I am not Catholic. I am Protestant, which was something that felt a little strange when I lived in Ireland as a middle-school student in the mid-1990s. In some ways, I have felt what it’s like to be a minority; not only did I go to a different church than everyone, but being American, I spoke differently and had a different culture. I was a “stranger” in their midst.
One thing I found was that when you seem different, people sometimes ask you ridiculous questions. When an American basketball team came to the local university and my class went to see them, my classmates were amazed at the giant Americans and asked four-foot-nothing me if everyone in America was seven feet tall.
Asking questions about something that seems strange is a good thing. Receiving them with grace is equally as important. If my Irish friends and I hadn’t asked each other about the quirks in the way we spoke and the things we ate, we would have stayed strange and separate in our differences. I would not have been able to make Ireland my home that year if not for the welcome I received when six of the girls in my class showed up on my doorstep after the first day of school and asked if I wanted to come play with them (an event that still brings tears of gratitude to my mother’s eyes).
Since I have been back living in the United States for the past 10 years, the demographics of my country have been changing. There are many “strangers” in our midst, who speak differently and have a different culture than I do. In the past decade, immigration to our area has boomed, and many of our new neighbors are Spanish-speakers. How should the people of the Church respond to these changing demographics?
St. Paul writes in his first letter to the Corinthians that we are all one body in Christ, and each part has different functions. If we were all ears, where would the sense of smell be? In the North American Church, there are ears, eyes, noses, arms and legs. We are each only one part of the Church, and each part needs to understand the importance of every other part, regardless of language or economic status.
As St. Paul traveled around the Middle East and Europe spreading the Gospel, he established deep relationships with the spanerse people of the churches he visited. It was these partnerships that promoted growth in the Church. He reached across cultural spanides, not just for the sake of spanersity, but because the Good News depended on his deep relationships with people who were different from him.
As St. Paul’s successors and people of faith, it is equally important that we as Hispanic Americans and non-Hispanic Americans establish deep relationships with those who seem different than us. How will the body walk if it doesn’t realize it has legs? How do the legs move without a healthy relationship with the brain? How do we love our neighbor when we’ve never met them? How could I have made Ireland my home without the welcome and friendship of its citizens?
This is social justice – to get to know brothers and sisters who seem different. If your parish celebrates Mass in a different language than yours, consider attending it. Partner with a parish that looks different than yours. Meet the heart and soul of the body.
Denise Peterson is an Americorps VISTA volunteer and a member of the social justice committee of the archdiocesan Office of the Vicar for Hispanic Catholics.