Pilar spoke to us in a rapid clip as she gave us a parish campus tour at Queen of Heaven parish in Southern California (all names here are pseudonyms).  As graduate assistant Liz Castro and I walked with her alongside the parish school, we learned that her children had attended the school, and that she was proud of the way in which the principal and teachers celebrated different cultures and taught students appreciatively about the differences between them.  She also noted the cultural diversity within the school, including its faculty.  Pilar was a trim, dark-skinned Cuban-American informal in her jeans and t-shirt.  She had come to Queen of Heaven decades before in her teens, after moving from New Jersey, the family’s first stop from Cuba.  Married at the parish, she still remembered the era when Anglo parishioners far outnumbered everyone else, a long way from the present situation of a largely Latino parish with a Filipino minority in a Latino-majority suburb of Los Angeles.

Our religious lives have a geography, at least some of it rooted in our places of worship.  I understood this from my own experience. Passing through the basement of my old church I frequently conjured up the lunatic wonder of the night the basement flooded.  A group of us with brooms and mops battled floodwaters and the persistent rats washed to us from a nearby construction site.  Thus, with congregational geography in mind (and spurred by colleagues on the Congregational Studies Team when I was a fellow), I developed a parish campus tour and used it to study the interactions between cultural groups at multicultural Catholic parishes in Southern California. In each parish of this project, I asked a pastor or staff member to recommend people to conduct my team around the parish campus and explain to us what had happened where in parish life. This was designed as a narrative initiation into the life of a parish sharing its campus with multiple cultural groups.  Hoping for distinct cultural perspectives, I arranged for a knowledgeable representative from each cultural community to offer us the tour.

At Queen of Heaven, we were first led by Pilar, whop represented the English speaking Hispanic parishioners. Later, two Filipina parishioners, one old and one young, took us around. Finally, a trio of Spanish speaking Latinos from Mexico and Central America conducted my research assistant around.  Queen of Heaven was on a large campus—with a church, a hall, offices, a social services center, a ministry building, and a parish school—serving an enormous community (11 masses and several thousand people on a Sunday). The pastor, with a community organizing background, quickly and efficiently arranged for these tours. At other parishes in the study, the tours arose more spontaneously, such as when the pastor or another staff member introduced us to someone who immediately seemed to know their way around the parish plant and its activities.

At Queen of Heaven, after Pilar told us about the school, I asked her if there were other places on the parish campus where people of different cultural groups came together with some frequency. She answered directly if not precisely, “When you have different cultures, they’re not always a happy family.” Elaborating, she described conflicts, especially over who gets more attention from the priests and parish staff. It turned out that she was an arch observer of all kinds of parish events. She had noticed that during a Filipino event, not very many Hispanics appeared and vice versa. She noted how history matters at the parish. Some things, she said, are always the same, and she offered examples from the food booths at the parish festival. The Ladies of Guadalupe take charge over the aguas (sweetly flavored fruit waters), the rosary group in Spanish takes care of the carne asada. She said that the Filipinos only do Filipino food. She also mentioned that, though you will see people eat food from others, you do not see Hispanics working at the Filipino booth, and you do not see Filipinos working in the Hispanic booths.

For most of this conversation walking across the parish campus, Pilar had emphasized the harmonious presence and interactions of the different cultural groups at Queen of Heaven (such as at the school). But in one brief burst, she nuanced that portrait considerably. Indeed, I often found that geographical cues across a parish campus spurred from each of our guides a narrative with multiple layers. And then the different guides themselves would offer divergent (or even contradictory) perspectives on the same place, event, or program. For instance, when our Filipina guides spoke about the parish festival, they emphasized the pageant to choose a king and queen, a Filipino-sponsored part of the festival (but open to all the children) not even mentioned by Pilar.

Like the time-honored procedure of the congregational tour (a guided walk or drive around the church’s neighborhood or town), the parish campus tour from multiple cultural perspectives surfaced a breadth of issues for consideration later in interviews and coding. But the more limited geography of the campus itself, combined with our explicit and specific interest in the interactions and relationships between members of different cultural communities, allowed us to more quickly dive into the nuances of the issues we hoped to explore.