The Catholic Church in American was primarily an immigrant Church in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Irish, Italian and Polish newcomers found in their faith and its institutions a safe haven, from which they could build their lives in an often inhospitable land.
In the past two decades America has been experiencing a similar wave of immigration, but with one important difference—most of those currently arriving on our shores are non-European people of color. This creates special problems. The current political climate of diminished economic expectations tends to be hostile to immigrants. To remedy the situation, the United States Catholic Conference (USCC) is following Pope John Paul II's lead in searching for new ways for the Church to help them.
Who Are My Sisters and Brothers: Understanding and Welcoming Immigrants and Refugees is a 30-minute video produced by Journey Films for the USCC's Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees. It focuses on three parishes that have successfully opened their arms to the newcomers. Each provides a different model for other communities to learn from. Not intended for broadcast use, the video is meant to be primarily an educational and organizational tool.
Father Tom Wenski, pastor of Notre Dame d'Haiti in Miami, Fla., describes his parishioners as “people who refuse to die.” They “aren't here to fail,” he says. “They're here to succeed.” Having fled a vicious political tyranny back home, most undertook a perilous sea journey, arriving here with few possessions.
Accompanied by rumors of health problems, the Haitians have been among the least popular of the current wave of immigrants. Lacking the clout of the Cubans who've come to dominate Miami, they never can forget they are “foreigners in a foreign land,” Father Wenski points out. “But at least on Sunday they can feel at home,” when Mass is celebrated together in their native Creole tongue.
In his 17 years at Notre Dame d'Haiti, Father Wenski has gone beyond ministering to his flock's purely spiritual needs. The parish has also become an efficient community services center, providing daycare, classes in English, employment leads and legal assistance.
Father Wenski, himself the descendant of recent Polish immigrants, and he speaks movingly of how this background helps him identify with the Haitians. “Our grandparents made America great because it was our grandparents that dug the coal and dug the canals and staffed the factories,” he says. “In the same way these new immigrants will also contribute to making America great.”
Most of the parishioners at St. Willebrord's in Green Bay, Wisc., are middle class and of Dutch descent. The local meat-packing industry has long been a magnet for immigrant labor, so five years ago the parish sought to reach out and include these newlyarrived Catholics of a different class and ethnic background as part of their community. “They had nowhere to celebrate the sacraments,” says St. Willebrord's pastor, Father Ken De Groot.
Because the majority of the newcomers were Hispanic, Father De Groot took a field trip to Mexico to better understand the immigrant's culture. His anglo parishioners also put some of their own skills to use; retired school teachers have volunteered to instruct Hispanic workers in English.
Catholic politicians like Pat Buchanan have loudly opposed the use of immigrant labor in workplaces like meat-packing plants, arguing that they take jobs away from native-born Americans and drive down wages. However, Father De Groot and his staff are firm in their defense of the newcomers. “We never ask them if they are legal or illegal, documented or undocumented,” he says.
Sister Melanie Maczka, Father De Groot's pastoral associate, adds that none of her charges have come to this country for the welfare checks and that undocumented workers pay taxes like everyone else even though they may never get to share fully in the benefits.
But whatever the unintended political or legal implications, St. Willebrord's is practicing Christian charity. There's no mistaking the joy in the faces of the newcomers as they celebrate Mass in Spanish or watch the baptisms of their children.
Refugees present Catholics with a different kind of challenge. St. Mary's in Greensboro, N.C., was founded by the Vincentian Fathers more than 60 years ago to serve a small African-American community that was experiencing discrimination. Several years ago it changed its mission and decided to take in refugees from Vietnam and Africa who, unlike most immigrants, had left their native lands involuntarily.
At first, some of the African-Americans who had grown up at St. Mary's resented the newcomers, but the creation of a multi-cultural parish council, currently headed by a Nigerian doctor, helped identify problems. As an example of their newly discovered diversity, the present director of community services is a Vietnamese montagnard who spent four years in a communist re-education camp.
In an effort to bring his multi-ethnic flock together, the parish's anglo pastor, Father Frank McGuire, once asked his charges to write about their pain and seal it in an envelope. All the envelopes were then burned in a public ceremony, and a pole erected on the ashes that proclaims “peace” in 15 languages, a fitting symbol of the parish's new mission.
Father McGuire describes a typical Vietnamese montagnard family of 10, arriving at the parish with only two suitcases. “Inside will be all religious articles. No clothes, no books, but statues of and images of the saints and the Lord,” he says. “They ask me to bless those images and it's very humbling. These people have nothing but their faith.”
In a time of great economic change and insecurity, many Catholics may be lukewarm to the call to action issued by Who Are My Sisters and Brothers. The USCC, however, is committed to what the bishops believe is prophetic witness in reminding the American Church of its immigrant heritage and of its continuing mission to help the stranger among us.
For more information, please contact the Office for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Refugees at 3211 Fourth St., NE, Washington, DC 20017-1194; Tel: (202) 541-3000
John Prizer is based in Los Angeles