OFFICE FOR RACIAL JUSTICE
Dwell in my Love Sunday encouraged Catholics to visit other parishes to "return home", to experience another culture. The experience can often be life-changing. Following are excerpts from some of those "visits" by the first year Diaconate Class. In Christ Jesus we truly are one.
Sister Anita Baird, D.H.M.
Director, Office for Racial Justice
FROM OAK PARK TO THE WEST-SIDE
My feeling as we drove out of Oak Park and east on Washington Boulevard was one of apprehension. Apprehension about driving east of Austin Boulevard and seeing groups of young men standing around on corners and stoops. I also felt apprehension about sticking out among the worshipers who would be attending Mass. Would I be welcomed, ignored or what? My apprehension eased a bit as we drove further east. As we parked the car and got out, a gentleman from my parish who accompanied us began speaking to people he knew who were heading into church. He introduced us to them. The people he introduced us to were very friendly and welcoming. When we entered the church the first people inside the door greeted and welcomed us. We were repeatedly told that they were glad we were there and that we were welcomed anytime. I noticed that people were walking around and greeting each other a lot more than at my parish. The Liturgy was more participatory than my parish's. At the sign of peace people moved all over the church greeting each other and introducing themselves to us. The sign of peace took about 15 minutes. We were greeted by at least 30 people. The choir, only 12 strong, filled the church with their music and songs more completely than my parish's 50+member choir does. People in the pews were very into the music. During the announcements at the end of Mass my family and I were asked to stand and we were welcomed and introduced to the community. It was also announced that I was a Deacon Candidate and would be doing summer internship at St. Martin. Following our introduction, all visitors were asked to stand and were welcomed and invited to come back to God's house anytime. My parish has a reputation as a welcoming parish but I didn't know how welcoming a parish could be until I visited St. Martin's.
My husband and I have lived in Oak Park and worshiped at our parish for eighteen years. However, if I walk five blocks east, I cross Austin Avenue. The comfort ends there. I usually only cross Austin on the Eisenhower Expressway. It's only been in the last four years that I have crossed Austin on city streets. It's all black there; it makes me nervous. I have been bringing food and Christmas presents to my parish for years, to donate to our sharing parish! It's beautiful! And so close. We should go there sometime." But I didn't. I was afraid. We met lots of friendly people before Mass. At the sign of peace, people were up and moving all over church. We were hugged and blessed and overwhelmed by the love in this church. I'm glad I crossed Austin Ave.
FROM THE NORTH SIDE TO NORTH EVANSTON
If I had to pick the one thing that struck me the most, it was the prevalence of handicapped people. They, too, participated in the liturgy and appeared to be an active part of the parish. It makes me wonder why there are not more handicapped people attending mass at my parish. Handicaps are NOT distributed along racial line. They exist regardless of color or ethnic background, Surely they must exist in our own parish much to the same extent as St. Nick's. Why are these people not attending mass at my church? Do they not feel welcome? Perhaps not, and I find that disturbing.
All in all, we had a good time. We learned a lot, were disturbed a bit, and were definitely taken out of our comfort zone. We very much enjoyed the masses and intend to return in the future.
FROM THE NORTH TO SOUTHSIDE
To be honest, I was kind of apprehensive as I made the drive down Garfield Boulevard and noticed nothing but row after row of boarded up houses along with vacant lots. In not trying to let society's stereotypical views persuade my outlook about such an area, I felt a little ashamed for I began to slip into that type of mentality. My first positive experience came when I needed to stop at a local gas station to ask for directions because a vacant lot occupied the street where I had thought the parish was located. I approached a Black gentleman in the gas station's parking lot and he kindly offered me direction on where too to go to reach the "new" church. My second positive experience came when we walked through the front doors of the church and were greeted by three friendly ladies who could have easily been the parish's hospitality committee. Evidently, the surprise did not end there. When we sat ourselves in a middle pew, more parishioners approached us with greetings and kind words such as "Welcome." Afterwards, I sat back, looked at my friend and said, "I think we are going to have a great experience!" To conclude, this experience overall had a great effect on my outlook in participating in multi-ethnic ministries.
VISIT TO ST. BENEDICT THE AFRICAN - EAST
We were greeted very warmly and we saw many familiar faces as St. Benedict's choir has visited our church many times to share their music. Many parishioners made a point to come up to us and make us feel welcome. That was so much appreciated. It was a different feeling to be the people of color, but that's all it was, just different, just the realization we, the priest and the nuns were the minority race in a room. No one made us feel any different, it was just the realization that we were, "color-wize," different. It does make me wonder, why does that thought come to my mind and did it really make me more uncomfortable than I was consciously aware of.
