. In India, the people come close to us. The work satisfaction is different. Our ministry is so much wanted here [in India].
Still, I see opportunity associated with these religious and medical personnel. Legislators can enact laws that encourage diversity (e.g., affirmative action, school busing), but I think integration is likely to be more robust when interactions freely take place in society. That's the reason why colleges and army bases produce more integrated communities, and why I see similar results from the flow of foreigners into America's medical field and the potential for the Catholic church.


ScottA. said...

As a Catholic I have had the opportunity to meet a few foreign priests, though not one from India. One church I visited had a newly arrived priest from Uganda. While the church had a few black parishioners, the uniqueness of someone from Africa attracted many curious inquiries.

These kinds of visits really do open up communities to new ideas. And I also agree that these kinds of interactions are more organic than programs like busing.

But with there being so few foreign doctors and priests to interact with, how can more exposure occur in predominately white areas organically? Should the protestant churches also look into programs to provide rural churches with minority and foreign pastors?

JLS said...

Maybe one good side effect of globalization will be increased integration? I've mentioned in class before that the suburb where I lived in Tennessee was predominantly white but did have a fairly large population of immigrants from Indian and other Asian countries. They came to this Memphis suburb to work for giant corporations like FedEx and International Paper. Of course, Memphis is a major metropolitan area. Rural areas might not attract the same kind of migration. But, as we saw in Morristown, maybe our global workforce really will bring diversity to far reaches of the U.S.?