FROM ELMWOOD PARK TO THE SOUTHSIDE
As I was getting dressed for the visit to St. Kilian, which was in an area that I really was unfamiliar with, I found myself laboring over decisions in a very different fashion. I was going to wear a sweater that could be gang colors: red and black. I decided not to wear this, partly because of previous training I had when I worked in the inner city as a hospice nurse, but also out of an overwhelming sense of caution that had not come over me until that very morning. I actually took off my diamond engagement ring and wore no earrings. When we arrived in the area I immediately felt silly; this was not the "war zone" I had imagined. In some strange way I remember being disappointed. I wanted to accomplish something challenging outside of myself, and now all that was left was the challenge of facing my own need for work on my prejudices and assumptions. This isn't easy; I have always felt open to all races and ethnic groups. I have had what I thought a good deal of exposure. So what happened? We chose St. Kilian because of a conversation I had with a co-worker who actually lived in the parish until she was nine years old. Her family was the third to the last to move on her block. She was the only white student in her grade at her grammar school. She said she had close black girl friends and was not aware of their differences as one raised in a more close-minded family might have been. When I asked her why her parents 'Caved" she said that her family had been victimized by a few random acts of violence, and the violence seemed to be escalating, so it was for the safety of the five children in her family that her parents finally agreed to sell their house. One realtor had told them when the first black family moved on their block that their house would be sold for one hundred dollars if they didn't sell soon
her father resisted for about a year. Her neighbors were moving in the middle of the night; she said it got to be somewhat unsettling, waking up to new neighbors without warning. Many friendships dissolved.
I guess I'm wondering if her talks of violence some thirty plus years ago had me making assumptions that the area must be even more deteriorated now. How foolish I feel for that assumption! We were welcomed, not gushed over, not announced, but warmly welcomed.
Strangely enough, it was the experience of preparing to go to St. Kilian to attend Mass that I think had the more profound effect on me. The fear of the unknown was taking its grip on me. My first concern was how I was going to dress. I was scheduled to lecture at 9:00 Mass at my parish before going to 11:00 Mass at St. Kilian. I usually like to wear a suit when I am to lector. Knowing my wife and I would be going from our parish in Elmwood Park to St Kilian at 87th and May, I was questioning myself as to whether or not I might be overdressed. If I just wore slacks and a sweater, would I be under dressed? I knew that we would be conspicuous because of my skin color and now I was concerned about minimizing my different-ness. Do I wear a dress overcoat or a more casual leather jacket? Do we sit up front, more in the middle, or closer to the back of the church? I grew angry and disappointed with myself when I realized that these concerns did not exist when we met my cousins for Sunday Mass recently in Inverness. My prejudices were staring me in the face no further away than the tip of my nose - invading my comfort zone. I learned a lot that day, not only about myself and my own comfort zone, but also that social justice is a tough walk to walk where preconceptions and attitudes have no place at all.
ONE MORE REFLECTION
In reflecting back on my visit and worship experience at Providence of God Roman Catholic Church, unquestionably, I have developed a deeper understanding and appreciation of the beautiful and wonderful contributions Hispanics have made to the Catholic church.
Some important lessons learned are, first of all, by the Hispanic Catholic's emphasis on religion of the home as illustrated by the sacred space or altars found within, the family is consecrated or made holy. Hispanic Catholics have a keen awareness that God is in our daily life and touches every aspect of it.
Secondly, Hispanic Catholics by being more festive-based than obligation based gather together on these great Catholic feasts (Christmas, Our Lady of Guadalupe, etc.) not as individuals but rather as an intimately interconnected people.
Thirdly, Hispanic Catholic dedication to popular devotions such as novenas, the rosary, home shrines, votive candles, and other devotions to Jesus, Mary, and the Saints commemorate and keep vigorous the richness of our Catholic tradition. Hispanics do indeed draw from the sacraments of the Church, but they bring to the Church the sacramentality of life, that is a demonstration of how God is present in all aspects of life, even the ordinary, and that he is easily accessible to all.
Fourthly, Hispanic Catholics are by their very rich artistic visual contributions to the Church (images, paintings, artwork, murals, etc.) allow all of us to see and appreciate the great wonders of God's involvement in the history of humanity, his love for us.
Finally, Hispanic Catholics by their emphasis on Christian communities and movements as well as the illustration of the positive role and popular religious practices of the people, speaks to the fact that these are all essential elements of the life of the church.
Again, my visit and worship experience at Providence of God Roman Catholic Church clearly illustrated that each of these traditions, each of these contributions, each of these gifts demonstrate how Hispanic Catholics have enriched Catholic life and worship.